The podium has been installed, the anthem is queued up, and the French judge has gone into hiding ("Tierney" is a French last name, right?)… we’ve finally made it to the top 3 in the countdown of 2014’s best on-pitch contributors to TFC.
Taking the first step onto the podium, and coming in at #3 in the countdown, is TFC’s baby-faced American fullback, Mark Bloom. Bloom’s appearance this high up the rankings is rather unexpected, as in 2013 Bloom was ranked in the middle of the pack- #18 in last year’s top 36 from WTR. Without doing the math, I’m going to assume that his 15 spot climb is the largest improvement for any player who has been with the team the last two seasons. Whether or not you agree that his podium position in this countdown is merited, it’s hard to argue that his upgrade from semi-reliable depth option at the end of 2013 to bona fide starter has been anything less than impressive.
Most Toronto fans agreed at the close of 2013 that Bloom was a good depth option, but that hopefully the team could bring in a more proven right back (with Ecks’ departure) to keep him on the bench. In fact- here are some excerpts from some of this blog’s "thought leaders" of the day-
Dave Rowaan: He actually had some good outings and could be a solid addition to the team in a depth role if he does return for the 2014 season.
Duncan Fletcher: I imagine he'll be back next year and I'm fine with that, though ideally he'd be on the bench behind a better player.
Kristin Knowles: At the price it will difficult to see the Tims & Nelsen not decide to keep him on, as bench depth if nothing else.
(& just for fun) The Yorkies: Shockingly didn't look awful. Not an MLS starter. In other words... your 2014 TFC starter.
With TFC failing to bring in a significant upgrade at RB over the offseason, and instead relying on Bradley Orr and Nick Hagglund to share fullback responsibilities should Bloom falter, the Yorkies’ prediction was pretty much bang-on, and the starting position was Bloom’s to lose.
So how did Mark Bloom sneak into #3 in the 2014 countdown? Well don’t ask me- I didn’t provide any input into the list. But I’ll happily try to make the case, as I do believe that he was one of TFC’s greatest assets over the course of the season.
Bloom’s 2,290 minutes played, and 26 games started, were both good for third on the Reds in 2014 (with Morrow and Bendik the only two players to out-do him in both categories). In other words, he was a regular on the pitch, and few doubted that he was one of the Reds who gave it his all every time he stepped onto the field. But since we all can agree that "playing with heart" alone doesn’t necessarily add significant value to the success of a club, we’ll have to take a look at his numbers to see what he really contributed over the course of the season. Taking into account the wise words of defensive guru and former Canadian International-turned-pundit Jason de Vos: "a defender’s primary role is to defend" (paraphrasing), we’ll start with an analysis of Bloom’s defensive play.
In a previous article, it was revealed that Bloom had the lowest goals against per 90 minutes of all TFC defenders over the past season. However, that stat alone doesn’t reveal much- as it doesn’t take into account who else was on the pitch at those times, which opponents TFC was facing, and whether they were at home or away. That being said, an interesting nugget to consider when further probing Bloom’s numbers.
Many speculated that any team facing Toronto FC in 2014 would opt to attack down their left side of the pitch (Toronto’s right) to exploit Bloom’s defensive inferiority when compared to his counterpart on the opposite flank, Justin Morrow. According to popularly used (although not 100% reliable) statistical website whoscored.com, Bloom’s 2.7 tackles per game were by far the most out of any defender- or even player, on the team. This would appear to be consistent with the notion that teams preferred to attack down his side (as opposed to Morrow’s). This would also lead us to a couple presumptions- Bloom was likely dribbled around more often than Morrow, and probably had to commit more fouls per game than his teammate.
Both wrong. Bloom was outmaneuvered 0.6 times per game to Morrow’s 0.8. Furthermore, of the 5 main defensive contributors, Bloom was tied with only Steven Caldwell for the least fouls committed per match, and Bloom happens to also be the only one of the 5 main defenders to have suffered more fouls than he committed (committed 21, suffered 27). And how about those nasty, rough fouls leading to cautions? Bloom had only two yellow cards all season to Morrow’s 6… and shockingly was the least penalized, in TOTAL cards accumulated (as well as per 90), of the 5 defenders- even while playing significantly more minutes than some. And let’s remember- this was all while executing 2.7 tackles per match, starting in 26 games for the Reds.
Since Mark Bloom was so busy running around tackling players, it’s probably safe to assume he wasn’t able to spend much time helping out on the attacking side of the ball for TFC. After all, he only contributed one assist in terms of the actual scoresheet- although it was a fairly nice ball by Bloom to put the other MB through (although a tough angle for Bradley to convert from), and a game-winning goal at that.
The strange thing is, statistically, Bloom wasn’t as offensively absent as he appears to have been at first glance. Bloom’s 0.8 key passes per game were the most out of any defender. His 0.6 crosses per game in 2014 were also the most out of any regular on Toronto’s backline. And on average, Bloom was fouled exactly once per 90 minutes, again a higher number than any defender on TFC. While some may argue that getting fouled isn’t exactly a statistic that players should strive for, the ensuing opportunities presented by free kicks cannot be discounted- even with TFC’s historic failures at executing set pieces. Now it also must be acknowledged that Bloom doesn’t have the best feet on the team- his number of times dispossessed and unsuccessful touches were not overly impressive (although they also weren’t notably bad- or even the worst among Toronto’s defenders). And Bloom’s overall passing percent was also a dismal 71.8%, the worst of all defenders on the team- with the exception of Bradley Orr if you really wanted to take into account his abysmal 67.8%.
What does this all tell us? Despite a fairly significant MCL injury that occurred on July 16th (and led to him missing the next 6 games), Mark Bloom logged some heavy playing time for Toronto FC in 2014. He was more active than most other defenders on both the defensive and offensive sides of the ball, all while keeping an impressive disciplinary record intact. And he did this all while earning a cool 48 grand (talk about earning your raise)- although most would agree that salary numbers shouldn’t come into play in terms of evaluating players in this countdown. He may not have scored 11 goals or shouted at refs until he was blue in the face, but Bloom was a significant contributor to the squad, quietly making his mark and cementing his position as the starting right back, over the entire course of the season.
When we think of Bloom’s path to get to where he is now, it truly is a wonder that he’s starting in MLS. Bloom made his professional debut for AC St. Louis in the NASL Conference of USSF Division 2 – a team playing in a league that was put together for a whole one season, and coincidentally in a conference that featured a couple of teams that Bloom has since become familiar with- the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact. Bloom then proceeded to contribute with the Charlotte Eagles in USL Pro, before progressing to the NASL and helping the Atlanta Silverbacks win a championship in spring of 2013. The fullback continued to improve and show even greater promise, and has finally made his way up to a starting position on an established (I didn’t say "good") MLS side. Can the 27 year old improve even further? Can he firm up the parts of his game that are still, on the odd occasion, suspect (positioning and ball control come to mind)? Will he remain a starter for years to come? Was TFC risking too much in leaving him unprotected for three rounds in the expansion draft? Will having his wife and infant together with him in Toronto distract him, or allow him to focus more? Why am I asking so many questions?
All of these, or at least most of them, will be answered in 2015. Let’s hope Bloom can continue to contribute and help the defensive line as a whole improve, providing positive responses to the far too many inquiries listed above.