When it comes to the dramatic improvement in Toronto FC’s defensive record last season the statistics tell their own story, so here’s a few. They do not include the playoffs.
Clean sheets: 10 (up five from 2015, fourth in MLS)
Goals conceded: 39 (down 19 from 2015, second in MLS)
Shots faced: 383 (down 27 from 2015, third in MLS)
Shots on target faced: 136 (down 28 from 2015, fourth in MLS)
Errors leading to shots: Two (down four from 2015, second in MLS)
Drew Moor was not the only addition to TFC’s backline last year - Clint Irwin and Steven Beitashour deserve a share of the credit, Alex Bono was a sturdy replacement when Irwin was injured and tactical changes also helped - but he was certainly the most significant. He played 32 games in the regular season and another six in the playoffs, where Toronto added a further three clean sheets and conceded just one goal in five games outside of a crazy conference final.
While the collective numbers are clear, however, demonstrating an individual’s contribution to a team’s defensive record is more challenging. There are statistical categories that Moor measured very well in compared to other defenders in MLS in 2016 that seem objectively important, such as the percentage of his 50-50 duels he won (66%) and his passing accuracy (86%), which was the best in the league among centre-backs to play 20 games in the regular season.
Otherwise, though, it is difficult to control seemingly fundamental metrics such as tackles and interceptions for different team and individual styles of play. Defender of the Year nominee Jelle van Damme of the LA Galaxy, for example, won and intercepted the ball at a higher rate than Moor but the Galaxy also allowed a substantially higher number of shots at their goal than Toronto. What matters is hard to discern without drilling down into the context of each team’s approach, an individual defender’s tendencies and many other factors that we would need more information to assess in a meaningful way.
Instead we will have to rely on our own judgment and more subjective accounts, and Greg Vanney summed up what Moor had meant to Toronto near the end of October, shortly before he was left off the Defender of the Year shortlist of Van Damme, Matt Hedges and Axel Sjoberg.
“I think it would be nice for him to be in the discussion [for the award],” Vanney said. “I think he’s been a key part of our ability to tighten up things this year defensively. He’s been steadfast and present in just about every game of ours and he does a nice job in organizing and controlling things in our backline.
“I think he’s been extremely solid and that’s the main thing about being a centre-back, is to be solid every single day, do your job and, at the highest level, be able to help and communicate and work with the guys around you, and I think Drew is as good at that as anybody. You know you can count on him every single day.
“Whether it’s training or games, you can count Drew in. If it’s three games in a week, you can count Drew in. He’s very efficient, he’s smart, he’s professional and he’s always there and he’s always there for the team in whatever capacity.”
The most significant thing you can say about the acquisition of Moor from the Colorado Rapids is that it’s now impossible to describe Toronto’s core solely in terms of their three designated players, a result not only of the strength of his individual performances but also the leadership he displayed throughout the year alongside a number of different central-defensive partners. “The biggest compliment I can pay to him is that he makes other people around him better,” Irwin said before the Eastern Conference knockout round. “That’s not something that is common in this league.”
Whatever the system and whoever he found himself next to, Moor’s performance levels barely changed. Both his adaptability and consistency can perhaps be credited to the fact he is not particularly fast or tall, and instead relies on sound decision-making and defensive instincts. That the decrease in the number of shots on target Toronto faced was greater than the decrease in overall shots is telling; while they were better in every sense at stopping attacks last season, they were especially improved when it came to keeping opponents out of high-danger areas.
The revolving door of defenders at BMO Field will continue in 2017; Chris Mavinga has been signed and Clement Simonin, too, looks like he could earn a place on the first-team roster. But beyond that and, we hope, the rise of first-round pick Brandon Aubrey to the MLS club at some point in the future, the group looks as settled as ever. Moor has a strong, well-established relationship with Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta on and off the field and while it will inevitably not quite work out this way, all at least have the potential to be Toronto centre-backs for years to come.
Moor is the eldest of the centre-backs by some distance at 33, and will be the leader of the pack as long as his legs allow it. Last season’s MLS Cup final run simply would not have materialized without the Texan and the Reds will lean on him once again as they look to find a route back to the championship game.