Opta Spotlight: Ryan Nelsen calls Toronto FC "soft," but is that what's behind their late-game collapses?
In an alternative universe, Toronto FC have a more-than-respectable 16 points from 10 matches. Their head coach hasn't felt compelled to label his side "soft," and first place is well within grasp.
Back in the real world, the Reds have dropped nine points from six matches and sit second-to-last in the Eastern Conference with one common thread tying each successive disappointment to the last.
The culprit? A frightening lack of defensive fortitude in the final 10 minutes that has head coach Ryan Nelsen at his wits' end while prompting an influx of overseas veterans to harden the current squad.
The most recent example came Wednesday night in San Jose at the hands of the Goonies, as Chris Wondolowski turned a flicked-on corner kick into the back of the net with his thigh in the 81st minute. Yet again, Toronto FC were left to rue a late goal allowed through no fault but their own.
"Any ball that goes into our box gets score on," a visibly frustrated Nelsen said after yet another valuable road point slipped away.
It's a trend we've been watching closely here at MLSsoccer.com. So closely, in fact, that we commissioned a analytic comparison of TFC's performance during the first 75 minutes of matches and the final 15 before their most-recent collapse in the Bay Area.
As you can see in the table to the right, which doesn't include data from Wednesday's loss, the Reds' late-goal epidemic isn't necessarily caused by a team-wide lapse from the 75th minute onward.
TFC actually hold more possession in the final third, rack up more clearances, blocks and interceptions (CBI) and earn more set-piece opportunities late in games. Their opponents follow the same trends, indicating a back-and-forth game as each team's formation stretches in search of a late breakthrough. Most concerning is the uptick in key passes – those that lead directly to shots – and set pieces that opponents log from the 75th minute on.
Still, they're also dealing with increased Toronto pressure and yet always manage to come out ahead. It seems Nelsen's diagnosis is generally spot on – no real surprise there. His team is prone to moments of inattentiveness when they can least afford it.
Worth mentioning, however, is that three of the six breakdowns came during set-piece situations in which the zone-marking scheme implemented by the coaching staff proved either fallible or poorly executed. The remaining three simply came down to poor clearances, mistakes that fall (literally) at the foot of the player in question.
With all that in mind, below is a breakdown of each of the six goals that have taken points out of Toronto's coffer thus far this season. Give us your thoughts in the comments section below.
2 points dropped | 2-2 draw vs. LA Galaxy, March 30 | 92' goal by Jose Villarreal
Inviting pressure in the final minutes is always asking for trouble, and trouble turned into heartbreak for Toronto FC as they dropped off the Galaxy in stoppage time.
After scrambling to clear their lines twice with LA surging forward, Omar Gonzalez found himself unmolested in the home half near the right sideline. With John Bostock late to apply pressure, Gonzalez got his head up and hit a driven ball to the back post.
The rest is simple: Darel Russell failed to properly clear the ball under pressure from Mike Magee, heading the ball to an unmarked Villarreal, who swiveled in the six-yard box and volleyed it past Joe Bendik as Darren O'Dea and Danny Califf look on helplessly.
2 points dropped | 1-1 draw at Philadelphia Union, April 13 | 93' goal by Jack McInerney
First things first, Toronto FC were down to 10 men after a red card to defender Ashtone Morgan. Once again, though, they invited the Union forward, resorting to aimless clearances and weathering repeated set-piece attempts.
Following a 93rd-minute corner kick that they barely cleared, Philly defender Sheanon Williams hucked a long throw into the box that O'Dea headed up into the air under pressure. TFC midfielder Jeremy Hall attempted to head the ball out of danger but, as you might have guessed, that didn't work out so well.
As Toronto players fell over each other in the box and failed to push out to apply pressure, the ball fell to the feet of Brian Carroll, who scuffed it to Conor Casey, who turned it into the path of McInerney at the back post. And, well, you know the rest.
2 points dropped | 1-1 draw vs. Houston Dynamo, April 20 | 94' goal by Warren Creavalle
This time around, it was Toronto who had a man advantage heading into the final minutes after the Dynamo's Jermaine Taylor saw red in the second half. Still, the final moments weren't kind to the home team.
With a minute left in stoppage time, Doneil Henry's poor pass gave Houston an opening they eventually exploited. After Bobby Boswell sent the ball long to Will Bruin, O'Dea accidentally knocked it out for a corner while shielding the burly forward near the endline.
On the ensuing corner kick, Ricardo Clark camped out in a massive hole in the Reds' zone defense, eventually skying above multiple defenders to win a header that he sent toward goal. It wouldn't have beaten the Toronto defense by itself, but the defenders assigned to track Creavalle all converged on Clark, allowing the unmarked second-year defender to flick the ball over Bendik and into the back of the net with just seconds left on the clock.
1 point dropped | 2-1 loss vs. New York Red Bulls, April 27 | 89' goal by Tim Cahill
With one swing of his foot, Morgan could have snuffed out the danger that eventually resulted in Cahill's winner. Only the young Canadian couldn't make clean contact on Péguy Luyindula's flick from Luis Robles' long ball.
Instead of clearing their lines and regrouping, Toronto were under immediate pressure. Gale Agbossoumonde was slow to recover and Luyindula slipped Thierry Henry in behind the American center back. From there, it was a matter of marking in the box.
Of course, the Reds couldn't quite manage that either, as Henry's run sucked O'Dea toward the near post, leaving Morgan to deal with both Kosuke Kimura and Cahill, who had built up a head of steam and out jumped the left back to score the late winner.
1 point dropped | 1-0 loss at Colorado Rapids, May 4 | 86' goal by Edson Buddle
This game had scoreless draw written all over it, but bad timing and a diabolically poor clearance came back to bite Toronto FC in yet another late loss.
With Matías Laba limping after pulling up lame and a substitute forthcoming, Colorado's Chris Klute sped up the left flank before Russell and Ryan Richter cut off his path. However, neither player closed Klute down, allowing a cross into the box that would be TFC's downfall.
While Buddle didn't win the ball on the fly, O'Dea slipped and couldn't clear it either, allowing it to fall in the box. At that point, Logan Emory should have whacked it out to safety, but his first touch was lacking and he couldn't stay on his feet, allowing Buddle to thrash the ball past Bendik.
1 point dropped | 2-1 loss at San Jose Earthquakes, May 8 | 81' goal by Chris Wondolowski
Zone marking on set pieces doesn't seem to be Toronto FC's forte, and that failing hurt them yet again on Wednesday at Buck Shaw Stadium.
Conventional logic says Walter Martínez, all five feet and six inches of him, shouldn't be winning headers, but the Honduran hid out in front of the goalkeeper before flaring into open space at the near post. None of Toronto's defenders followed him, though, and Martínez had a free header, which he flicked on toward the six-yard box.
While all that was happening, Wondolowksi ghosted through the zone and past three defenders, eventually finding himself goal-side in front of Doneil Henry, where he simply pushed the ball past Bendik with his thigh.