The next couple of months could be a bit tricky for Toronto FC. As the MLS regular season winds down, the team is in a commanding position atop the Supporters’ Shield standings. Now the only discussion left, it seems, is where they rank in the league’s history books.
It would make sense, as a result, to see Toronto coast down the stretch. After all, their record doesn’t convey how turbulent this year has been for them from an injury, absences and travel standpoint. Taking things easy before the playoffs start is a time-honoured tradition in many sports.
But it isn’t a good idea in Major League Soccer, a league whose playoff format favours teams that raise their game at the right time of year. With that in mind, Toronto needs to make sure they go into the playoffs with as much momentum as possible.
The defending MLS Cup champions, the Seattle Sounders, are a perfect example. They played their first 24 games of last season at a mediocre to poor rate of 1.25 points per game. The Sounders then only lost two of their last 10 matches and went into the playoffs as one of the league’s hottest teams.
This is a trend among MLS Cup winners since 2007, the start of the designated-player era. All of them put up a higher points per game in their last 10 matches than in the first two-thirds of the season. Only Real Salt Lake in 2009 did not play the last 10 games of an MLS Cup-winning season at a 1.7 points per game pace or better.
On average, MLS Cup winners since 2017 were about 0.33 points per game better in their last 10 games of the year than those prior. That might not seem like a lot, but over the course of a 34-game season that translates to 11 more points.
The issue for Toronto? It’s hard for them to do much better than they have been this year. They have been averaging two points per game all season, meaning they would need five more wins, two draws and only one loss through their final eight matches to improve by a 0.3 margin.
They will have to do this while playing opponents, starting Sunday against the Montreal Impact, who desperately need these points to make the playoffs. In fact, three of their remaining eight games are against the Impact, who themselves have been playing great soccer as of late.
It might be doable, though, if this team’s claim that it still hasn’t played its best soccer holds true. The best template for the club to follow is the 2011 LA Galaxy, who also averaged about two points per game through their first 14 matches of a Supporters’ Shield-winning season. They played at a 2.2 points-per-game pace over the last 10.
The Galaxy are one of just two - the other being the Columbus Crew in 2008 - Supporters’ Shield winning teams who went on to win MLS Cup since 2007. In general, Shield-winning teams tend to plateau or regress down the stretch as the games get less meaningful.
The graph below compares the Supporters’ Shield winners and MLS Cup champions from each year since 2007, and how they fared over their last 10 matches of the regular season. Keep in mind that the 2008 Crew and 2011 Galaxy aren’t included because they won both.
Supporters’ Shield winners average an improvement of only 0.06 points per game over their last 10 matches. That means, in a relative sense, they go into the playoffs without having improved on the way they played all season. In a five-game playoff campaign built on momentum, that can be fatal.
The good news is that Toronto haven’t shown as signs of slowing down. They have already won two of their final 10 matches of the season, and Wednesday’s win against the Union was as complete an effort from this team as well have seen all season.
Toronto may decide to rotate its squad a little bit down the stretch, resting key players as the season winds down. Even this, however, isn’t necessarily all that detrimental to a team that has found ways to win with pretty much any combination of its players on the field this year.
The club just has to make sure to stay focused and not slow down. Because at the end of the day, their case as the “best club to ever play in MLS” is far less compelling if they don’t have the silverware attached.