TFC Fitness Fairytale

More time in here, less time fishing the ball out of the net? Photo by - Alex Livesey

Mariner and Eckersley blame pre-season fitness as a reason for tired legs and brain cramps. If true, why did they have more of them under Mariner?

Once upon a time, there was a team called Toronto FC. They started the 2012 season unprepared and unfit and with late game breakdowns, it cost them points early on. They just couldn't make up the difference.

It's a nice story but do you believe in fairytales?

Our story begins on a rainy day with the team and reporters assembled in the Toronto FC media room. It was a post season question from Dan Dunleavy directed at Full Back, no wait, Center Back, Richard Eckersley that started the ball rolling. "You have seen the wave of attackers that are coming at you," asked Dunleavy, "as a club you are trying to find a way to stop giving up those late goals and stay in matches, what other ingredients are needed here...to become a better club next season?"

Richard Eckersely, looking a little like a deer in the headlights, offered up an explanation. Said Eckersely, "The biggest thing for me... maybe it was the pre-season, I don't think we were anywhere near the standard of fitness... no doubt we have the quality of players... but I think that fitness is going to be vital."

When asked in his own interview, Paul Mariner didn't down play Richard's comments. In fact, he added to it. Said Mariner, "I didn't have anything to do with the preseason... if fitness levels are not where they should be... if they are called upon... it hurts you... it's not just so much the legs go, the brain shuts down and those little errors cost us dearly... and that's basically what I think Eckersley is driving at... it's not really for me to say how the previous regime constructed the pre-season but it will be different next year."

So, there you have it. A team, unfit to begin the campaign, suffered late game let downs which cost them out of the gate and they could never recover. It was a problem before. Won't be now. The end.

Or is it?

Curiously, when asked in his post season interview, Reggie Lambe offered a dissenting view. When asked to respond to these fitness comments, Lambe stated, "fitness wasn't an issue."

And you know what? Lambe may be right.

Set aside the fact that Toronto FC did start the 2012 season with a 1-9-0 record. They also had a 1-1-2 record against Los Angeles and Santos Laguna in the middle of it. Surely, if a team was unfit to play in MLS games, they wouldn't have had success in the CONCACAF Champions League would they?

That got me thinking. Aron Winter was criticized for strict team rules, such as dress codes and curfews. I'm fairly confident, with apologies to my Dutch friends, that Winter wasn't handing out schmokes and pancakes (copyright, Austin Powers: Goldmember) in the training room. How could he overlook a basic principle of his system, fitness?

Is this story that Mariner is authoring one of fact or fiction? Did TFC under Winter, with tired legs and brain cramps concede late game goals to start the season?

What would you say if I told you that the vast majority of goals conceded in the last 15 minutes of games were in fact conceded under Mariner? Well, that's what I am about to tell you.

Winter's team conceded 3 goals in the last 15 minutes of games in 2012. They also scored 3 in the final 15 as well. One of those, against Philadelphia, resulted in a victory. If you are counting goal differential on that one, TFC under Winter would be even. The same "tired legs" that gave up 3, also managed to find some energy or adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for you biology nerds, to pot 3 for the good guys as well.

Contrast that with Mariner's team. Mariner's squad conceded 14 late goals in 2012 while scoring just 5 for a net (-9) . In the interest of transparency, here are the stats:

Final 15 Goals For

Final 15 Goals Against

Average Possession in those games

Average Shots For

Average Shots Against

Winter

3

3

43.1

14.5

12.5

Mariner

5

14

39.7

10.7

16.3

For those who like a game by game break down, here you go:

Coach

Game

Final 15 Goals For

Final 15 Goals Against

TFC Possession

Shots For

Shots Against

Result

Mariner

Houston

1

36.7

13

16

Draw

Mariner

New England

1

36.5

11

15

Draw

Mariner

Montreal

1

36.4

11

14

Win 3-0

Mariner

Philadelphia

1

38.1

10

14

Loss 3-0

Mariner

Vancouver

1

1

40.5

16

12

Win 3-2

Mariner

Houston

1

40.3

8

11

Loss 2-0

Mariner

Chicago

1

33.2

8

22

Loss 2-1

Mariner

Portland

1

41

15

10

Draw 2-2

Mariner

SKC

1

43.5

6

17

Loss 1-0

Mariner

Houston

1

41.7

8

15

Draw 1-1

Mariner

SKC

1

28.6

6

24

Loss 2-1

Mariner

Chicago

1

49.1

18

22

Loss 2-1

Mariner

Philadelphia

1

36.9

9

7

Draw 1-1

Mariner

LA

1

1

36.4

5

27

Loss 4-2

Mariner

New York

2

45.6

11

21

Loss 4-1

Mariner

DC

1

50

16

13

Loss 1-0

Winter

Montreal

1

1

41.6

14

15

Loss 2-1

Winter

Real Salt Lake

1

1

43.1

10

15

Loss 3-2

Winter

DC United

1

46.1

16

9

Loss 2-0

Winter

Philadelphia

1

41.6

18

11

Win 1-0

So, there you have it. If late goals are the measure, Mariner's team was far worse in that category than the supposedly unfit bunch that Winter led to the pitch in 2012.

The Rational Explanation

Many of you may be wondering why I included possession and shot stats in my numbers. I did it for a reason.

I don't believe fitness was an issue, at least a significant one for either coach. We can point to suspicions over Koevermans' fitness to start the campaign or the health of certain players along the way. I think that focusing on the micro picture masks the big one, which is this.

A team that chases the ball is more likely to "run out of gas." Coaches the world over will tell you that if you want to move the ball up the pitch efficiently, passing is the most effective way to do it. You conserve energy and cover more distance in a more efficient way than you can by running with it. Add to it, if you maintain possession you are more likely to control the play.

I submit to you a very simple explanation for why Mariner's team conceded more late game goals, at a much higher rate than Winter's team did. Mariner's team didn't hold the ball as often. They were outshot consistently. It's not that the team was unfit. It's that the team couldn't sustain pressure as a result of chasing the ball all game.

What happens when a backline clears the ball and the midfield and/or forwards turn it over? It comes back. The more often it comes back, the more likely they are to get a shot on goal. The more shots on goal they have, the more likely one is to go in. It's not rocket science, not that I have any formal training in rocket science to compare. It is however a very simple explanation which doesn't necessarily need to be endorsed with an assignment of blame.

Possession, passing accuracy, shots on target all need to improve. See how I did it without blaming fat players or suggesting that Winter ran a country club?

Which leads me to this. If Mariner focuses the offseason on anaerobic training and the like he may have a fit team. If this squad still chases the ball, gives up more shots than they take, we will have the same results.

While we all look for a stud Center Back as a solution to our back line problems, the mid-field and forward corps must improve if we are ever to alter MARINER'S horrendous record of giving up late game goals.

The end.

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