Toronto FC’s 2017 playoff campaign is yet to catch fire like the one in 2016 did.
For all the talk of the need for a new creative midfielder in the aftermath of last year’s final, the bitter irony of Toronto’s failure to break the deadlock against the Seattle Sounders was that they had been in the scoring form of their lives during the postseason up until that point.
The signing of Victor Vazquez afterwards has undoubtedly paid off, helping the Reds increase their regular-season goalscoring total from 51 to a remarkable 74, but in the playoffs things have gone in the other direction.
Toronto netted 17 times in the 2016 playoffs despite being shut out in the final.
This year, they have scored only twice in their opening three games - and one of the two was a Sebastian Giovinco blockbuster of the type TFC have been blessed with on several occasions this season but which they can hardly rely on.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, but taking a look back at the supply lines that opened up last year may be helpful for Toronto as they plan for this week’s do-or-die meeting with the Columbus Crew.
A couple, in particular, stand out.
It starts with the strikers
This one isn’t especially complicated: Toronto pay their two star strikers $12 million a year and they need them to be their primary sources of goals.
The playoffs didn’t start too badly in that regard. Giovinco netted, even though he was quiet overall, at Red Bull Arena and Jozy Altidore played a primary role in Vazquez’s opener.
But Toronto haven’t scored in the two games since, and Altidore has only been on the field for 45 minutes of 180.
That’s been the single biggest difference between this year and last: Altidore, of course, was money throughout the 2016 postseason and scored in every game up until the final. His performances were so good that they overshadowed the fact that Giovinco had four goals and two assists through Toronto’s first three games before adding a couple more assists in the conference finals.
TFC were never likely to get that level of production again and Greg Vanney - correctly - pointed out that ties like the one they played against New York City FC are far from the norm.
What we have seen this season is more typical of the MLS playoffs: it’s tight, it’s tense and each series can swing on a single moment.
But that environment only serves to make a clinical striker even more important.
There can be something of an inversion, at this time of year, of the idea that good play leads to goals; it still does, but perhaps more pertinently goals can lead to good play. In these close matches, chasing a lead can be a very dangerous thing and defending one a big opportunity.
Take what was perhaps the most notable scoreline of the playoffs so far, when Columbus won 4-1 against New York City. Ola Kamara took his first chance of the game, David Villa missed a couple of good ones in a fairly even first half and eventually, the game started to look like this:
During the regular season, only Atlanta United outperformed their expected goals to a greater extent than Toronto, according to American Soccer Analysis. That speaks to the quality of the finishers the Reds have at the top end of the pitch.
Across their eight-game spell since the loss to the Montreal Impact on September 20, though, that seems to have changed.
TFC have inarguably not played as well through that span as they did during the summer. But while their shots inside the box per game is down 14% over the past eight fixtures compared to their prior season average, their shots on target per game has plummeted by 50%.
That suggests that their execution in the final third has been a bigger problem than their ability to get there - especially as the more modest 14% decrease may be at least partly attributable to the quality of opposition they have faced of late.
When strikers score, other things tend to suddenly fall into place at the same time. TFC need Giovinco and Altidore to shake off the rust quickly.
Make the most of set pieces
Vazquez’s main quality is his ability to create chances, but Toronto were also searching for more goals from midfield when they went shopping last winter.
The Spaniard has delivered on that front, too. Vazquez and Justin Morrow hit eight each during the regular season, which ensured TFC had a solid base of secondary scoring.
But while those contributions are important over the campaign as a whole, both Vazquez and Morrow average approximately a goal every four games. Over a playoff stretch that will top out at a maximum of five matches, their goalscoring impact could turn out to be essential or inconsequential.
That, again, ties into the importance of Giovinco and Altidore firing at this time of year but also puts a spotlight on the only guaranteed source of chances Toronto have in just about every game they play: set pieces.
In last year’s playoffs, six of Toronto’s 17 goals came from set-piece situations. Three of their six goals scored by non-forwards were from corners.
As I wrote earlier this year, this is an area in which Toronto have become very effective. After ending the 2016 regular season joint-last in the league in terms of chances created from set plays, they ranked among MLS’ best sides this term - and that stat only accounts for shots directly from the delivery and not some of the more complex routines they have pulled off.
An easy way of illustrating how important set pieces are is to think about the impact of Giovinco’s direct free-kicks this year.
The most recent was the deciding goal in the Red Bulls tie. Before that, the equalizer in Atlanta. The opener in a derby. The killer second in the top-of-the-table clash with New York City. They did not always follow the run of play.
Goals from indirect set pieces are the same thing: decisive moments that can often come out of not much.
They were pivotal last year, when Altidore grabbed Toronto a late lead in the first leg against NYCFC and Armando Cooper and Nick Hagglund scored massive goals in the second half of the Montreal tie.
With the end of the season so close and the margins now so fine, one choreographed routine could make all the difference.