I’m here to persuade you that Toronto FC do not need a new centre-back.
Well, kind of. Truthfully, no reasonable person could have a problem with Ali Curtis making an addition to the defensive group if the right player was available.
But there are two issues worth exploring in more depth that, in my view, explain why the club may go against the consensus and prioritize the signing of a winger instead. Firstly, there are the sources of TFC’s recent problems keeping the ball out of their net. Secondly, there is the reality of actually finding a central defender who could help.
How Seattle exposed TFC’s defence
Here is the list of players who have provided an assist against TFC so far this MLS season:
What’s the theme? They’re all wide players, most obviously. But to narrow it down a bit further, three of the four — Gutjahr, Smith, and Leerdam — are full-backs.
If we’re a little more generous than Opta, we can assign credit on the two other non-penalty goals TFC have conceded. The first goes to Brandon Bye, New England’s right-back, on Carles Gil’s second goal at BMO Field. The second goes to the aforementioned Smith, Seattle’s left-back, on Will Bruin’s first on Saturday.
(Both crosses took deflections and therefore went down as unassisted.)
It’s a small sample size, but it seems worth investigating why Toronto seem to be having problems dealing with the attacking service provided by opposition full-backs.
Seattle was a real test of this because they activate their full-backs in attacking moves as aggressively as any team in the league. Since Brian Schmetzer took over as coach on July 26, 2016, three Seattle full-backs have logged 2,000 minutes or more: Leerdam, Nouhou Tolo, and Joevin Jones. They all rank in the top 15 defenders in the league in that period in passes attempted in the opposition half per 90 minutes.
Needless to say, it wasn’t a test TFC passed with flying colours.
Throughout the game, Seattle pinned Toronto back and engineered chances by creating numerical overloads in the wide areas, forcing TFC’s full-backs to choose between bad options. I’m going to focus on the first and third goals because while the second came from a similar thing, it was a really well-worked move that you have to give the Sounders some credit for.
On the first goal, Smith receives the ball in space on the left. Toronto’s right-back, Nick DeLeon, can’t step up and press him because that would leave Victor Rodriguez, who is waiting for the pass to the outside, wide open. Smith subsequently has the time to locate Bruin in the box (with a slice of good fortune).
The third goal is a replica on the right. Leerdam receives the ball in space and Justin Morrow hesitates because he sees the runs Nicolas Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan are going to make behind him if he presses. As a result, Morrow ends up caught in no man’s land and Leerdam simply rolls a pass into Roldan’s path.
These issues are exactly what Greg Vanney talked about when he explained why he felt the team needed to acquire wide attackers at the end of last season. Wingers are naturally associated with attacking play, but they can also be important defensively.
Here he is talking about the use of Lucas Janson wide in the last game of the year against Atlanta United:
“I really wanted to see Lucas wide… you see the value of wide play in a game, both defensively and offensively. To be able to stop teams from progressing up the field on the outside, which sometimes in a diamond or a 3-5-2 isn’t the easiest thing to do — when you cover more width from the front line, you can defend better.”
When you play with wingers, you have players who can immediately engage full-backs when they get on the ball. You have threats in the other direction that force those full-backs to check themselves and be more aware of their defensive responsibilities. And when there is more width, variety and movement to your attack, it is easier to sustain offensive possessions for longer periods and relieve pressure on your defence.
Could Toronto’s centre-backs have done a better job in dealing with these situations? Certainly. Chris Mavinga was caught sleeping on Roldan’s goal, and though they were deceived by the deflection neither Mavinga nor Laurent Ciman kept close enough tabs on Bruin on the first.
So perhaps an upgrade at that position could help. But it strikes me as a solution that might enable TFC to do a better job of dealing with bad situations rather than preventing those situations from occurring in the first place.
If we start thinking about prevention rather than cure, adding another natural wide player of quality could make a real difference.
Finding the right centre-back
Here’s another list: the starting centre-back pairings (or trios) of the winners of the MLS Cup final since 2010.
2018: Larentowicz, Parkhurst, Gonzalez Pirez (Atlanta United)
2017: Moor, Mavinga (Toronto FC)
2016: Torres, Marshall (Seattle Sounders)
2015: Borchers, Ridgewell (Portland Timbers)
2014: Gonzalez, Leonardo (LA Galaxy)
2013: Collin, Besler (Sporting Kansas City)
2012: Gonzalez, Meyer (LA Galaxy)
2011: Gonzalez, DeLaGarza (LA Galaxy)
2010: Moor, Wynne (Colorado Rapids)
That’s a lot of Americans. In fact, only one team — the 1998 Chicago Fire — has ever won the MLS Cup without a domestic player at centre-back in the final.
We should not assume something will always be true just because it has been in the past. But even as better and better international defenders — Mavinga, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, and so on — have arrived in MLS, the value of having an experienced, domestic leadership figure who knows the league alongside them has held up.
What is really amazing is how small the group of defenders that have provided those qualities is. In the past 11 finals, only two winners (Sporting KC and Atlanta) have not had one of Drew Moor, Chad Marshall, Nat Borchers or Omar Gonzalez in their lineup. And Atlanta had a four-time runner-up in Parkhurst as well as Larentowicz, who won as a midfielder in 2010.
Vanney and Bill Manning believe in the value of these veteran presences — even more so after what happened last year. When I talked to Manning last year about his success with Real Salt Lake, he identified Borchers as the leader of the team and said he and general manager Garth Lagerwey made a mistake in trading him, at age 33, to Portland.
So there’s two questions here: can Toronto’s scouts find a centre-back better than Moor individually? Probably. Can they find one who organizes the entire defence and makes everyone around him look better as effectively as Moor has done? That’s a lot tougher.
If there’s a guy that intrigues me, it’s Gonzalez. He’s 30. He’s currently on loan at Atlas, in Liga MX, from Pachuca. He’s on the allocation list, and TFC hold the No. 1 spot in the order. He was a designated player when he left the Galaxy but as he’s not currently a starter for the national team, he might come into TAM range if a return to MLS is an option when his loan ends in the summer.
And why not wait? Moor had, after all, come through four 90-minute appearances unscathed before he missed the Seattle match. Toronto’s defence was not perfect but it was better, and a team that is still regrouping and getting back on track after an awful year stayed unbeaten.
Take your time. Find out if Moor can stay healthy and be the guy. If he can’t, there will be more options available in the summer window than there is right now.
Between now and then, adding an impactful wide player is a more urgent need.