Defense may indeed win championships, but goals win games – and one needs to do the latter in any hope of achieving the former.
In 2013, TFC scored 30 goals in a 34-game season (0.88 goals per game), tied for second-worst in the league with Chivas and ahead of only DC United. Meanwhile, they conceded 47 goals (1.38 per match), which saw them rank fourteenth in the league, better than one playoff team, Montreal.
Goals against are a fact of life - the opposition is going to score; it is essentially what they’re there to do. Even the league’s best defense, Sporting KC, conceding nearly a goal per match (0.88), despite racking up 13 clean-sheets and facing just 98 shots all season – that is an impressive, 2.88 shots allowed per match, from which they allowed nearly one goal.
The other team is going to score.
So with that eventuality in mind, what to do?
Well, scoring early and often seems as good a plan as any.
Another cliché from the soccer world is that ‘goals change games’ – no fact renders that saying more stark than a club’s record when scoring first.
In MLS through 2013, the team who scored first enjoyed a winning percentage (PCT, as calculated by the league) of 0.753 on average, while the team who conceded first saw their PCT drop to 0.237.
The team who scores first wins; the team who concedes first loses.
TFC scored first in just seven matches, amassing a record of three wins, one loss, and three draws – a PCT of 0.643 – and conceded first in a whopping 25 matches, winning three, losing sixteen, and drawing six – PCT, 0.240.
That is the story of their season in nutshell
Worth noting is that the drop in PCT between the two for TFC (~400 points) was much smaller than the average, which implies that whether they scored or conceded first, there was still reason to play the match.
Compare that to Houston, who dominated when scoring first (0.906) winning thirteen and drawing three, but struggled when conceding the opener (0.188) winning once, losing eleven, and drawing four.
It is comforting to think that the match is not merely decided by who scores first, but still, it would be nice to have those numbers slanted in the positive direction.
There is a flaw in how the league calculates winning-percentage, considering draws as half a win does not accurately reflect the point-value disparity attributed to wins and draws, three and one respectively.
For example, Portland led the league with a PCT of 0.632, which implies that if Toronto scored first in every game they would win the Supporters’ Shield.
Generally speaking points per game is a much better evaluation of a team’s standing.
Win at Home, Draw on the Road
All ten teams that made the playoffs last season, and five who did not, had positive home records, winning more than they lost, while only one team in the league had positive road form – Sporting KC, who won eight and lost five away from home.
Points away from home are at a premium and thus it is important that one maximize results when playing in friendlier confines.
Toronto won just four of their seventeen home matches last season and drew eight – clearly not good enough - while on the road they were a miserable two, twelve, and three (wins, losses, draws).
The role of draws is a little more complicated to forecast, but the case of Portland provides evidence that it never hurts to pick up a point.
The Timbers led the league in draws last season with fifteen – and using the simplified concept of first-goal-wins as the measure, to avoiding going over each match individually - those draws were more or less equal parts wins-turned-draws (six) and losses-turned-draws (five).
Portland won only fourteen matches, tied for the fewest amongst playoff teams and the same number as a pair of teams who did not make the playoffs (San Jose and Chicago), but still the Timbers managed to top the Western Conference and give New York a run for the Supporters’ Shield.
While it is better to win outright, those extra points for draws do add up, especially if it prevents a club from losing – the Timbers also had the fewest losses in the league (five), while only one other team registered single digits (New York with nine).
Toronto actually managed to exhibit a little bit of skill in this department, turning three would-be losses into draws after conceding first in the last ten matches of the season – away to DC, home to Chicago, and home to New England.
That said, their overall record in one-goal matches was still a tough five wins to twelve losses – a silver-lining being that half their matches were decided by a single-goal, meaning a change in fortune is not that many goals away.
If Toronto could turn some of those home draws into wins and some of those road losses into draws; it will be a step in the right direction.
React Better to Conceding
A less-statistical analysis notes that Toronto struggled to respond after conceding.
To the naked eye, TFC had the tendency to start matches well, squander a good chance or two, and then collapse once the inevitable goal from the opposition was scored.
That observation bears out in the numbers, as over the course of the season, Toronto only responded to going behind thirteen times, nine of which resulted in positive results – either wins or draws.
There is something to be said for not letting heads drop after conceding – teams are at their most vulnerable moments after scoring after all (another old-fashioned cliché).
Of the seven times TFC responded to conceding within fifteen minutes, they won twice, drew thrice, and lost just twice – both losses coming in matches where they had already fallen behind by two before responding.
The opponent is going to score goals and sometimes the good guys will trail, but responding and in a timely fashion can really turn those results around.
The above factors are indicative that Toronto simply did not often have a lead with which to play. Making matters worse was that when they did, they did not adequately protect that advantage.
By definition, when they protected a lead, they won – six matches.
But there were six other chances to win – matches where they held a lead that went unprotected– five of which were turned to draws and another that resulted in a loss, as well as a further two where they were in position to draw, only to eventually lose.
In that spirit...
Go for Blood When Ahead
TFC only scored multiple goals in seven matches – in each of those they scored back-to-back goals at least once, once scored three in a row (against Montreal), and in the 4-1 romp over DC scored four unanswered goals having conceded the opener.
Recall the mention of one-goal games above, while it is great to keep a game tight when falling behind, once ahead, one ought to want to extend that lead and eliminate the chance of a comeback.
San Jose had the best winning-percentage in the league in one-goal matches, winning thirteen and losing just four, but they did not make the playoffs.
The constitutional fortitude to step on the throat of the opponent, using their need to open up in search of an equalizer against them and pile on the goals is the best way to ensure the occasional late snafus do not spoil the good work that came before.
On the bright side, TFC never lost a match in which they scored more than one goal.
Stop the Late Goals
Despite how it may have felt at times last season, Toronto was not the worst team in the league when it came to conceding in the final fifteen minutes of matches last season.
Their fifteen goals-against from the 76th minute onward was roughly average (12.8) with three teams worse, New York (17), LA (18), and Chivas (25) – two further playoff teams were in the same range, Montreal (15) and Salt Lake (13).
No matter how average it may have been in the grand scheme, it was still bad.
Those final minutes are a test of a side’s defensive solidity – Toronto were actually rather strong on that end – as the decreased goals-against and number of one-goal games attests (aside from a few stinkers on the road – think Kansas City and Portland).
Seeing out results will be a crucial test of this side this season, who, with full-year of acclimatization under their belts and a few reinforcements, will look to end that dreadful statistic.
The same applies to goals at the end of the first half – Toronto allowed nine goals in the final fifteen minutes of the first half (from minutes 31 – 45), which leans towards the negative side of the league-wide spectrum – Seattle conceded 11 and Chivas 12.
The disappointment of going into half-time having conceded is a facet of another of those old sayings. The added boost of entering half-time is positive spirits is reflected in another league-compiled figure, record when leading at half.
TFC led going into half-time on six occasions, winning four, drawing and losing another each way, amassing a PCT of 0.750, which was at the bottom of the league (both in sample number and percent). Chicago had a near-perfect record of seven wins and one draw for a PCT of 0.938, while teams like Salt Lake, Kansas City, and Seattle each won double-digit matches when leading at the half.
The other side of that statistic is record when trailing at half, in which Toronto, who trailed in some thirteen matches, tallied a PCT of 0.154 (good enough for tenth-rank in the league).
No team in MLS was better at turning around deficits than Chicago – PCT of 0.375, for two wins and two draws in eight matches. Surprisingly, teams like Seattle (0.091, one win, ten losses), Salt Lake (0.143, five losses, two draws), and Kansas City (0.100, four losses, one draw) were closer to the bottom in this category, indicating that even good teams struggle after trailing at the half.
DC’s PCT was 0, having lost all fifteen matches in which they trailed after half-time.
Last season TFC had two separate 300-minute-plus goal-less streaks – that is more than three-straight matches without scoring a goal – that is simply unacceptable.
The longest streak was 423 minutes through the month of July (four and a half matches), only outdone by Dallas’ 465-minute streak.
To reiterate, they won’t win if they can’t score.
Additionally, Toronto had only one two-game winning streak, while they suffered a five-game losing skid and four back-to-back losses.
Portland were the poster child for the antithesis of this disease, only once losing back-to-back matches, while New York impressed (and helped their trophy chances) by putting together two four-game winning streaks, though Seattle's five-game run towards the end of the season took top spot (and propelled them into the playoffs).
Mollifying the harshness of such figures, TFC did put together some strong undefeated runs (one four-game, two three-game, and a two-game streak) – but those pale in comparison to Portland’s fifteen-game stretch.
Clearly winning a few in a row, cutting losing streaks dead in their tracks, and picking up points whether playing good or bad, at home or away, is important to a successful campaign.
In summary, come out strong, score, take that lead into half-time, add more goals to the lead, and beware of late goals, all that especially at home, and try to not let setbacks turn into streaks – seems easy enough on paper.
The 2014 Toronto FC season starts on Saturday in Seattle – excited yet?