Toronto FC has failed to keep a clean sheet through 14 games of the 2022 MLS season. Concentration for a full 90 minutes, full-backs being caught out of position, a lack of team defensive structure, and defending players that don’t quite complement one another continue to plague TFC. The team has had some moments of good defensive play and resiliency this season, but far too often, the team concedes at the most inopportune times: within the first or last five minutes of a game and right before or after halftime.
It is worth mentioning that TFC has been hit by injuries over the past month. Injuries make it difficult to establish chemistry and understand teammate tendencies in specific scenarios. These injuries are having a bigger impact on TFC since the squad was already quite thin heading into the season. Still, injuries or not, TFC are in a defensive crisis having conceded the most goals in the Eastern Conference this season (27), the most shots against in the entire league (255) and the second most crosses against (213) (stats courtesy of fbref.com).
So then, where should TFC look to improve over the international break?
1. Improving concentration at critical junctures of the game and better halftime planning to counter opposition adjustments
TFC has conceded 30% of their league goals in the first or last five minutes of games, while another 15% have come right before or after halftime (stats courtesy of footystats.org). Conceding goals during any of the aforementioned times are generally signs of inexperience and a lack of focus. More experienced teams understand how to immediately set up their defensive structure, how important it is to not concede before the break at halftime, and how to finish games off with tactical time wasting and holding the ball at the corner flags in the opposition’s end.
Of the 13,860 minutes played by TFC in MLS this year, 38% of those minutes have been from a combination of TFC II emergency signings (86 minutes), young players with no previous MLS experience (3,846 minutes) and young players with very little previous MLS experience (1,309 minutes) (all minutes stats courtesy of transfermarkt.us). The plan was never for most of these players to be playing such significant minutes and helps to partially explain TFC’s inexperience and lack of concentration at critical junctures of games.
TFC has conceded an additional 26% of their league goals between the 51st and 60th minutes of games (stat courtesy of footystats.org). This highlights that Bob Bradley and the coaching staff are not doing a great job of adjusting to tactical changes that opponents are making at halftime. Quite often, TFC has looked decent in the first half of games, only to completely lose control of a match in the second half. The lack of experience and depth in bench options play a role here too, but the data shows a clear opportunity for the coaching staff to hone in on going forward.
2. Have the fullbacks play more conservatively and only strategically push forward
Earlier this season, I wrote about some fixes that TFC could make to improve their defence. Those fixes worked for a brief period of time, but the team has clearly strayed away from that path over the past month. Even though a lack of personnel during that period has played a role, the themes of full-backs pushing too high up the field and giving too much space to opposing forwards are a coaching issue.
The current starting full-backs (Luca Petrasso and Kosi Thompson) did not have any MLS experience coming into this season, while three of the four full-backs who have started for TFC (Kosi Thompson, Jacob Shaffelburg and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty) are converted wingers who did not have any prior experience playing the position in their careers.
Staying disciplined and focused on their defensive responsibilities has been difficult for all four of the aforementioned players. All four have also given too much space to opposing forwards, leading to the second highest amount of crosses allowed in the league. For the three converted wingers playing full-back, their desire to contribute offensively has left the team exposed during opposition counter attacks. For someone like Petrasso, who has experience playing full-back at youth levels, this is the first time he is playing against MLS forwards and he will need to adapt and understand the nuances of the position at this level (he won’t be able to get away with the same things at the MLS level that he was able to at youth levels).
TFC’s coaching staff will have to instruct the current full-backs to play more conservatively and develop triggers on when to strategically push forward. If a full-back does push forward, another player will need to be instructed on filling the vacated space from the full-back to either help slow down or prevent counter attacks, or allow the full-back to sprint back into position.
3. Hardwiring roles and accountabilities against the opposition’s counter attack and second phase of attack
TFC are too often stretched and exposed against opposition counter attacks. There is a chasm between the midfield and defence during this phase of play. As soon as TFC lose possession of the ball (often from Alejandro Pozuelo, who has been dispossessed more than any other player on the team, followed by Jayden Nelson), the team seems to lack the knowledge of how to re-establish defensive structure (if there is even a defensive structure at all), and the speed to either slow down or prevent opposition counter attacks.
In addition to counter attacks, TFC is also significantly exposed during the opposition’s second phase of attack. Once a TFC defender has neutralized the initial attack with a clearance, other TFC players returning to support the defence are often not in position to deal with the next threat. Moreover, follow up opportunities come easily to opposing teams. The more opportunities opposing teams have to score, the more likely they will.
The assumption (or hope) is that a team defensive structure exists. Within that structure, the coaching staff will need to hardwire the roles and accountabilities for every current TFC player. Extra focus should be placed on slowing down or preventing counter attacks and on the opponent’s second phase of attack. Improvements in these two areas should help to limit the enormous amount of scoring chances that TFC are currently giving to opposing teams.
Beyond the internal defensive strategic improvements, TFC clearly need to further upgrade their defence in the upcoming summer transfer window. The team is missing a starting caliber CB who is conservative, reads the game well and excels at organizing the defence. This type of player would complement the current more aggressive and risk-taking CBs, Chris Mavinga and Carlos Salcedo.
Another priority area for TFC to address this summer is at defensive midfield. Having a player with speed and the ability to break up play will immensely help prevent counter attacks and strengthen the spine of the team. Ideally, this player would also be adept at distribution and progressive passes from the back to either replace or alternate with Michael Bradley.
Adding a steadier foundation in the heart of the defence will also help to keep the young, inexperienced players accountable for the defensive side of the game and to provide better defensive shape for TFC in general. Providing more quality options to Bob Bradley should also lead to more squad rotation and hopefully help to keep TFC players healthier.