Toronto FC’s 2012 season was a long and painful one, with many problems made glaringly obvious.
One of the bigger issues, and something that has been a problem throughout the club’s six years in MLS, has been conceding late goals, with the final tally of goals conceded in the last 15 minutes a whopping 16 this season, just shy of one every other game.
Obviously there’s no one obvious solution to this issue; if there was surely even TFC would have stumbled across it by now. A lack of fitness seems an obvious target, with physical tiredness or mental fatigue leading to mistakes that lead to goals. A suggestion raised at TFC’s end-of-season press conference was that the pre-season preparations weren’t good enough, resulting in a lack of fitness.
If that was the case then you’d expect that to be showcased at the start of the season, but that isn’t what happened. In the 10 league games under Aron Winter, only two goals were conceded in the last 15 minutes, and they actually scored three, gaining two points. Whereas in the 24 games under Paul Mariner, 14 goals were given up and they only scored five, losing 11 points in the process.
One interesting factor about that statistic is the style of play employed by Mariner. Possession wasn’t a priority and often towards the end of games, especially when TFC had a lead or was level, they would sit back and defend, just inviting waves of pressure on to them. That could cause fitness to be an issue as you have to be incredibly fit and mentally disciplined to be able to withstand such pressure without cracking and making a mistake.
The other factor that makes it seem more of a problem under Mariner is that of the game situation, and if you’re looking for any sign of hope out of these stats, here it is. More goals were scored against TFC because the opposition was trying harder, because they had to score.
Of those 10 games under Winter, TFC was already losing nine of them after 75 minutes. The opposition was either cruising home, or more concerned with defending their lead rather than attacking as best they could. Under Mariner? In only nine out of 24 games was the opposition ahead, seven games were tied and TFC was leading in eight. In those 15 games where the opposition needed to score, they usually did — nine goals were conceded and only two scored. Five leads were lost (though the one against Vancouver was reclaimed) and four ties turned into defeats.
Simply put, Toronto was a lot more competitive under Mariner, and it’s something that rings true throughout TFC’s woeful history. In a perverse manner, late goals conceded have been a signal of a stronger team.
Mo Johnston’s 2007 side only conceded eight goals in the last 15 minutes, and that went up along with the points totals to 13 in 2008, and then 15 in 2009, the year TFC came closest to making the playoffs. As TFC’s point totals went down, so did the late goals against — only 10 in 2010 and 11 in 2011. Add in the two in 10 games in 2012 and Winter’s overall record was 13 in 44 games.
So it can be looked at as a good sign that so many late goals were conceded, as at least TFC were in the games. If the results at 75 minutes had stood, they would have gained an extra 11 points, meaning 31 points in 24 games, or pro-rated over 34 games 44 points. Decidedly average, but also more than Vancouver and Montreal.
It’s obviously a big step to becoming the kind of team that can consistently hold onto leads, or develop the winning mentality to actually start gaining points late in games as San Jose did so successfully this year. It may well be impossible while playing the style seen in the latter part of the 2012 season. To defend and withstand so much pressure consistently, game after game would require a fitness and mental strength certainly not seen around these parts before.
Paul Mariner seems confident he’s the man to do the job, but only time will tell if he can take that next step. At least he was able to get TFC back to the point where they had something to try (and usually fail) to hold on to. That’s a start I guess.
Duncan Fletcher is a Toronto-based writer and key contributor to Waking the Red, a blog about Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. Follow Duncan on Twitter.