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Come on, you Reds!

As Toronto FC enters the weekend with four red cards so far this season, does this team have a discipline problem?

Salcedo has two red cards this year - that’s not music to our ears.
Sean Pollock - Waking the Red

As Arnold Swarzenegger said in Kindergarten Cop, “You lack discipline!” Toronto FC currently leads the league with four red cards (two of those reds are retroactive, which probably were deserved during the matches, but were corrected by the discipline committee). Before offering some possible explanations for this seemingly high number, let’s look back at each red card incident individually:

Salcedo - Slide Tackle - March 5th vs. NYRB

A still of the video of Salcedo’s challenge
El Futbolero México via YouTube

Admittedly, I thought it was just a yellow. It happened about 50 feet in front of me in the South End. Was it a hard tackle? Sure. It wasn’t until later that it was determined to be a red, as Salcedo hit Klimala’s ankle out of bounds. It was a red card. Interestingly enough, the challenge was reviewed by the referee on the pitch and the yellow stood.

Salcedo - High Foot - April 10th vs. Real Salt Lake

There’s little doubt on this one. Shane O’Neill was about to play the ball and Salcedo called him off. Instead of playing the ball with his foot, Salcedo lets the ball bounce. He tried to recover by using a high foot, which unfortunately struck RSL’s Sergio Cordova in the face. It was a dangerous challenge, and thankfully, Cordova wasn’t seriously hurt.

Jayden Nelson - Slide Tackle - April 16th vs. Philadelphia Union

Nelson is tracking a back on the right wing to win the ball off of Kai Wagner. As Vic Rauter identifies, Nelson goes right through Wagner. It’s definitely a foul and a reckless challenge. After being reviewed after the discipline committee, the yellow was upgraded to red.

Ralph Priso - Slide Tackle - May 4th vs. FC Cincinnati

Priso is trying to gain possession off of Cincinnati in the midfield. He initially slide tackles Acosta, then turns around to Obinna Nwobodo and attempts another slide tackle. It’s too high and catches Obinna on the knee. It looks more like a Cobra Kai kick than a slide tackle. After a review, the ref rescinds the yellow and gives Priso the red card.

There are a few reasons for these issues:

  1. Recklessness - All four of these red cards are reckless and unnecessary. They’re a result of impulsive play. The players are going into challenges that they don’t need to be lunging into. Salcedo’s first red card, Nelson’s card, and Priso’s red are clear examples of this reckless play.
  2. Inexperience - There’s two types of inexperience plaguing this team - lack of MLS experience, and unfamiliarity with teammates. Bob Bradley is following the “Play the Kids” philosophy. As a result, there are going to be mistakes from the younger players, like Nelson and Priso. Secondly, Salcedo’s red against RSL is a result of unfamiliarity with teammates. Salcedo and O’Neill haven’t developed any chemistry, which was obvious on that play.
  3. Defensive Struggles - TFC, once again, is having problems stopping the opposition’s attacks. As a result, players are trying to do too much to mitigate holes in the defence. Toronto has conceded 21 goals so far, which is a big issue when they’re not scoring enough. Having lost the ball in possession, the players are trying to win the ball back, often with calamitous results.

Here’s an historical perspective of Toronto FC’s discipline problems:

Note: For 2007-2010, 2020, and 2022, the numbers have been extrapolated to reflect 34 matches in a season.

Toronto FC averages five red cards a season since 2007. Four reds after 10 matches is a bit excessive. I doubt TFC will finish the season with 14 red cards, but the trend is a troubling one. However, here’s a positive stat - Toronto FC has the second-lowest total of yellow cards this season with 17. Conversely, Portland has 33 yellows and three reds - that’s a lot. Perhaps there are some good things to take away.

Here’s a couple of other things to note - When Toronto won the MLS Cup in 2017, the team had historically low discipline issues. Also, from 2015-2020, there was a reduction in yellow and red cards, which can be attributed to discipline and experience. Also, TFC was pretty good for that stretch of time, where the team played with good possession and build up play.

So, what now? There needs to be a renewed emphasis on patience with and without the ball. Having to play defence in a somewhat panicked manner is a result of poor build up play by TFC. This team needs to concentrate on possession more and not try to play everything through the middle of the pitch. A 4-3-3 formation requires the forwards to play wide and use the space to spread out the opposing defence. It’s not happening. Losing the ball in the attacking end allows teams to counter-attack much too easily. A bad team like Cincinnati exploited that weakness with little trouble.

Also, it doesn’t help that Salcedo has now missed three matches, as he’s been touted as the defensive saviour. Chris Mavinga has only played four games this year. I don’t think Shane O’Neill was signed to be an everyday starter. That leaves Lukas MacNaughton as TFC’s lone centre back option. Goalkeeping is a whole other story.