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Breaking down Toronto FC’s path back to the playoffs

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What exactly do the Reds need to do in the second two thirds of the season?

2017 MLS Cup - Seattle Sounders v Toronto FC Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Now that Toronto FC have lost three of their last four games and find themselves eight points out of the playoffs with a third of the MLS season gone, panic has definitely begun to set in among fans. The concern may not be peaking yet, but it’s hard not to start tugging your shirt collar a little when you look at the standings, especially after the Reds have failed time and again to put two wins in a row.

We all know the reasons behind it, of course — what team can succeed in a league with such parity when they’re missing so many defenders? And what good is creating lots of chances if you can’t score them?

“We need to start game with much higher intensity level and a much higher level of urgency,” said Greg Vanney on Tuesday. “We can’t allow ourselves to work our way into the game, because we’re finding out that we’re behind before the game really gets going.”

Explaining the first 11 games of TFC’s season is not what this column is for. It is what it is, and this is where the team finds themselves now. Rather, it’s time to look at how they can work their way out of this hole.

“Sometimes in MLS we think we’re just going to outplay the other team and get wins,” Vanney said. “On some days that works, but on other days it doesn’t work. We just have to get back to this idea that we’ve got to be difficult to play against, defend well, regardless of who the opposition is and the rest will take care of itself.”

He repeated several times that his team needs to be “hard to play against,” as they were last year. To me, that means being solid in defence, not conceding space, and avoiding costly errors. Even though on any given day they’ve been without at least one or two of Drew Moor, Eriq Zavaleta, Nick Hagglund, and Chris Mavinga, TFC have managed to remain in the league’s top 10 in average shots conceded (12.5). For the most part, TFC have been burned on the counter, or by a critical error either in midfield or at the back.

Through last season, Toronto were the best defensive team in the Eastern Conference. They absolutely have the personnel to be that again, they just really need to get healthy.

Tempering Expectations

I think at this point we can concede that Toronto FC won’t be making it to 69 points this season. Even the Supporters’ Shield is most likely off the table, although crazier things have happened. So, what should be a reasonable goal for the team’s final position in the standings, given they currently sit on 10 points?

A first round bye? Home advantage in the knockout round? Or, for the more pessimistic among us, just a playoff spot?

Ever since MLS began giving the top two in each conference a bye, the average points cutoff for that bye has been about 56 points. Only one team has ever done it with less than 50. TFC have 23 games left, and to get there they’d need 46 points over that stretch.

That’s exactly two points per game, or 10 points in every five-game stretch.

Since 2015 (when MLS expanded to six playoff teams per conference), third-placed teams have averaged 52.6 points. The cutoff for the playoffs has been just over 47 points.

So, TFC would need about 9.2 points every five games to guarantee themselves a home game, and 8.1 every five to make the playoffs. Shall we look at their remaining five-game stretches?

Let me just say first that this in no way takes into account the form of the teams TFC are chasing. Atlanta United could well continue to run away with it, and either Columbus or New York City could raise the bar well higher than usual. You can’t pass a team if they don’t stop winning.

MLS: Playoffs-Toronto FC at New York City FC Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Block 1

June 2 @ Columbus Crew
June 8 @ Philadelphia Union
June 13 vs. D.C. United
June 24 @ New York City FC
July 1 vs. New York Red Bulls

Right out of the gate, we’ve got a tough one. three away games, five straight against Eastern opponents, and a pair of games against two strong New York teams.

If we’re being optimistic, let’s say the Reds beat a shorthanded Columbus side this weekend. They manhandled Philadelphia, who are pretty out of sorts at the moment. D.C. are behind TFC in the standings on just nine points; they’ve been pitiful to start the season.

The New York games will be tough. TFC have done well against NYCFC in the past, but they’re very strong this year. If the Reds don’t have a full-strength backline by then, things can be dicey. Still, if TFC can bag, say, seven points from the three prior games, they’d be doing alright with one win in these last two, or even a pair of draws.

Block 2

July 4 @ Minnesota United
July 7 @ Sporting Kansas City
July 14 @ Orlando City
July 21 @ Chicago Fire
July 28 vs. Chicago Fire

This stretch will be very difficult. Four away games in some very difficult stadiums. This starts with a Wednesday game in Minnesota just three days after playing NYRB at home. Then three days after that, TFC head to Children’s Mercy Park to play the Western Conference-leading SKC.

They get a week off before going down to Orlando, but then they have Canadian Championship games on July 18 and 25, sandwiching that away game in Chicago.

That’s a heck of a lot of travel. Two wins on the road in this block of games might be a good outcome. Minnesota’s not very good, but SKC will be a very difficult matchup for the Reds. They’ve already seen Orlando and Chicago this year, and TFC played better for large stretches of both games, but they still ended up dropping points to Chicago and Orlando gave them a scare as well.

Block 3

Aug. 4 @ Atlanta United
Aug. 12 vs. New York City FC
Aug. 18 @ San Jose Earthquakes
Aug. 25 vs. Montreal Impact
Aug. 29 @ Portland Timbers

Those two at the top will be fun, eh? The nice thing about chasing Atlanta and NYC is that TFC get to play both twice before the season’s out. Those games could be real swing matchups in the Eastern Conference.

The Reds may also be playing in the Canadian Championship final around that time, on Aug. 8 and 15. Greg Vanney may have some tough decisions to make at that point about which competition should be prioritized. Those two weeks will be one of the most important stretches of the season for this club.

At that point in the season, games against San Jose and Montreal might be critical; TFC probably won’t be able to afford dropping points to either. San Jose’s a tough trip, all the way out to California, but they’re not much of a challenger this season, and they sit on just nine points.

Fans will, without fail, always expect a win at home against Montreal, especially after losing to them in March.

Portland are a good team too, as usual, and that’s another difficult away trip.

MLS: FC Dallas at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Block 4

Sept. 1 vs. Los Angeles FC
Sept. 15 vs. Los Angeles Galaxy
Sept. 22 @ New York Red Bulls
Sept. 29 vs. New England Revolution
Oct. 6 vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

There are some fun ones in here, at least. The high-scoring LAFC will be in town to begin the month, and then after a bye week we’ll get Zlatan Ibrahimovic coming to town with the Galaxy. Both LA teams will give TFC an entertaining match, for sure. They also have similar problems — they have talent in attack, but they’re both prone to lapses in defence.

Red Bull Arena has always been a bogey stadium for TFC, so it might be a big ask to expect a win there. This block does have four home games, though, of which they should probably expect to win at least two or three. The Revs are a lot less daunting away from Gillette Stadium, and Vancouver have been struggling to put it together so far this year (although they could have it figured out by then).

At the end of this, TFC will have just three games left, and they should have a pretty clear picture of where they’re aiming for.

Block 5

Oct. 17 @ D.C. United
Oct. 21 @ Montreal Impact
Oct. 28 vs. Atlanta United

These games might be in must-win territory by this point of the season. Away to D.C. and Montreal will be games TFC should win; neither team can match Toronto in terms of talent (even if Wayne Rooney and Fernando Torres are there...), and there’s a significant chance the Reds have a lot more to play for in October.

MLS was probably hoping that Decision Day showdown between TFC and Atlanta would be a battle for the Supporters’ Shield, which it likely won’t be. Still, it could very well be a high-stakes match. The Reds will be hoping they’re comfortable in the standings by then, but the placement implications of that difficult game could be huge.

The Verdict

Well, what do you think? TFC’s players certainly don’t feel like they’re out of it. And, breaking it down like this, things definitely do seem manageable (although far from easy). TFC have a lot of road games left in some difficult venues, but ideally they’ll start getting healthy by the time those summer away days roll around.

Ten points every five might be a big ask, but is eight? Or nine?

What do you think is a reasonable goal for this team in the remaining 23 games on the MLS schedule?

Poll

What’s your expectation?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    Supporters’ Shield
    (5 votes)
  • 4%
    Top two in the conference
    (11 votes)
  • 27%
    Home playoff game
    (75 votes)
  • 66%
    Just make the playoffs
    (178 votes)
269 votes total Vote Now