TORONTO, Canada—Move aside, Martyn Bailey. I’m taking over the numbers game now.
With former No. 1 Alex Bono in fine form following two clean sheets in as many appearances this season, some Toronto FC fans are calling for the 26 year old to get more playing time. Both Quentin Westberg and Bono have shown their ability to step up in big moments, as Bones of course infamously backstopped TFC to the MLS Cup in 2017, while Westberg was crucial in the Reds’ push to the MLS Cup Final last season.
It’s not a story line that we thought we’d be discussing at the start of the season: remember, TFC have had several competitions that Bono was likely slated to start in shortened, altered, or cancelled altogether thanks to the repercussions of navigating through a global pandemic. But with recent performances like his latest showing vs. New York City FC, a game in which Bono arguably stole three points for The Reds, it’s easy to see why some fans have suggested a variety of options ranging from a 80-20 split in terms of playing time the rest of the way, to 60-40, and some even going as far as proposing a 50-50 split.
So with Bono pushing for more time in goal, in a way, that has also put some added pressure on current No. 1 Westberg to perform. Every goal conceded from this point on will likely come with an extra bit of scrutiny from the TFC fanbase, knowing there’s an alternative, in-form option off the bench. And while I can understand why, and healthy, back-and-forth competition for goalkeepers isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I don’t think we’re at the point where Westberg’s in jeopardy of losing his role as the team’s clear cut No. 1.
Here’s why, using Martyn Bailey’s first language: numbers.
(Stats via via FB Ref. based off MLS Regular Season Matches)
With Bono playing some of his best football since 2017, it’s reasonable to suggest that he’s a better shot-stopper than his counterpart.
.716 Save Percentage
Over the course of his Toronto FC tenure, Bono owns an impressive .716 save percentage, but registered just a .688 and .636 in 2018 and 2019 respectively. In comparison, Westberg has put up a .669 save percentage since joining the Reds in 2019, but is only stopping .639 of the shots directed his way so far in 2020.
A great asset to have, Bono excels when the Reds are defending without the ball, but what’s his effect on the game when they do have the ball?
266 Passes Completed
In Bono’s last start against NYCFC, The Reds completed just 266 passes, by far their lowest total since the start of the MLS is Back Tournament. From an individual standpoint, Bono completed 48.6 per cent (18 of 37), while opting to launch 71.4 per cent of his passes (not including goal kicks) more than 40 yards. Of those attempts, Bono completed just 35.7 per cent (10 of 28), giving the ball away more times than not. It was evident that a high press with Bono in net was particularly effective against the Reds.
But maybe that’s just a one-off. Perhaps TFC weren’t giving him options on that day.
425 Passes Completed
This doesn’t really help his case. 425 is the third lowest total of passes completed since the start of the MLS is Back Tournament, and it came in Bono’s other start: a 0-0 draw against the New England Revolution on July 21. From a distribution standpoint, Bono performed relatively well, connecting on 75.7 per cent of his passes (28 of 37), although the majority were short (within 0 to 25 yards). When he did decide to take a risk and go long (40+ yards), he connected on 43.8 per cent (7 of 16) of his attempts down field.
So what about Q?
While 75.7 per cent (see above) is considered to be a good passing outing for Bono, that would actually be a slightly below-average day for the usually-on-point Westberg. With Bono sliding into the side, both keepers are utilized about the same amount—about 37 passes attempted per 90 minutes—but Westberg has connected on 77.5 per cent of his passes this season whereas Bono has connected on just 62.2 per cent of his.
And it’s not just easy, short-ranged stuff Q’s able to nail, either.
60.7% Long-Range Passing (40 Yards+)
We highlighted above just how much Bono has struggled when playing a ball longer than 40 yards, completing just 41.7 per cent of his long-range passes this season. Westberg, on the other hand, has the ability to consistently pick his head up and find an option down field when necessary, evidenced by his 60.7 completion percentage, which is vital when playing out of pressure.
One ball over the top from Westberg can break a high-press and send TFC the other way as we’ve seen countless times since his tenure began in Toronto last season. I’d go as far as saying that Westberg’s ball-playing ability completely re-shapes the way Greg Vanney’s side play out of the back.
In addition to the aforementioned numbers, take his goal kicks for example.
45.9% Launch Rate
The current TFC No. 1 opts to launch his goal kicks longer than 40 yards just over 45 per cent of the time. In comparison, Bono elects to go long 80 per cent of the time. That’s quite the variance, alluding to a change of philosophy when Westberg’s taking a goal kick versus when Bono is taking one.
2 ‘Completed Live-Ball Passes’
In 12 matches this season, Westberg has also already been a part of two completed live-ball passes that led directly to a goal. So while he didn’t get an assist on the play, he touched the ball during the build up on two occasions before the ball found the back of the net (one being on the Pablo Piatti goal, shown above). Bono, meanwhile, hasn’t been involved in any goals in the last two seasons (nine matches played).
Westberg, 34, despite his age, also offers an extra bit of cover at the back as a ‘sweeper-keeper’ thanks to his willingness and mobility.
1.31 Defensive Actions Outside the Box
One of the more exciting plays in soccer, more than once per game, Westberg will come out of his box to perform a ‘defensive action.’ On average, those plays come 16.8 yards from his goal and often times, you’ll see those plays result in a positive push forward for TFC. Bono, on the other hand, isn’t quite as willing to wander out of his net. This season, he’s averaging 0.5 defensive actions outside of his box, but does maintain a respectable 1.08 average in his TFC career.
25% Penalty Success Rate
Westberg’s also slightly better at stopping penalties, and we know how bad the Reds have been at shedding that demon in the past. Q’s stopped three out the twelve attempts against him in MLS, including a crucial save against Josef Martinez and Atlanta United in last year’s Eastern Conference Final.
Bono, on the other hand, is 2-for-14 when it comes to stopping kicks from 12 yards out.
As always, these numbers without context won’t tell the full story. But the hope is that it gives readers an idea of how significant the goalkeeper position can be beyond just stopping the ball. The Reds are utilizing Westberg in a way that has never been seen before in Toronto, and he’s become a crucial part of their 2020 philosophy.
Bono, meanwhile, still has his best years ahead of him at just 26 years old. Playing behind Westberg, seeing other aspects of the game first hand, may just help round out his ability and make him into the beast in goal that we know he can be. He’ll certainly have an opportunity or two to showcase that before the end of the season, but for now, it’s Q’s net and I don’t think that should be changing anytime soon.