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Toronto FC’s start has been far from perfect, but it’s too early to panic

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The Reds will get better. Probably.

MLS: Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

One win in six is not good. There is no way to dress that up, and none of the other five teams in MLS in that situation (or worse, in the Philadelphia Union’s case) along with Toronto FC will be particularly pleased with their start to the season. Even Real Salt Lake, who have already fired a coach, have a couple of victories on the board.

Taken out of context, though, only really the loss to the Columbus Crew on Saturday looks like a bad result. TFC would have loved to have turned draws against Philadelphia and Atlanta United into wins, of course, and should have, but the real problem with all those ties is the pressure they add to the games that follow. In isolation, a point would not have been a bad result in Vancouver or Columbus, but the knock-on effect of the games prior to them made wins feel necessary.

Their failure to get the job done in Ohio drew a predictable reaction, and we’ve even had the first fire/don’t fire Greg Vanney column of the year in response. Any talk about the coach’s status and panic about the direction of the Reds’ season is, to me, hugely premature for a couple of reasons.

1. The biggest issues won’t last

MLS: Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Big issue #1 is finishing. Toronto had enough chances to beat Sporting Kansas City and Atlanta (and probably Real Salt Lake, too), and didn’t.

Now, maybe Sebastian Giovinco fell off a cliff as soon as he turned 30 and is no longer the perennial MVP contender he has looked in his first two seasons in MLS. Maybe Victor Vazquez, Armando Cooper and Jonathan Osorio will not score a single goal between them all season.

Alternatively, those are ridiculous conclusions to draw after six games. That’s not to say it’s been business as usual for Giovinco - he has only really looked himself against SKC and Atlanta - but he has had quieter stretches before. One way to quantify his performances, rather than just the results of them, is through expected goals, which measures how many goals a player could ordinarily expect to score with the shots they have taken.

His number for this season is 0.56 per 96 minutes (the average length of a game) - slightly down on his 2015 (0.58) and 2016 (0.62) rates, but not by much at all. Of the 21 players with a total expected goals number of 2 or above this season, only Giovinco and Jordan Morris have failed to score two goals. If that doesn’t change both of last year’s MLS Cup finalists can pack up and go home, but it’s reasonable to expect it will.

Big issue #2 is protecting leads, which Toronto have now failed to do in three of their six games and Mitchell Tierney delved into earlier this week. Again, that should be fixable if a little more emphasis, at least temporarily, is put on shielding a one-goal advantage rather than seeking to extend it, and it is also worth noting that Toronto’s first-choice back five is yet to be beaten.

2. The 3-5-2/3-4-3 is not the problem

MLS: Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

That leads me into the talk of a change of formation, which Allan Singh presented the case for on this very website this morning. Allan made some good points and the two-goals-from-open-play-against-11-men stat is an ugly one, but I’m not ready to ditch the system that took the Reds to the MLS Cup final just yet.

On the contrary, I would argue that Toronto have had most of their problems when they have moved away from that tried and tested formula.

The first example was in Philadelphia, when Tsubasa Endoh replaced Steven Beitashour at right-back and was bullied throughout the first half by Chris Pontius in the air. With the wind behind them, Philly simply hurled high balls at Endoh that he was never going to win over Pontius and took the lead from one such situation. It was probably TFC’s worst half of the year, and they were fortunate to be level at the break.

A month later against Atlanta, Chris Mavinga and Alex Bono - in for Nick Hagglund and Clint Irwin - were guilty of defensive errors in another 2-2 draw.

At Columbus, Toronto were without Drew Moor and made a series of stupid errors in their own half to cough up a lead they had established by playing pretty well through 36 minutes on the road. In the second half they switched - I’m not sure whether by instruction or tactical indiscipline - to what was essentially a 4-4-2, and did not look good at all.

It boils down to this: When Toronto have had their best XI on the field, they have looked pretty good save for some lacklustre finishing, which should improve. There are problems, for sure - Mavinga’s start has not been encouraging, Tosaint Ricketts has struggled to make an impact and the enthusiasm of the Bono advocates (myself included) has been tempered a little - but none of those things should derail the season and all have the potential to improve over time.

If Toronto remain ninth in the conference at the end of the upcoming three-game home stand, we will have cause for concern. For now, though, they’re best off sticking to their convictions and staying the course.