Voices: Joseph Lowery

What's wrong with Toronto FC?

With only five points from their first 10 games of the 2021 MLS season, things are bleak for Toronto FC. And after last Saturday's 2-0 loss to FC Cincinnati extended their losing streak to five games, head coach Chris Armas didn’t hold back.

"It's a disaster. I'm embarrassed,” Armas told the media. “I’m tasked to do a job here. And yeah, we all know it's been hard. You play without your DPs, you can go down the list. It's not time to do that. You've got to figure out a solution. You can't accept this. Chris Armas doesn't accept this, supporters [don't accept this]. It's sickening."

The Armas era is clearly off to a difficult start. Toronto are 13th in the Eastern Conference standings, just ahead of Chicago Fire FC on goal difference. They’ve allowed 20 goals, which is tied for the most goals conceded in MLS. And, as maybe the most obvious sign of all, you know things aren’t going according to plan when your coach dips into a third-person monologue during his post-match comments.

One year removed from a second-place finish both in the East and in the Supporters’ Shield race, what’s wrong with Toronto FC? Why are they struggling so much?

Before diving into the numbers, it’s important to note two things:

  1. Toronto FC aren’t playing at their BMO Field home. They’re currently living and playing their games in Florida – Orlando’s Exploria Stadium is their temporary home due to Canada-US travel limitations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. That must be an incredible strain on the players, coaching staff and other members of the club.
  2. They've been missing their three Designated Players for large portions of the season. Alejandro Pozuelo, their star playmaker and the reigning Landon Donovan MLS MVP, has battled injuries. Yeferson Soteldo, a dynamic winger signed from Brazilian side Santos, is currently away with Venezuela at the Copa America. And star striker Jozy Altidore has trained away from the rest of the team after a disagreement with Armas.

Still, like Armas said, you must find a way to get results even when missing big-name players and facing challenging circumstances. Toronto FC haven’t done that.

Looking at their on-field product, there has been a major change from “2020 Toronto FC” to “2021 Toronto FC” – and it’s certainly connected to head coach Greg Vanney departing to lead the LA Galaxy. Toronto were a high-volume passing team, moving the ball quickly and spending a lot of time in possession.

Under Armas, that style is gone. So far this year, Toronto average 346 completed passes per 90 minutes, which is down from 439 in 2021. Out of all teams across 2020 and 2021, Vanney’s 2020 team was in the 88th percentile in terms of time spent in the buildup phase (when the offensive team is comfortably in possession against an organized defense, per Second Spectrum). Armas’ 2021 team is in the 33rd percentile in terms of time spent in the buildup.

Things weren’t all rosy for last year’s version of Toronto FC; they didn’t create chances at a particularly high rate, averaging just 1.088 xG per 90 minutes. This year’s TFC are nearly in the same place, averaging 1.07 xG per 90. However, their established tactical identity gave them an overarching blueprint for how to approach games.

That blueprint is gone now. And it’s been replaced by a team without an effective tactical approach.

Many of the statistical differences between Vanney’s Toronto FC and Armas’ Toronto FC illustrate one thing: a decreased emphasis on possession. Decreasing emphasis on one particular phase of play and instead emphasizing another phase of play isn’t a bad thing. Teams evolve all the time, often for the better. In this case, though, the issue is that Toronto haven’t seen an uptick in efficiency in any other phase (organized defending, attacking transition, or defensive transition).

When organized defensively, Toronto are giving up the 12th most xG per 90 minutes with 0.693, which is up just slightly from 0.68 last year. In defensive transition, Toronto allow the 5th most xG per 90 minutes with 0.627, which is nearly double their 0.334 total from last season. They’re also giving up more shots per 90 minutes in defensive transition and allowing higher-quality shots in 2021 compared to 2020.

Because Toronto FC largely lack speed in both central midfield and central defense, opposing teams have had success counter-attacking against them. You can see a couple of examples in the below video – plus a couple of instances where Toronto’s lack of quality in possession leads to easy chances for the opposition.

For a coach coming over from the Red Bull system, it was reasonable to assume that Toronto FC would press aggressively under Armas. But they don't. Their pressures in the final third are down from 68 per 90 minutes to 60, and their pressing efficiency (the percentage of time when they win the ball within five seconds of a pressure) has dropped from 41.5% to 38%.

When attacking against a disorganized defense, Toronto are 25th in the league in xG per 90 minutes with 0.285, which is down from 0.346 last year. It’s hard to string results together – let alone try to equal an impressive 2020 season – when your attacking output has decreased and your opponents’ attacking output has increased.

During these struggles, Armas has also made some interesting personnel decisions. Auro Jr. has often been used in central midfield instead of fullback, while Mark Delgado has often been used on the right instead of as a central midfielder. Most recently, in TFC’s Week 10 defeat to FC Cincinnati, Ayo Akinola spent time playing as a right-sided midfielder instead of as a No. 9. It’s not impossible that Auro, Delgado and Akinola could find real success in those alternate roles, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Armas is taking the winding route to success rather than the straightforward one.

Armas appears to have shifted Delgado back into central midfield and Auro back to fullback, but still, playing players in their natural positions and putting additional emphasis on a particular area of the game could help Toronto climb out of the depths of the Eastern Conference. If those changes aren’t made, it could be a long year for Toronto FC that forces questions about their overall direction.