Quarter-final rewind: Winter won the coaching battle over Arena

Aron Winter

Bruce Arena

When you think of who the best all-time coach in MLS, Bruce Arena’s name will come up more often than not. MLS Cups with multiple franchises, former U.S. national-team coach and architect of what’s arguably the greatest dynasty this league has ever seen, the D.C. United squad of the late ‘90s.

But, as Toronto FC fans bask in the afterglow of their team’s fantastic victory over Arena and his Galaxy in the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals, they should think to one area where the Reds held a major advantage over the MLS champs.

Aron Winter outmanaged and outcoached Arena in the second leg. Winter made the right decisions, while Arena struggled to adjust. And the coaching decisions could very well have been the deciding factors in the quarters.

DEFENSIVE CALLS: Winter, understanding that Toronto FC’s backline wasn’t ready for prime time, began tinkering with the formation in preseason. His decision to move the experienced Torsten Frings into a sweeper role, providing badly needed cover for the relatively slow central defence pairing of Ty Harden and Miguel Aceval, played a key part in TFC’s win.

Meanwhile, Arena, who knew months ago that the knee injury suffered by Omar Gonzalez would keep the reigning defender of the year out of the lineup for several months, could only counter on Wednesday by inserting a raw rookie, Tommy Meyer, into the back line. The poor kid got burned on both TFC goals.

Arena didn’t find a way to protect his soft centre of defence, while Winter did.

MENTALITY: With a 2-2 draw on the road in the first leg, the Galaxy held a significant advantage going into the second leg. And, knowing that TFC needed to win the game outright, Arena and the Galaxy would have been served well by starting the game off an a defensive posture, and forcing TFC to open up the game.

But Winter knew that the Galaxy wasn’t going to sit back, so he was able to get his side to frustrate Los Angeles attack after attack, knowing sooner or later it would open up the home team for the counter. Why Los Angeles spent the first 30 minutes of the match pressing the point offensively was curious. Arena had a tired team of thirtysomethings who were playing their third game in just over a week. Why not slow the game down, conserve energy and force the Reds to try and open up the game? After all, with two road goals, the Galaxy, for all intents and purposes, held the lead going into the second leg. But instead of keeping the midfield tight, the game was very loose, which suited a road team that needed to score.

GOALKEEPING: After Stefan Frei struggled with his positioning in the first leg, Winter went to option 1A for the second. Milos Kocic made several key saves, including robbing Robbie Keane late in the second half, as he waited and waited for the Galaxy striker to make the first move before swatting the shot away.

The coach’s role in designing tactics is often overplayed in the soccer media, while the intangibles, such as using intuition and being able to motivate players, is underreported.

Winter felt that it was right to switch keepers, and that TFC would be better off on the road with an experienced Nick Soolsma back in the lineup and rookie Luis Silva — who scored in the first leg — coming off the bench. Soolsma created a goal and scored the winner.

Winter’s instincts — his gut — was right on all counts, while Arena didn’t try to compensate for the limitations of a Galaxy club that, to start the season, is looking like a bunch of tired, veteran players rather than MLS champs.

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About Steven Sandor

I'm currently the colour commentator for FC Edmonton broadcasts on Sportsnet, NASL.com and TEAM 1260. I've covered the Toronto FC beat for four years, worked for the Edmonton Aviators of the USL for a season, covered the Edmonton Drillers of the NPSL and started covering Canadian World Cup qualifiers in 1996. I've covered the CONCACAF Champions League and the U-20 World Cup. I'm passionate about soccer in North America.