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Toronto FC's defensive improvement: Fact or fiction

In 2013, Toronto FC have put a clear focus on improving their defensive record and on the surface it seems to be working. The question is do the stats back up the visual and just how far does TFC still have to go if they want to be competitive in MLS moving forward.

Defenders and goalkeepers, oh my!
Defenders and goalkeepers, oh my!
Paul Frederiksen-USA TODAY Sport

At this point Toronto FC fans have probably heard plenty about the defensive improvements that the team has made this season under Ryan Nelsen. It is clear that it was priority one for the former defender to try and shore up TFC's defending this season as was evidenced by his frequent use of defensive formations. The trade off has been that the team has struggled to produce consistent scoring chances and find the back of the net but the alleged improved defence seems to be a step in the right direction.

If your standard for improvement on the defensive side of the game is merely being better than in 2012 then it is safe to say that improvement has taken place. Last year, Toronto allowed a massive 62 goals over the course of a 34 game season. This year they are at a more respectable 40 goals against in 28 games. That works out to almost 0.4 goals against per game less which is a significant improvement.

To get a more clear view of how the team has done this season it is worth looking back over all seven years of the club's history. Their goals against average for this season works out to 1.43 when you factor in the first 28 games of the season (including the 1-1 draw against the Chicago Fire) and that mark is actually level for the second best average in the club's history.

As you can see from the chart below the best season that TFC have enjoyed in terms of goals allowed came back in 2010. It is no surprise that the club's best defensive season came under Preki who, like Nelsen, made playing sound defence his number one priority. The trade off was that the club scored just 33 goals in 30 MLS matches in 2010 with Dwayne De Rosario carry almost all of the load by scoring 15 goals.

If you add a DeRo type performer to the 2013 version of Toronto FC and you would have a fairly similar looking season. Their 24 goals in 28 games would be improved but it would have more to do with one good individual performance than an actual shift away from the defence first approach.

Season Games Played Goals Allowed Goals Against Average
2007 30 49 1.63
2008 30 43 1.43
2009 30 46 1.53
2010 30 41 1.37
2011 34 59 1.74
2012 34 62 1.82
2013 28 40 (projects to 49) 1.43

That 2010 TFC got the job done under Preki without having any real standout defenders. Dan Gargan, Adrian Cann, Nana Attakora, Nick Garcia, Ty Harden, and Raivis Hščanovičs were the only defenders to make over 10 appearances that season. Like Nelsen, Preki relied on using defensive minded midfielders to cover his defenders as Nick LaBrocca, Julian De Guzman, and Jacob Peterson all made over 20 league appearances.

In 2013 the job has been done by a wide variety of different defenders. Through the first 28 games of the season no defender has managed start more than 18 games while Steven Caldwell, Darren O'Dea, Ashtone Morgan, Richard Eckersley, Darel Russell, Doneil Henry, Ryan Richter, and Gale Agbossoumonde have all managed to reach double figures in apperances.

Like in 2012 the team has relied on playing defensively minded midfielders as Jeremy Hall has made 26 appearances while Russell and Matias Laba have been regulars beside him in the starting lineup. It has been rare to see Nelsen start a game with a lineup that did not include two DMs and it has paid off for him with a much improved goals against average just like it did for Preki in 2010.

Goals against average is not the only stat that matters when trying to evaluate a clubs defensive record. Even with limited stats that can be used to help paint a clear picture it is worth taking a closer look at the work load of Toronto FC's keepers over the years. After all, a standout year by the man in goal would keep the goals against average down even if the defence is not playing all that well.

No goalkeeper has faced more shots in a single season than Greg Sutton did back in 2008. He was under a near constant barrage of shots from the opposition facing nearly seven shots per game in his 24 games played. The good news for TFC was that year they still managed to finish with a 1.43 goals against average which was in large part due to the fact that Sutton also had TFC's best save percentage by a starter in a single season as he managed to stop 73% of those shots.

When comparing the season that Bendik is having in 2013 to the seasons of every other TFC goalkeeper to feature in an MLS game you see that the stats do not exactly scream that he is standing on his head just to keep TFC respectable this season. He has only managed a save percentage of 64% which, if the season ended today, would equal 2012 starter Milos Kocic for the worst save percentage by a TFC starter in a single season.

Season Goalkeeper Games Played Shots Against Saves Goals Allowed GAA Save Percentage
2007 David Monsalve 1 10 7 3 3.00 70
2007 Sam Reynolds 2 11 9 2 1.03 82
2007 Srdjan Djekanovic 8 34 22 9 1.28 65
2007 Greg Sutton 8 53 36 15 1.88 68
2007 Kenny Stamatopoulos 12 61 41 20 1.67 67
2008 Brian Edwards 6 31 23 8 1.33 74
2008 Greg Sutton 24 160 116 35 1.46 73
2009 Greg Sutton 2 5 3 2 1.33 60
2009 Brian Edwards 3 17 11 6 2.00 65
2009 Stefan Frei 26 141 98 38 1.49 70
2010 Jon Conway 1 2 2 1 1.25 100
2010 Milos Kocic 2 8 5 3 2.52 63
2010 Stefan Frei 28 153 108 37 1.32 71
2011 Milos Kocic 8 47 35 10 1.38 74
2011 Stefan Frei 27 155 106 49 1.83 68
2012 Freddy Hall 7 42 27 15 2.14 64
2012 Milos Kocic 27 129 82 47 1.74 64
2013 Joe Bendik 28 119 76 40 1.43 64

From the chart above you can see that Joe Bendik has not actually faced that many shots (4.25/game) this season and actually has one of the lower save percentages by any TFC keeper having made only 76 saves to this point in the season. A strong finish to the year could see those numbers improve, though since this article is about defending rather than comparing keepers that would not really be relevant to the discussion.

Looking at these stats is worthwhile since it illustrates that even though Bendik has done well to make a number of big saves he has not actually be overly busy. That comes as a bit of a surprise considering how much time Toronto FC seem to spend in their defensive third trying to deal with pressure.

Nelsen's squad deserves credit for the fact that they have limited the oppositions shots on goal this season. Considering that Joe Bendik has already equaled the mark for most appearances by a goal keeper in a single season it is significant that his shots faced is substantially lower than any of the other 5 seasons where a single keeper started 24 or more games. TFC have done well to limit shots even if Bendik's low save percentage suggests that many of the shots they do allow are dangerous ones.

This is set to the be the first season where TFC only uses a single goalkeeper for each game so it is worth taking time to look at the same numbers as the above chart but combining all the keepers used in each season. The chart below once again shows that 2013 TFC has a low save percentage and have done well to limit the number of shots allowed.

Season Games Shots Against Saves Goals Allowed GAA Save Percentage
2007 30 169 116 49 1.63 69
2008 30 191 139 43 1.43 73
2009 30 163 112 46 1.53 69
2010 30 163 115 41 1.37 71
2011 34 202 141 59 1.74 70
2012 34 171 109 62 1.82 64
2013 28 119 76 40 1.43 64

Once again, it seems that three seasons stand out as being the strongest performances by a goal keeper. In 2008 TFC rode the performances of Sutton and his high save percentage to a strong goals against average. In 2010 they did a good job of limiting the shots that Stefan Frei faced which combined well with his strong save percentage to result in the club's strongest defensive season to date. Then in 2013 it has been all about keeping the shots down since Bendik's save percentage is not nearly strong enough to carry the team to their improved defensive record.

The basics stats paint a pretty clear picture that in 2013, despite the lack of a consistent back four, Toronto FC have had one of their strongest defensive showings in the club's brief history. That is not saying a whole lot though as the first six years did not exactly set the bar overly high.

Things do not look quite so good when you compare them to what teams in playoff contention have been doing. The following chart looks at the goals allowed by the top five teams from each conference over the past four seasons.

Season Conference Games Goals Against Goals Against Average
2012 Eastern 34 39.6 1.16
2012 Western 34 39.8 1.17
2011 Eastern 34 41 1.21
2011 Western 34 36.2 1.06
2010 Eastern 30 35.4 1.18
2010 Western 30 28.2 0.94

As you can see if you want to be a playoff contender in MLS you need to be closer to giving up 1 goal per game than 1.5 and even TFC's best season of 1.37 is still quite a way off from that standard. The goal that the Chicago Fire scored on Wednesday night was the 40th that TFC allowed this season. That puts them above the average for playoff teams last season with six games still to play in the season so there remains plenty of room for improvement.

Has Toronto FC been better defensively under Ryan Nelsen? It would seem that is the case and much like under Preki it has a lot to do with playing a defensive formation and limiting the number of shots that the opposition can get on goal.

The problem is that even with this improvement there is clearly still a long way to go. Toronto is looking at needing to shed at least an average of 0.3 goals per game just to be in the playoff picture next season and that is without even looking at the lack of scoring at the other end of the field. That would bring them into the range of the average playoff team in terms of goals allowed and would be a good start.

Of course, they could maintain a similar rate and just crank up the goal scoring next season but considering the worst team in the four years sampled to finish in the top five did so with a 1.46 goals against average and they just barely snuck into the playoffs and have nothing to show for it.

So TFC have made defensive improvements this season and that is all well and good but before anyone goes off singing Nelsen's praise because of it remember there is a lot of work left to be done to actually turn these improvements into a competitive MLS defensive record.