Expected Narratives: Seeing Reds / by Ian L.

By Ian L. (@ahandleforian)

xN is our weekly look at what you can expect to read, write, and discuss about Major League Soccer this week. We take a look at each prospective narrative and rate it based on its strength and whether or not it has any actual merit.

Last week, I asserted that if Toronto failed to secure three points this week that the talk of the league would be whether or not last year’s all conquering heroes would even manage to make the playoffs this season. Unsurprisingly, they failed to acquire those three points, surprisingly nobody is really talking about it all that much. Well, since I’m CNO (Chief Narrative Officer) of this league now (self appointed, the term is lifelong meaning it remains until such a time as I die or get bored. Smart money on the latter.), I’m going to go ahead and make it a narrative because a) it’s important and b) I can’t really think of another thing to write about this week. I mean I guess we could cover VAR again, but NAH.

Narrative: Toronto is going to miss the playoffs
 Narrative Strength: As strong as I care to make it
Narrative Accuracy: American D+ (Canadian B-)

Surely, it’s inconceivable. Last year Toronto won a treble (of sorts) and managed to set an all time MLS record for points and goals in a season. This year the team got, seemingly not at all worse and possibly even better depending on how you feel about Ager Atexe, Gregory Van der Wiel, and Auro. And yet…

If there were a large group of MLS Narrative analyzers and we were to start a band, that band’s name would be “X10uating Circumstances” Get it? Never mind. Anyway, my point is that there are so many dang circumstances working against Toronto this season. Firstly, the usual suspect:

We talked about this some when we were doing the same sort of pretopsy (I just made this word up, it means an autopsy done ahead of time which is actually quite gross and dark but too late now) of Seattle. Toronto’s injury list is also problematic to say the least:

(as of 5/30)
Jozy Altidore
Drew Moor
Ashtone Morgan
Justin Morrow
Nick Hagglund
Nicolas Hasler

Jozy’s absence is obviously unfortunate for Toronto, but Tosaint Ricketts has actually done quite well in his stead. Although we’ve only seen him for 375 minutes, he’s averaging a more than respectable 0.80 xG+xA per 96 from open play (i.e. excluding Penalties and Free Kicks). Let’s see how that stacks up in the Torontoverse:

Player Season Min Run of play xG+xA per96
Sebastian Giovinco 2018 705 0.85
Tosaint Ricketts 2018 375 0.8
Jozy Altidore 2018 270 0.78
Sebastian Giovinco 2016 2542 0.66
Jozy Altidore 2017 2271 0.54
Year Goals per Game xG per Game Shots per Game
2016 1.5 1.31 14
2017 2.09 1.42 12.9
2018 1.18 1.91 17.1

So Sebastian Giovinco is having an unusually productive season from open play, and that’s fantastic for Toronto. As you can see, though we’re working with limited 2018 minutes, Ricketts has done a great job filling in for Altidore so far. In fact, Toronto’s attack shouldn’t really be an issue at all in 2018. They are averaging 1.91 xG per game (best of any team in the last two seasons).

Looking at it broken down like this makes for a curious diagnosis. This is the first time in the last three seasons that Toronto isn’t scoring more than our xG model suggests they would. They’re also shooting a lot more often as well. Some people will point to this and go, “ah, bad finishing”, when in reality it’s far more likely bad luck, or a combination of that and the sudden absence of good luck. If I’m a Toronto fan, I’m extremely encouraged by these numbers. The team is obviously getting opportunities and getting them in decent places, so what about the other thing?

Defensively, things are less bright than in years past:

Year GA per Game xGA per Game SA per Game
2016 1.12 1 11.3
2017 1.09 1.17 11.8
2018 1.82 1.43 12.6

Yeah, ok, so after looking at the defensive table this makes more sense. Toronto were hardly a lockdown defense even in their best seasons, but that’s a huge jump in both GA and xGA. This actually makes a lot of sense when you consider that everybody not named Jozy Altidore on the injury list is a defender.

Toronto has been forced to throw out some, let’s say, “interesting” back lines this year. The two players with the most time at center back have been Van der Wiel and Michael Bradley. This is problematic (as you have no doubt surmised) because neither of those people are center backs by trade.

Further complicating the issue is how those are only two of the NINE center backs (yeah that sounds so crazy I’m going to go ahead and name them for you: Van der Wiel, Bradley, Moor, Hagglund, Eriq Zavaleta, Jason Hernandez, Chris Mavinga, Mitchell Taintor, and Julian Dunn-Johnson) used this season. Toronto have also used three different right backs and 4 different left backs. Even at GK, backup Clint Irwin has managed to get four out of their 11 matches this season. This certainly isn’t the usual amount of squad rotation and it’s forced Toronto out of the 3-5-2 formation that brought them so much success last season. This year? They’ve only been able to run it out twice in MLS play.  These ingredients are not ones I would recommend using if you’re trying to prepare a dish called success.

Ok, so… injuries obviously. Anything else? The CCL obviously took its toll on Toronto. They put every egg they owned (and a few they borrowed) into that basket. Had Toronto managed to crack this whole shootout thing, we probably aren’t having this conversation because winning the CCL means you get to tell everybody else to shut up. Between CCL and injuries, Greg Vanney has rotated his squad a whole lot. Toronto have used a league leading 29 different players this season and only SEVEN players have managed to get 500 minutes or more. There’s a lot to be said for continuity in a lineup and Vanney can’t seem to get one to stick.

Ok, so those were the problems. The main question is: Is it fixable?

I think so, but it won’t be easy. Toronto’s underlying metrics are good and would suggest a lot of rotten luck has helped steer them into this particular ditch. Will their luck change? Possibly, and it will definitely need to. Toronto are sitting not altogether pretty at 0.91 points per game and that obviously isn’t going to get them into the playoffs. In the last three seasons the ppg required to make it to the next stage is in the 1.40-1.45ish range. I think it’s going to be higher this season and let’s just go ahead and call it a 1.50 just to be safe (and wouldn’t you know it that’s exactly what 6th place New England is sitting on). So just what does Toronto have to do? They need about 40 points from their last 23 matches. That’s about 1.75 points per game. That’s not going to be super easy. They’ll also need New England or Orlando to come back down to earth a bit, which is hardly guaranteed

So there you have it. Toronto’s season isn’t dead and buried yet, but it sure is getting there. Injuries dealt them a tremendous blow, and trying to win the continent’s biggest trophy did the rest. Toronto’s lineup has been constantly in flux and it’s hard to get established when you’re dealing with that challenge. Toronto is attacking very well and should have more than their 11 points to show for their efforts but that’s just not how it works. Statistically speaking this is one of the worst seasons to be less than your best in the Eastern conference. I wouldn’t count a side as talented as Toronto out of it, but when bad luck meets bad timing good teams miss out on things. To set things right, Toronto would have to go on an incredible run for the remainder of the season. The only team in MLS that’s good enough to do something like that? Probably Toronto FC.

Ok, so I kind of did a cop-out at the end of that last one, but in the MLS prediction game one has to hedge one’s bets. Let’s move on to one that’s a little bit more fun. 

Narrative: Gregg Berhalter is the “playing a man down” whisperer
Narrative Strength: Meh
Narrative Accuracy: Meh

Remember how a few weeks ago we considered whether or not Gregg Berhalter was the “nine whisperer”? Well this week, Columbus went a man down against Sporting Kansas City and managed to hold them scoreless. They also accomplished this task earlier in the season against Seattle, flummoxing both teams to the point that they were also finding it hard to even create clear cut chances. Now then, this begs the question that’s been asked this week. Is Berhalter the “playing a man down whisperer?”

Once again, let’s set some rules. In order for Berhalter to be granted “whisperer” status in this department, we’re going to need to see him hold teams scoreless or to very limited scoring whilst being a man down for more than 45 minutes. So first half red cards only (I included Wahl’s 48th minute red card because there just weren’t a lot of first half ones ok?). Let’s take a look:

Date Opponent Sent-off Player Minute PK Conceded? GA xGA
5/27/2018 Sporting KC Federico Higuain 1st half stoppage N 0 1.02
5/5/2018 Seattle Pedro Santos 15th N 0 1.23
7/4/2016 Sporting KC Tyson Wahl 48th Y 3 2.03
5/31/2015 Orlando Michael Parkhurst 16th Y 2 3.69
5/17/2015 San Jose Mohammed Saeid 33rd N 2 1.75

Yeah… No. Sorry Gregg. We’ll find you one. Don’t worry. 

Narrative: Sebastian Giovinco is the worst penalty taker in MLS history
Narrative Strength: This one sent a ton of people flipping through the books on Friday
Narrative Accuracy: B-

Ah Giovinco… Our greatest outlier. There aren’t many best blank ever conversations that don’t feature his name. Indeed the king of the direct free kick is in fact pretty bad at converting penalties. I was planning on doing a whole bunch of research and make this my headlining narrative but Matt Doyle of major league soccer soccer dot com went ahead and did it so I’m just going to present his findings for you here.

As you can see, Giovinco is not the worst penalty taker in MLS history, though for high volume shooters he gets a bronze. Interesting that Altidore is also there. Toronto has had the honor of taking more than a few penalties over the last couple of seasons. In fact they’ve attempted 22 of them, which is more than any other team over the last three seasons (Portland is close with 21). Also, go Benny!

Many thanks to Matt for digging up these numbers.

That’s all of the narrativing we’ve got time for this week. Given my analyst abilities this season, Toronto are likely to go on a 10 match winning streak and be favorites for the cup again. Fixture congestion is about to strike a few MLS clubs, so it’s depth check time. I can’t wait to see which second and third choice players are able to make a case for themselves to be first choice ones. I just realized that we’re going to be doing All Star voting soon, and you better believe I’m going to use this platform to try and get Matt Turner to Atlanta. Enjoy the midweek clashes. Enjoy the banter. I’ll be back next week to talk about what we’re talking about.