So, we all know what the big overarching theme to the season so far is, all the late goals, the points given away, usually due to avoidable Toronto FC mistakes, you never know exactly how it will happen, you just know that one way or another it's coming. 7 out of 13 games have seen a result altering late goal, of the other 6, 5 times they were already behind, 3 of which the score stayed the same, one time they allowed the gap to widen and once it was TFC doing the late scoring, those 2 goals against FC Dallas. The other game, against Sporting Kansas City perhaps holds the key to not dropping points this way, build a big enough lead, Kansas' late goal just brought the game to 2-1.
But is there any kind of pattern to these goals? Something that can be fixed? Here's all 9 goals TFC have conceded after the 75th minute (which according to this isn't really that much more than the league averages, though I'm sure the injury time goals allowed would be a more alarming stat), what can we learn from them?
Game 2, Sporting Kansas City, Claudio Bieler - 77th minute. For me this one is one of the few that is more about the opposition, it's a good run and lethal finish from Bieler. If you want to get really picky, you could say that Danny Califf or Ashtone Morgan should have come into the middle to cover for the gap Darren O'Dea left when he went up to try win the initial header, but that would be picky.
Game 4 - LA Galaxy, Jose Villareal, 92nd minute. This one can be chalked up to individual error, Darel Russell's attempted clearance going back into the area instead of out. Again, if wanting to be harsh, you could say califf was a bit flatfooted which allowed Villareal the space, but it was really another fantastic finish so Russell's the only one at fault on this one. The first of many individual errors.
Game 6, Philadelphia Union, Jack Mcinerney, 94th minute. This one's a team effort, after Ashtone Morgan was harshly sent off, the Union were pressing and seriously putting the pressure on the backline. A lack of organisation with ten men meant no-one was marking McInerney on a quickly taken long throw. Perhaps understandable there's a bit of confusion, but really, no-one's looking around to see where McInerney, their leading scorer is? No-one's checking to make sure the 6 yard box is covered? No-one's figured out that McInerney is the guy alone in the 6 yard box? There was a lot of ball chasing going on as well, it all looked very panicky, maybe forgiveable given the recent red card.
Game 7 Houston Dynamo, Warren Creavalle, 94th minute. So far, it could be seen as unlucky, with extenuating circumstances, but this is the one where you really start to think that it's in their head and causing them to panic. With Houston down to ten men, it had been a very comfortable second half but then a series of errors gifted Houston the goal. A poor pass from Doneil Henry, a late sub and a missed header from Ryan Richter, very recently switched from Right Back to Left Back left Darren O'Dea in the corner with the ball and a Houston attacker on him. Rather than just knock the ball out for a throw in as he would any other time of the game, O'Dea tried to be too cute, as if thinking he had to make the perfect play rather than give up a throw. Panic led to trying too hard not to panic, trying too hard not to give it away led to him giving it away and in trying to win a goal kick, he instead conceded a corner.
All wasn't lost though, there was still a corner to defend, but again we saw too many men trying to be the hero and clear the ball, 3 players going for the initial ball in, leaving Creavalle wide open to get the extra flick on to take the initial header into the net.
So, individual error and mass panic for that one.
Game 8, New York Red Bulls, Tim Cahill, 89th minute. Back to individual error on this one, as Ashtone Morgan's awful clearance, under no real pressure created the chance for Thierry Henry to cross to Tim Cahill, who then posterised Morgan to win the header and score.
Game 9 Colorado rapids, Edson Buddle, 86th minute. Individual errors x2 here, as the cross comes in, O'Dea is marking Buddle, he falls over, but the ball goes to Logan Emory who manages to trap the ball before falling over, thus Buddle has an open shot that he makes no mistake with. Slapstick stuff.
Game 10, San Jose Earthquakes, Chris Wondolowski, 81st minute. No panicky defending of this corner, it's as if they've absorbed the lessons of previous weeks and made sure they won't make that mistake again, as everyone maintains their position to a fault. First of all Jeremy Hall doesn't attack the ball at the near post, allowing Martinez to get in front of him and win the flick on. Then Wondolowski, only the golden boot holder, nothing to worry about there easily loses his man in Jonathan Osorio and runs through the box and ahead of a static Doneil Henry to get the flick on and head it in. A Well worked corner from the Earthquakes, for sure, but again, poor teamwide defending of a set piece.
Game 12, New England Revolution, Juan Agudelo, 93rd minute. The only one that TFC conceded when already behind, but it wasn't really scored on the counter attack so there's the same issues. From the throw in, 2 players miss the chance to clear the ball, Matias Laba looks in good position to do that, but Ryan Richter jumps ahead of him and gets just enough to knock it over his head and into the path of Saer Sene. So there's the individual mistakes, and after that, it's once again the passive defending, Sene goes through Caldwell like he's not there, and easily beats Doneil Henry's attempt to block the cross, and then Agudelo easily gets ball side of O'Dea to get the tap in.
Game 13. Philadelphia Union, Jack McInerney, 91st minute. This time the individual error came from Ryan Nelsen, choosing to bring on Danny Koevermans in place of Jeremy Brockie rather than making a sub to bolster the defence, or bringing off a tired player. Then it's back to the brave heroic panicky defending. the throw in comes in, everyone tries to win the header, then everyone rushes out to try and block the shot from the unmarked Jack bloody McInerney. Laba was closest to McInerney when the throw was launched so he'd take a larger share of the blame, but really it was just comically bad defending, at least it would be if it wasn't the exact same team mistake made in injury time the last time they played Philly.
So what have we got here, plenty of individual mistakes at crucial moments, the sort of thing that I'm sure drives Ryan Nelsen nuts and not the sort of thing you can practice and improve in training, though maybe a sports psychologist could help out there. Those mistakes have been spread over a lot of different players, though the amount of times his name pops up, along with the lack of organisation you'd hope a captain would have an influence on, doesn't make O'Dea look like the 'Bossman at the back' that his wage suggests he should be.
There are plenty of issues that can be attributed to coaching and preparation though. Very directly speaking, there's the curious substitutions, but also the way the team plays, the way they change how they play as time winds down. Sitting back to defend the lead, resorting to desperate clearances that do nothing but give the ball back and invite more pressure, it's less than ideal. Perhaps that change isn't something that Nelsen is teaching and is another thing that drives him nuts, and of course it would be wrong to ignore the effect the play of the opposition can have on the game as they chase the goals they need.
The set piece defending, very much a part of this trend is the most worrying bit really, as it's very much something that can be worked on in training, and it should allow for the players to get organised ahead of the ball coming into the box, but that seems to all go out of the window when the game's on the line. A few times in the press conference post mortems Nelsen has talked about needing someone to take charge, get his head on the ball and make the clearance, and it seems like too many of the team have taken that to heart and are trying too hard to be the hero. I'd take smart and organised defending over heroic and desperate any day of the week, and for the vast majority of the games that seems to be what we get. Then the game gets late, the bums get squeaky and the players react differently.
The fear of the late goal, the desperate desire to make sure they don't concede a late goal is what causes the mistakes and the panic that leads to the late goals. Can they move on and become a confident team that can kill off a game with a 1-0 lead? Hopefully, but it's going to be a long time and plenty of successfully defended points needed before that happens. Maybe the best way would be to score some goals and take some of the late game pressure away.