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Possession, Passing, and Toronto FC's struggles

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Toronto FC have one of the worst possession percentages and pass completion percentages in MLS. The question is what can they do about it and which players on the team have done well in-spite of the team's struggles this season.

Alonso is the best passer in MLS and a big part of the Sounders success.
Alonso is the best passer in MLS and a big part of the Sounders success.
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Spor

We know that there is some relationship between being a good team in MLS and doing well at maintaining possession. We also know that Toronto FC have an issue with maintaining possession and at this point in the 2013 season they have the third lowest total possession. The lack of possession alone does not explain the team's terrible season but a case could be made for it having something to do with a portion of the struggles.

Toronto is currently sitting on 45.9% possession which correlates closely with their passing percentage which is also third worst in the league at 73.7%. While the Chicago Fire are overachieving according to their possession and passing statistics and DC United are underachieving most teams show a correlation between holding on to the ball and gaining results.

Team Points per Game Possession % (rank) Passing % (rank)
Seattle Sounders 1.7 51.4% (6) 77.5% (8)
New York Red Bulls 1.66 50.1% (10) 78.5% (5)
Sporting Kansas City 1.65 55.7% (2) 78.1% (7)
Real Salt Lake 1.63 56.2% (1) 80.5% (1)
Portland Timbers 1.61 54.8% (3) 79.6% (3)
LA Galaxy 1.55 52.3% (5) 78.4% (6)
Colorado Rapids 1.55 50.2% (9) 76.8% (11)
Montreal Impact 1.53 51.1% (8) 79.8% (2)
Houston Dynamo 1.52 51.3% (7) 76.8% (12)
Philadelphia Union 1.45 48.3% (14) 76.5% (13)
San Jose Earthquakes 1.42 48.4% (13) 74.8% (16)
Chicago Fire 1.39 44.2% (20) 72.5% (19)
New England Revolution 1.35 47.6% (15) 76.3% (14)
Vancouver Whitecaps 1.35 47.4% (16) 77.2% (10)
FC Dallas 1.32 49.1% (11) 77.5% (9)
Columbus Crew 1.28 48.8% (12) 76% (15)
Chivas USA 0.81 44.5% (18) 72.9% (18)
Toronto FC 0.81 45.9% (17) 73.7% (17)
DC United 0.48 53.1% (4) 78.5% (4)

The above table does not show any clear correlations between winning points, possession percentage, and passing percentage but it does indicate that the stronger teams in the league do tend to be in the top half of the table when it is organized by either of those stats. If you throw DC United out as being the exception that proves the rule you find that the remaining teams in the top 10 for possession are teams that are very likely to be headed to the postseason. In fact, the Philadelphia Union are the only team currently above the red line that are outside the top 10 in terms of possession. The correlation is weaker when it comes to passing percentage but the top 10 teams in the standings are all still ranked in the top 13 in the league with the DC United (4th), FC Dallas (9th), and the Vancouver Whitecaps (10th) being the exceptions this time around. It is enough to suggest that in MLS being a playoff team has some connection to maintaining possession and passing percentages in the top 10.

Toronto FC is ranked 17th in both categories and they are ranked 18th in the league table. Watching TFC play this year they have rarely looked like a team that values possession and have often been far more focused on just getting the ball away from danger. That may well be how they have to play based on the players that Ryan Nelsen has to work with but it does not seem to be a good strategy if your goal is to get consistent results and make the playoffs in MLS.

If for some reason Toronto FC decided they want to be more of a possession based team in 2014 then which players on the current roster would actually be worth keeping around? Are there any players who have managed to complete a high percentage of their passes this season despite the team's struggles? What about the other end of the spectrum, are there players who have done an extremely poor job of maintaining the ball and completing their passes?

Player Appearances (starts) Average Passes per Game Pass Success %
Joe Bendik 32 (32) 14.6 43%
Jeremy Hall 30 (26) 31.6 75.5%
Robert Earnshaw 24 (21) 12.5 77.9%
Steven Caldwell 21 (21) 32.6 74.7%
Bobby Convey 20 (19) 34.4 77.3%
Reggie Lambe 27 (19) 21.4 78.7%
Ashtone Morgan 20 (18) 26.1 68.2%
Doneil Henry 18 (17) 26.6 69%
Darren O'Dea 17 (17) 36.2 71.1%
Jonathan Osorio 26 (16) 25.7 85.5%
Richard Eckersley 16 (16) 37.9 74.6%
Matias Laba 16 (16) 46.8 82.1%
Ryan Richter 13 (12) 30.9 66.7%
Gale Agbossoumonde 12 (12) 27.7 73.2%
Jeremy Brockie 15 (11) 18 68.5%
Luis Silva 14 (11) 26 69%
Darel Russell 18 (10) 21.4 75.1%
Andrew Wiedeman 13 (9) 18.4 75.3%
Hogan Ephraim 11 (9) 25.7 78.8%
Justin Braun 19 (8) 14.2 74.4%
Alvaro Rey 11 (7) 17.2 79.9%
Terry Dunfield 4 (4) 45.8 80.3%
Danny Califf 4 (4) 27 66.7%
John Bostock 7 (4) 24.1 79.9%
Mark Bloom 4 (4) 28.5 71.9%
Logan Emory 3 (3) 21.7 60%
Bright Dike 5 (3) 10.2 68.6%
Jonas Elmer 3 (1) 14.3 55.8%
Danny Koevermans 4 (1) 7.5 63.3%
Kyle Bekker 7 (1) 12.7 80.9%
Maximiliano Urruti 2 (0) 5 70%
Taylor Morgan 1 (0) 4 50%
Michael Thomas 1 (0) 6 100%
Emery Welshman 1 (0) 3 100%
Stefan Frei 0 (0) 0 0%
Quillan Roberts 0 (0) 0 0%

The first name that jumps out on that list is that of Joe Bendik. His poor pass accuracy has been a topic of much discussion already this year as he has only completed 201 of his 467 pass attempts. The majority of those passes have been long balls which has something to do with his overall accuracy but simply put his completion percentage is not good enough. In fairness to Bendik keepers tend to have lower pass completion percentages because they play far few short passes than the rest of the team. Jimmy Nielsen has the best percentage at 65.4%, Carlo Cudicini is second at 59.1%, and Michael Gspurning is third at 57.4. Of the 18 MLS goalkeeper who have made 19 or more appearances this season Bendik comes in with the third worst passing percentage at 43%. Only Andy Gruenebaum and Sean Johnson have worse percentages at 42.1% and 41.5% respectively they are the exceptions while every other starting keeper in the league have completed 48.6% or more of their passing.

Bendik seems capable of improving his passing percentage if he were to play less long balls but for him to become average for a goalkeeper in the league he would need to complete at least 5% more of his passes which works out to just one more completed pass based on his average of 14.6 attempted passes per game this season. That seems like a manageable improvement for him to make if he were allowed to play more short passes out of the back. As long as he continues to have to hit all of his passes beyond midfield his percentage will continue to struggle though.

The struggles with completing passes carry over from Bendik to the defenders in front of him. Ashtone Morgan (68.2) and Doneil Henry (69) both have very poor passing percentages. Caldwell, Eckersley, Agbossoumonde, Bloom all average over 70% but none of them are putting up overly impressive numbers as Caldwell leads the way at 74.7% which ranks 171st in MLS among players who have made 15 or more appearances this season (a list that includes 269 players).

The defenders struggles to complete passes has a lot to do with the style of passes that they are trying to complete. The team averages 63 long passes (SKC leads the way at 68) along with 21 crosses per game (SJE lead with24). Both of those kinds of passes have a fairly low success percentage and Toronto's defenders are responsible for making many of those passes. Morgan and Eckersley are the club's primary crossers of the ball which plays a role in lowering their passing percentages.

The defenders also see a dip in their numbers due to having to clear the ball out at the back so often. That is why TFC complete the third least short passes per game this season at just 291. The majority of the passes that they play out of the back this season are long balls that leave the attacking players to chase the ball. So how do the defenders do with their long-balls this season?

Player Long Balls Completed Long Balls Attempted Completed per Game
Steven Caldwell 75 147 3.6
Ashtone Morgan 22 68 1.1
Doneil Henry 44 96 2.4
Darren O'Dea 75 152 4.4
Richard Eckersley 37 86 2.3
Gale Agbossoumonde 31 58 2.7
Ryan Richter 16 47 1.2
Danny Califf 2 13 0.5
Mark Bloom 4 14 1
Logan Emory 3 13 1
Jonas Elmer 2 9 0.7

If you take Steven Caldwell in isolation as the best passer among Toronto FC's defenders you can see that his accuracy on long range passes is notably lower than the rest of the passes that he attempts. He completes roughly 51% of the long balls he attempts while his overall pass completion comes in at 74.7% over 684 pass attempts. When you remove the long balls for his passing stats Caldwell has completed just over 81% of his remaining 537 pass attempts. That suddenly becomes a good number.

The follow are the pass percentages for all of Toronto's defenders when you do the same thing:

Player Passing Percentage Long ball % Passing without long balls %
Steven Caldwell 74.7% 51% 81.1%
Richard Eckersley 74.6% 43% 80.1%
Gale Agbossoumonde 73.2% 53.4% 77%
Mark Bloom 71.9% 28.6% 78%
Darren O'Dea 71.1% 49.3% 78.2%
Doneil Henry 69% 45.8% 74.9%
Ashtone Morgan 68.2% 32.3% 73.6%
Danny Califf 66.7% 15.4% 73.7%
Ryan Richter 66.7% 34% 71%
Logan Emory 60% 23% 69.2%
Jonas Elmer 55.8% 22.2% 64.7%

It should come as no surprise that when you take out all of the long balls you see improvements across the board from the team's defenders. With the exception of Boss every player in the group sees their passing percentage improve by at least 5% when long balls are removed from the picture and Boss' change is only less than 5% due to the fact that he has the best completion percentage of the bunch on his long balls.

What the numbers suggest is that Toronto's defenders, like Bendik, are for the most part capable of completing passes when they are not forced to play the ball long down field. An increase of 5% across the board would have TFC sitting around the playoff contenders in terms of passing percentages but could that achieved as simply as just cutting down on long balls?

There would certainly be more to it than that but if Toronto were looking to play more of a possession style of play that required the defenders to pass out of the back more often and clear the ball down field less frequently the numbers seem to suggest that for the most part the team's defenders are capable of doing that. Much like was the case with Bendik all it would take is a few less long balls for this group to suddenly achieve average completion percentages.

The midfield is the one area of the team where Toronto FC have actually done fairly well at completing their passes. The lowest percentage of the bunch belongs to Russell and he is managing to complete 75% of his passes this season. Combine that with the fact that the top 7 passing percentages among players who have made 5 or more appearances this season belong to midfielders and you can see it is the strength of the teams passing game.

That makes sense though, the average midfielder is not playing a lot of long balls, crosses, or through balls in a game but instead rely heavily on short passes. Of the top 20 passes in MLS 13 of them are listed as midfielders and with the exception of Darlington Nagbe they all play centrally with 7 of the players being listed as defensive midfielders.

The big difference in the rest of the league is that 4 of the top 5 passers in terms of completion percentage are central defenders. It should not be a shock though to see defenders likes George John, Matt Hedges, Nat Borchers, and Matteo Ferrari up there though since their teams playing style allows them to make a lot of short passes as much of their job is to get the ball to the feet of the defensive midfielders who drop deep to pick it up.

It was a game that TFC seemed to be starting to develop with Matias Laba before his season came to an early end thanks to a foot injury. Laba was leading the team in touches and pass attempts in almost every game he played and as he settled in with the team both of those numbers were on the rise. Having a player like that is key to having a strong passing percentage in MLS.

It is no surprise that the teams with the highest passing percentages also have some of the top defensive midfielders in the league who can be counted on to pick the ball up from defenders and get their team moving forward. The top three teams rely heavily on Kyle Beckerman, Patrice Bernier, and Will Johnson/Diego Chara to allow them to play that simple game out of the back. TFC seem to have that kind of player in Laba who has completed 82.1% of his passes. He also displays the ability to complete long balls and pick out attackers which is key to launching counter attacks in MLS.

Many of the leagues top DMs are also among the league leaders in long ball completed per game. Patrice Bernier, Will Johnson, Oriol Rosell, Osvaldo Alonso, and Juninho all complete more than 6 long balls per game and they do it with an efficient percentage. Laba sits at 4.7 this year which is the best on TFC but his 74% completion rate on such passes is what is really impressive. If TFC were looking to play a more possession based game in 2014 they already have the most important piece in place to make it work as Laba has already shown that he is capable of being that all important lynchpin in the middle for the club.

Jonathan Osorio is the one other midfielder who has impressed this season in terms of his possession and passing ability. No matter the role he has been asked to play he has proven to be capable at linking up with his teammates. His 85.5% completion rate actually ranks him 13th in MLS but the issue is the number of passes that he has attempted this season. His 25.7 passes per game are the least among the league leaders and he has the third least pass attempts of anyone in the top 20 in terms of completing percentages. His 669 passes so far this season may be a limited sample but with only 16 starts under his belt he has shown signs of being a quality possession player even on a team that has struggled to hold onto the ball.

The rest of the midfielders on the team are fairly average or slightly below average in their ability to complete passes. The forwards all have fairly poor passing numbers but that is quite common in soccer as even the top forwards in MLS struggle to complete around 80% of their passes since they make very few easy passes over the course of the average match. Plus, for TFC's forwards to actually be able to complete passes they would have to get the ball more often and actually have someone near enough for them to pass to.

On the whole, it is clear that Toronto FC have not had a very good passing or possession game this season and that may have some correlation to their results. Some of that is down to the coaching staff setting up the team in such a way that they have few options but to rely on long balls and some of it is down to lack of talent. The numbers do give some reason for optimism though for fans hoping to see a more attractive style of play for TFC next season. With players like Laba and Osorio they have two players capable of playing that kind of passing game and reducing the reliance on long balls. They will need support though as it takes more than just good passing to win in this league (that means you DCU!).

If Nelsen does want to keep playing his long ball tactic moving forward it might be a good idea to get a few more players actually capable of completing them but for the sake of TFC fans it would be better if he didn't go down that route.