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How Toronto FC became one of MLS’ top set-piece teams

The Reds have consistently been a threat from dead-ball situations this season.

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Victor Vazquez Toronto FC Houston Dynamo MLS Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

Tyler Dellow, formerly an analytics specialist with the Edmonton Oilers, recently wrote an interesting piece for The Athletic about NHL teams using offensive-zone faceoffs as set-piece situations from which they could run choreographed plays to create scoring chances. One of the routines Dellow highlighted involved the winger closest to the boards driving to the middle of the ice after a draw had been won to create a lane for a defenceman to attack. Like this:

I was reminded of this a few weeks later not at a hockey rink but a soccer stadium, when Toronto FC did something similar from a corner.

At the start of the clip, Sebastian Giovinco is lurking near the corner flag with Victor Vazquez, the corner taker. Just like the Nashville Predators winger, Giovinco then moves from his position near the touchline/boards across the field/ice towards the goal. The corner is played back to Justin Morrow, who has crept up from a defensive position, and he drives down the wing into the space Giovinco has vacated.

This is now a much better situation than an ordinary corner. Toronto are in a more dangerous crossing position, have disoriented the defence and still have the advantage of knowing, because this is a set routine, where Morrow is going to aim the ball into the box.

Whereas Chicago have two men closing down Morrow, two men guarding the near post and two others lost in no man’s land, the four players Toronto have sent into the area for the corner are all waiting to attack the far post, knowing that is where the cross will land. Morrow delivers and Eriq Zavaleta connects with a good header to score.

That goal was not a one off. Toronto have been one of MLS’ best teams from set pieces this season, tying the New York Red Bulls - who have played a game more - with a league-high 19 chances created from set plays. That figure only accounts for shots that result directly from a set-piece pass (like Jozy Altidore’s goal against the Columbus Crew), though, and not for the longer routines like the one against Chicago. Add those in and tally up Giovinco’s direct free-kicks on top, and it is likely the Reds are generating in excess of three shots per game from set-piece situations.

That’s vital, because it gives you a chance to score goals when you are facing a difficult opponent or not playing well, especially on the road. Unfortunately, Toronto have not always capitalised on the help their set plays have given them this year; they took a 2-1 lead in Philadelphia while playing quite poorly thanks to a penalty and a free-kick and a 1-0 lead in Columbus from a corner, but could not protect either of those leads.

Set pieces will be a key part of Greg Vanney’s game plan for the upcoming trip to Seattle and return to Columbus, though, and with performances having improved of late the hope will be that this time they can make them count.

So, how do they do it? I’m going to focus on corners; Toronto have been particularly effective there this season, and not only because they have had three centre-backs, Altidore and the springy Raheem Edwards on the pitch on a regular basis, though that has certainly helped.

The key is to create a distraction. Toronto do something that seems dangerous to the opposition defenders and lures them in, and the delivery is then sent somewhere subsequently left unguarded. On the Zavaleta goal, for example, they work Morrow in down the side of the penalty area and Chicago naturally gravitate towards the near post to block what they probably anticipated would be a low ball across the six-yard box.

One of my favourite routines Toronto have run this season came against Columbus, which, if it had been converted, could have made it a very different night for the Reds. It’s so clever that they give the Crew a little preview, because Vazquez delays on taking the corner, but they still don’t catch on.

You can see in the first few seconds of the clip that Edwards sets up with his back facing the ball to create a screen that Altidore can run in front of to the near post, with Edwards blocking his marker. Columbus, as a result, assume Altidore - who has already scored from a corner in this game - will be the target of Vazquez’s delivery.

In actual fact, though, it is Altidore who is the decoy all along. After setting the screen, Edwards peels off completely unnoticed to the middle of the six-yard box, and Vazquez ignores the crowd that has formed at the near post to send the ball there. It’s really, really unlucky that it doesn’t result in a shot on goal; if the cross comes in a fraction of a second earlier Edwards probably connects with it, and if it’s a fraction of a second later it’s Nick Hagglund’s to bury.

Here’s another good one: last season, Altidore scored this goal against the Houston Dynamo.

This season, Toronto ran this corner routine against the Houston Dynamo.

It’s literally exactly the same thing. It’s so difficult for defences to read what’s coming when you have a variety of choreographed set plays in your locker that you can run the same one two seasons in a row and find your opponent is none the wiser.

The routine is pretty simple; two players make runs to the near post and the two centre-backs, big and strong enough to block a couple of men each, create a double screen for Altidore to run behind to connect with a low ball cut back towards the edge of the area.

“You look for matchups, you look for spaces or ways that you can manipulate the space and try to get to spaces,” Vanney told me at training before this year’s Houston game. “I think sometimes it’s [new routines] from week to week, sometimes it’s what’s worked well for us [in the past] - whether it was the last game or five games ago, you know, you just try to take advantage of the guys you have on the field and the matchups we think we might get.”

Perhaps the most important ingredient of all, however, in Toronto’s recipe for set-piece success is one I have so far only mentioned in passing.

“Being successful at set pieces is about being consistent about the spots you can hit in terms of the service,” Vanney emphasized. “You can run guys anywhere and if the service doesn’t get there, it’s meaningless.”

It’s almost getting tiring singing Vazquez’s praises, but here he pops up again. The Spaniard has taken corner duty off of Giovinco this season, and the service he has provided has been a dramatic improvement.

“I’ve always done it,” Vazquez explained. “OK, we have a lot of players with quality but because I can’t head it so good, I’m not that tall and these kind of things and I have the quality to put good balls [in], that’s why I am always given the free-kicks and the corners.”

Heading is not Giovinco’s specialty either, but he is capable of roaming around and looking vaguely threatening as a decoy in certain situations. Even if he wasn’t, you’d still want Vazquez taking them; of the 96 corners Giovinco took last season, only 20 were successful. Vazquez has been successful on 11 of 21 attempts so far this year.

It might be suggested in Giovinco’s defence that Toronto are just doing a better job of creating targets this season but the Atomic Ant’s one-for-eight record in 2017, though a small sample size, does not look like bearing that out.

The really impressive aspect of Vazquez’s ratio is the difficulty of what he is being asked to do. If you look back at the Edwards chance against Columbus, for example, he is required to put in a delivery flat enough to lure defenders to the near post but that carries sufficiently to sail past that crowd, only to then dip into the tight space behind them. That’s not easy, but he’s consistently pulling it off.

The work of Vanney and his staff to come up with such creative routines on a weekly basis is impressive, but none of it would work without Vazquez’s quality. You can bet that his talent in this area was no small factor in the long pursuit of his signature that finally bore fruit this winter.