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Toronto FC’s advanced stats point to need for defensive improvement

Greg Vanney referenced expected goals when diagnosing the problems Toronto FC has faced this season. (Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports)

Toronto FC’s use of advanced statistics is no secret.

The Reds hired Devin Pleuler, formerly of stats company Opta, as its manager of analytics at the beginning of the 2015 season, when TFC coach Greg Vanney and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko began in earnest their makeover of a failing team. Pleuler added “senior” to the beginning of his title a few months ago, giving a hint to his continued prominence in the club’s decision-making processes.

Pleuler is rarely given permission to conduct interviews, however, and neither Vanney nor Bezbatchenko — though both can safely be described as progressive thinkers — makes a habit of sharing details regarding their use of analytics. But this has been an unusual season in Toronto, and Tuesday afternoon Vanney leaned on one such metric while diagnosing the problems that have left his team five points out of the playoffs and plotting the road to recovery.

“We know that we’ll create opportunities,” Vanney said. “We’ve done a good job of that. I think in terms of our expected goals, we’re probably one of the top in the league for expected goals this year. But we’ve conceded too many goals through this process, and that’s ultimately where we’ve dropped some points along the way.”

Expected goals uses historical data to measure the likelihood of a shot resulting in a goal. It is useful because players and teams can go through hot and cold streaks in their finishing (and see their opponents do the same); the quality of the chances they are creating and facing, independent of how many of them are actually taken, can more reliably illustrate how well a team is playing.

Different models of expected goals exist, but most seem to back up Vanney’s assertion. According to Opta, Toronto’s chances have been worth approximately 29 goals this season. In reality, the Reds have only scored 23. That is one of the reasons the defending MLS Cup champions sit a lowly 10th in the Eastern Conference.

To compound that shortfall, Toronto’s opponents have finished at a better rate than expected. Opta has them just over 21 expected goals against; Toronto has conceded 27. The difference between Toronto’s expected goal differential and actual goal differential is greater than any other MLS club, according to American Soccer Analysis’ expected goals model, last updated before last week’s 4-4 tie against D.C. United.

There is likely a degree of bad luck there. But it has also been hard to ignore a pattern in the way TFC is giving up goals and losing games: by allowing quality chances early as a result of its own mistakes and then struggling to fight back into the game against deep, risk-averse defenses.

“Being stingier defensively as a group, also aware in how we lose possessions, is really important,” Vanney added. “We’ve been losing possessions in bad areas and putting ourselves in tough situations. That’s what I mean by being stingier: not putting ourselves in these bad situations sometimes, and giving ourselves an opportunity to get the first goal, get the second goal and build off of those things.”

Against D.C., Eriq Zavaleta took an extra touch on the edge of his own area and allowed Darren Mattocks to steal the ball from him before scoring. He is certainly not alone in being guilty of a costly error this year.

“Just a lot of uncharacteristic mistakes, starting with myself and others,” Zavaleta said. “At the end of the day, what we can take solace out of is that we’re scoring goals. We’re doing enough to win games. But myself and the rest of us have to do a better job of keeping the ball out of our net. That’s something that we’re obviously going to focus on. It’s something that made us so successful last year and I think everybody knows that’s what makes championship teams.”

Zavaleta said a strong wind blowing towards the TFC net in the first 45 against D.C. made it difficult for the Reds to get out of their own half.

“But in terms of the overall run of the season, in terms of the uncharacteristic mistakes, I don’t think there’s a reason,” he continued. “It’s just been uncharacteristic. It’s been poor coincidences and something that obviously we need to clean up if we want to win games. It’s something that we didn’t do last year and it’s something that we’re on the training field working on today, working on every day and making sure we can clean up. Because you can’t win games if you make mistakes like that.”

From his vantage point in net, Alex Bono believes a pristine new pitch at BMO Field and the recent or imminent returns of several key defenders will spark an improvement.

“Like Eriq said, sometimes we’re a little bit careless, we’re a little bit sloppy,” Bono reflected. “Obviously we had the pitch to deal with a little bit at the beginning of the season at BMO, and obviously that’s well on its way back to being the quality it was last year. Once we get full bodies back, once we work on it in training a little bit more and as those guys start to come back into the team, you’ll see a lot more confidence, a lot more precision coming out of the back.”

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