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Toronto FC won’t make the playoffs unless they fix their defending

Their already slim chances aren’t being helped any by poor play at the back.

MLS: Toronto FC at San Jose Earthquakes Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In their last ten games in all competitions, Toronto FC has only lost one match. That came against New York City FC, one of the best teams in the league, while down a man after Jozy Altidore was sent off in the eleventh minute.

During that stretch, they have lifted a trophy and won three games against opposition who they are in direct competition with for one of the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. It is a run of form that should suggest that TFC is finally trending in the right direction.

A quick pop of the hood, however, shows an underlying issue that continues to deny the team any true upward trajectory. The club’s defending has simply not been up to playoff calibre this season.

This recent purple patch has been no different. While Toronto have been collecting important results, their underlying defensive numbers remain concerning. In their last six games, Toronto has allowed 1.9 expected goals against per match, above their season average of 1.69 which is fifth-highest in the league per American Soccer Analysis.

To put it simply, Toronto FC has been incredibly lucky to get results in at least a couple of games during their recent stretch. If they can’t find a way to shore up the backline quickly, any measure of luck is going to run out quickly and so will the club’s limited playoff hopes.

MLS: Toronto FC at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto is currently on pace to allow 63 goals against this year, which would be the most in club history. No team has ever made the playoffs allowing that many goals. San Jose squeaked in last year after allowing 60, while 2015 Toronto FC also grabbed the final playoff spot while allowing 58. Both teams were dominated in their one and only playoff game.

There have been a number of issues that have plagued Toronto FC defensively throughout the season, but a few have been especially prevalent of late. Namely, an inability to close down attackers quick enough outside the box and the number of giveaways the club has made in the defensive third.

Neither of these things is helped by that fact that Toronto has seen limited minutes of late from both their best passing and organizational centrebacks: Drew Moor and Chris Mavinga. In fact, a lack of consistency in general for the backline has been another huge issue.

The club has only been able to play the same backline together for multiple games twice this season. The first group they played for back-to-back games had Gregory van der Wiel and Michael Bradley as their centre-backs. The second was the recently solid centre-back trio of Eriq Zavaleta, Chris Mavinga and van der Wiel that had to be changed when Mavinga got suspended for two games.

Behind the backline, it’s fair to say Alex Bono hasn’t been having a banner season, either. After a strong start in which he was one of Toronto’s best players during the CONCACAF Champions League, Bono has become error-prone of late.

MLS: Toronto FC at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto keeper has allowed 1.23 more goals than expected this season, which is eighth worst among keepers who have played at least 900 minutes this season. Last year, Bono was the fourth best keeper in the league by the metric. He just isn’t making the same kind of game-changing stops he did last year.

There have been some questions as to whether Clint Irwin should be given a chance to start again, but in his limited MLS minutes this season his numbers have been even worse. Bono is still a very good keeper, and this recent stretch is an outlier in his overall career, but he does seem to be having a crisis of confidence.

To be fair to Bono, the volume of work he has faced this season has been difficult. The 24-year-old has had to deal with 1.6 expected goals and 5.28 shots against per 96 this season, compared to 1.26 and 3.69 nine last season as both the shots and chances TFC give up have increased this season by a not insignificant rate.

It should also be noted that while most of the blame has been heaped on the backline this year, defending is a team responsibility. The midfield mix has largely been geared towards offensive players this season, which has been reflected in the numbers.

The offence, however, has largely been doing its job. Toronto are among the top teams in the league in both goals scored and expected goals. Since Altidore returned they have only been held to a single goal once in MLS play.

But the defending has still been a downfall, as Toronto FC have now dropped 13 points from winning positions this season. Regain even half of those points and Toronto FC are just about in a playoff spot instead of six points out.

Toronto FC has had enough external factors go wrong for them this season that are largely beyond their control. They can’t keep shooting themselves in the foot defensively and expect to claw their way out of this current predicament. There has to be an improvement if they are to make the playoffs.