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Non-Fungible Tactics : Has Toronto FC improved heading into the 2023 MLS season?

With the start of the 2023 MLS season exactly a month away, this article will briefly examine whether TFC are in a better spot now than when they finished the 2022 MLS season.

Sean Pollock l Waking the Red

The MLS off-season is still underway and many teams across the league still have incomplete squads heading into the 2023 campaign. But why does there seem to be a greater sense of urgency from TFC fans? Are TFC better today than they were to end the 2022 MLS season? These are common questions that continue to permeate throughout the TFC community.

The July 2022 mid-season arrivals of Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, Domenico Criscito, Richie Laryea and Doneil Henry to TFC led to extremely high fan expectations. After missing out on the 2022 MLS playoffs from a poor first half before the mid-season arrivals, followed by a series of disappointing performances to close out the season, many fans felt that the club wasted the first half of the season by not getting these players in soon enough.

Insigne and Bernardeschi are TFC’s franchise cornerstones and will be 32 and 29, respectively, during the upcoming season. If TFC are unable to win trophies with these two talents still able to perform at peak levels, questions will surely be raised on the club’s reputation and ability to bring in talent in the future to build a winner.

So, has TFC improved heading into the 2023 MLS season?

New additions an improvement over outgoing players

Sean Johnson vs. Alex Bono

TFC has fallen victim to lapses from the GK position in distribution, handling crosses and basic shot stopping (among other things) for the past couple of seasons. Similar to when Johnson joined NYCFC from DC United many years ago, he will look to stabilize a shaky TFC backline from the goalkeeper (GK) position.

From a quick look at his 2022 stats on fbref, he was asked to pass more (and is hopefully better at distributing in general), was better at saving goals from free kicks and corners, rated higher on post-shot expected goals and had 11 more clean sheets than Bono. He was slightly worse than Bono on save percentage (but generally higher than Bono throughout his career) and defensive actions outside of the penalty box, rated lower on post-shot expected goals per shot on target and faced far fewer crosses.

Team defense plays a big part in GK stats and clean sheets. If TFC are unable to fix their defensive issues from 2022, we shouldn’t expect Johnson to be the saviour on his own either. Even if Johnson just makes less errors, communicates more with his defense and distributes better than Bono, he’ll be a clear improvement in net. We haven’t had the best track record saving penalties either, which is another area Johnson has the edge, stats-wise.

Matt Hedges vs. Chris Mavinga

Hedges was TFC’s big free agent acquisition this off-season. As a former MLS all-star and 2016 MLS Defender of the Year, he is expected to be a massive upgrade to TFC’s defense. His experience and calm demeanour should help to settle a backline that was often very erratic and unstructured last year.

From a passing standpoint, Hedges statistically profiles to be fairly similar to Mavinga (even though Hedges isn’t a left footed CB or the same profile of defender, I’ve chosen Mavinga for the sake of comparison). He attempted and completed more medium and long range passes than Mavinga, but less short range ones. Overall, the accuracy rates are fairly similar for all passing distances with Mavinga being more accurate on the long passes he did attempt.

From a defensive standpoint, Hedges is statistically better in the air and in blocking shots but rates out worse than Mavinga for other categories like interceptions, clearances, tackles and ball recoveries. However, it’s difficult to accurately assess defenders purely from statistics since the way a team defends and the role a player plays within that system can have a huge impact.

MLS: Austin FC at FC Dallas Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Without consistently seeing Hedges play week in and out, his statistical profile shows a defender that tends to be more passive. Passive is not necessarily a bad thing because strong defensive positioning and limiting scoring opportunities is more important than eye popping defensive stats. Anchoring and organizing the defensive line is also something that won’t show up on a stats page.

Communication, defensive organization and positioning were three things TFC lacked in 2022. Despite turning 33 this year, Hedges should still be able to offer significant value in steadiness and leadership over his antecedent (Mavinga).

Raoul Petretta vs. Domenco Criscito

When Criscito suddenly decided to retire/not retire and leave TFC for Genoa, the club found themselves with a glaring hole at left back (LB) to fill. It took a while, but the club chose to sign Petretta from Turkey’s Kasimpasa S.K. as his successor. This was a significant move given the club had no other reliable LB options to support their biggest ever investment on the left side in Lorenzo Insigne.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of detailed data available on Petretta’s performances in Turkey. On fbref, there is a small sample size of 12 games across the Europa Conference League and Europa League from his prior seasons with FC Basel.

Galatasaray v Kasimpasa - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Seskim Photo/MB Media/Getty Images

Offensively, Petretta provided some goal contributions, key passes and better than average pass accuracy rates for short and medium range passes. Defensively, he appears to really excel in blocks and interceptions. From the statistical profile, Petretta once again looks to be a more passive and intelligent defender than an aggressive and physical one.

Petretta will likely not be able to replace what Criscito gave TFC in 2022. Criscito had an innate connection with Insigne given their time playing together for the Italian National Team and from receiving similar training and development in Serie A. Criscito was intelligent, poised, positionally disciplined and technically sound. However, Criscito was entering his 36th year on Planet Earth, so Petretta should offer more athleticism and the potential to improve at only 25 years old.

Victor Vazquez

TFC seriously lacked midfield depth last season and were forced to experiment with academy kids playing out of position to fill short-term gaps. Unfortunately, not much has changed heading into 2023.

However, TFC brought back a familiar face in Vazquez to provide some experience and offensive flair as midfield depth. At age 36, he will hopefully be used as a potentially game changing/impact sub. He can help with ball security late in games or provide an additional creative outlet to help unlock defenses in games where TFC need a goal. Vazquez is a better midfield sub than any player TFC had last season, so he will certainly be an improvement heading into 2023.

An underrated aspect of this move could potentially be how he could help get more out of Jimenez. As a fellow Spaniard, they will likely form a good connection with one another, hopefully leading to more of the magic we first saw from Jimenez when he was playing with Alejandro Pozuelo last season.

Other Additions

TFC also made other depth acquisitions in Adama Diomande and Tomas Romero. There are also a plethora of other academy players who will look to try and break through into the first team this coming season. Aside from Diomande (who is not to be overlooked, but will be skipped for lack of space), it’s unclear if any of those new additions will have even a modest impact for TFC in 2023.

Greater familiarity with MLS and TFC for Insigne and Bernardeschi

The MLS is a faster and more physical league than Serie A, but nowhere close to the same technical or tactical level as in Italy. With 14 goals and four assists between Insigne and Bernardeschi, it’s fair to say there wasn’t much of an adjustment period to MLS for them. However, continuing to manage their minutes and adapt their recovery from playing on turf will be key.

What was evident in Bernardeschi’s 13 league games and Insigne’s 11 games was that their performances faded as they logged more minutes. Last season, they played full Serie A seasons before playing more games in MLS. Coming into this season, both players will have had a full off-season of rest.

Sean Pollock l Waking the Red

However, their adaptation to Bob Bradley’s preferred system of play and to their teammates did not go quite as smoothly. There were often times where the strategy appeared to be “pass the ball to the Italians and make something happen” or where the Italians would completely bypass all their teammates to just pass the ball to each other.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to get the ball to your most talented attacking players as often as possible. However, there is something wrong with not getting those players the ball as often as possible in prime scoring areas. Whether it’s Bob’s system of play, injuries to key players or a lack of trust from Insigne and Bernardeschi in their teammates, something will need to change quickly if TFC are going to find success heading into the 2023 season.

A healthier Jonathan Osorio and Mark-Anthony Kaye

Games are won and lost in midfield. The foundation of a team’s success in all phases of play typically starts with the midfield. TFC often failed to impose themselves on games in 2022 because of the lack of a healthy and cohesive midfield.

Bradley’s preferred starting midfield of Osorio, Kaye and Michael Bradley only played together for a total of one match after the mid-season trade for Kaye from the Colorado Rapids. Osorio missed 11 games in 2022 due to various head and leg injuries, while Kaye missed seven games in 2022 for TFC due to a leg injury.

Extending Osorio, who was a free agent, was a massive (and yet underrated) move for TFC. Having both players fully healthy heading into 2023 will give TFC the foundation it needs to dominate games. If the preferred starting three midfield options are healthy and playing, there should be no excuses for poor performances outside of the coaching.

With pre-season underway and just under a month before the start of the 2023 MLS season, TFC still has some work to do. A starting caliber center back (Brondby’s Sigurd Rosted is believed to be on his way to TFC) and some depth at central midfield would really take this team over the top. As of writing, this iteration of TFC is still far better than the team that started the 2022 MLS season.

Do you think TFC has improved heading into the 2023 MLS season? What other reinforcements would you like the club to make before the season starts?

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