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Toronto FC grab bag: On stats, set pieces and squad rotation

Expect to see a few different faces in the lineup as the Reds enter a tough stretch.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

There are usually a few Toronto FC-related topics on my mind each week that don’t quite have enough meat on them for a full article, so here are a few thoughts ahead of Friday’s match against the Houston Dynamo. Please feel free to leave your own related or unrelated musings in the comments, or to ask any questions the Waking the Red staff may be able to answer.

1. Toronto FC take the burgeoning field of soccer analytics seriously, but the numbers don’t love them so far this season. One of the most popular statistics used to measure team performance, expected goals - which Devin Pleuler, the club’s manager of analytics, helped to create while an employee at Opta - ranks the Reds’ differential ninth in MLS so far this year on both a per-game and raw basis.

For those unfamiliar with expected goals, you can read an explanation here. Essentially, it assigns a value to every shot taken based on the probability of it ending up in the back of the net. That allows you to see through factors like bad finishing and bad luck to get a better idea of the quality of the chances a team is creating and giving up.

Now, ninth isn’t bad, but last season Toronto placed first. My first instinct, as is probably human nature, was to look for flaws in the statistic, and expected goals is not - and nor do its proponents claim it to be - perfect. It does not account for dangerous attacks that do not end in a shot, and I have a feeling Toronto - who have not always been sharp and clinical when it comes to their final pass this season - might rank higher if it did.

Really, though, Toronto have only got slightly worse at both ends of the pitch. That can be attributed to a number of things that may swing back, such as the aforementioned wasted attacks and their inability to get their best back six on the field at the same time. A bunch of teams are doing much better this season than last defensively, too, and we’ll see if that lasts.

All in all the numbers pretty much reflect what Greg Vanney has been saying all season, which is that there’s plenty that could be improved but at this early stage, things are mostly fine.

2. One area in which both the eye test and the numbers like Toronto is set pieces. The Reds have scored from corners in both of their past two games, and we’ll have a full analysis of what’s working in that regard sometime next week.

As of now, anyway, TFC have the second-most goal assists (three) and the joint-most chances created (17) from set plays in MLS. The only team above them in the former category happens to be Friday’s opponents, the Houston Dynamo, with five.

“They mix it up - they’ll play some short, they’ll move you around in terms of their different looks,” Vanney said of the Dynamo’s proficiency on Wednesday. “They make aggressive runs and they’ve got good service.

“I think [being effective at set pieces is] the same for all of us; we’re looking to try to catch an edge on all of those things and they’re a group that, through committed runs, good service and variation in what they do, they’ve also been able to be successful in those moments. We’ve got to make sure that, defensively, we’re organized, prepared and committed to being the first to get to the ball when it’s played in the area.”

The Dynamo have had a bit of luck along the way, scoring set-piece goals against Minnesota United and the San Jose Earthquakes that were the result of some shocking defending. They also, however, have a few creative routines in their locker that TFC will need to be alert to:

3. Marky Delgado’s introduction into the starting lineup against the Chicago Fire was the first of a few changes we’ll see over the next month. TFC have nine games coming before the end of May, with the Canadian Championship adding to a fixture list that also includes the first midweek MLS matches of the season.

“For the players, it’s win the next game,” Vanney said of managing the schedule. “For myself, for the staff, we have some plans that we’ve laid out. That’s important as you look through these things and look ahead, is to plan out and map out some things that you think are appropriate.

“For everybody - for the players, for us as we go into the next game, it’s win these games one game at a time but understanding that there’s some travel, there’s lots of games, there’s different things in May that will present challenges to our group, to our whole group, and it’s going to be opportunities for guys along the way. We create a roadmap and we go one game at a time through it.”

Clint Irwin is back in full training and expected to be available to play within a week or two, and Jason Hernandez has also returned to give Vanney another defensive option.

In midfield there is plenty of competition for places, and the Delgado-Jonathan Osorio-Armando Cooper trio will probably continue to rotate for the time being. Osorio and Jay Chapman could also give Victor Vazquez the occasional break, but I’d expect Michael Bradley will power through most, if not all, of the MLS schedule. Benoit Cheyrou, of course, can fill in for the captain when required and will likely play the Canadian Championship games.

Up front, things are more questionable. Tosaint Ricketts has been sidelined a little after a slow start to the season, while Jordan Hamilton is currently down with TFC II in search of minutes. Ben Spencer has been spoken about as a potential Jozy Altidore backup and of all the designated players, Altidore is the one Toronto will be most concerned about overworking. The reality is that resting either of the first-choice strikers makes the Reds a weaker team, but it might have to happen at some point.