Toronto Preview: Bad Decision Day

Bad spending and bad shots helped undo an all-time great Toronto team. Now they and NYCFC are trying to avoid the same mistakes.

“More information leads to more informed decisions, which leads to better decisions, which leads to greater success.” That’s GM Ali Curtis on the importance of analytics to Toronto FC, but it might as well be the official self-improvement mantra for his club, whose sudden collapse from firebreathing, cup-gobbling juggernaut to the biggest white elephant in MLS history deserves its own hourlong special on Unsolved Mysteries.

Last year’s Toronto had by far the highest payroll per point since 2011.

What the hell happened? There’s a cottage industry of soccer articles out there trying to figure out how Toronto managed to make a mockery of the established relationship between wages and points, but you could file most explanations under Bad Decisions. It was more than a little risky, for example, to lean on an aging roster that claimed three of the top seven spots from 2016 to 2018 for payroll Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality. Toronto was hopelessly top heavy and it showed when Jozy Altidore got hurt for half the season and was replaced by … honestly, does anybody even remember? Yup, there’s your problem.

Bad decisions also soured the locker room in Toronto’s annus horribilis. Take the choice to drop TAM on Gregory van der Weil, a big-name wingback whose only notable defensive display was his kiss off Instagram post when the club shitcanned him for, uh, irreconcilable differences. Or the choice to build the squad around captain and famously unpopular leader Michael Bradley.

Although Bradley’s a much better soccer player, even at 31, than a lot of people give him credit for, he’s also the poster boy for a particular kind of bad decision that’s plagued Toronto on the field. A team from American Soccer Analysis won the USSF Hackathon last year by developing a player decision model that suggested Bradley’s gorgeous long-range chip in a World Cup Qualifier against Mexico in June 2017 made him visibly more likely to shoot from outside the box for his club the rest of that year.

A figure from the winning project at last year’s USSF Hackathon.

But Bradley’s hair trigger was nothing compared to Sebastian Giovinco, who amassed his league-leading 468 shots from 2016 to 2018 by taking open-play shots an average of 23.5 yards from goal, the farthest among the league’s top shooters. Yes, he scored a lot of goals. He also squandered a lot of possessions. No wonder TFC identified shot location and getting the ball on target as metrics they’re focused on improving this season.

By that measure, the team’s decisionmaking is getting better. Through their first two games, Toronto has taken its shots closer to goal than any team in the league, at a higher xG per shot than any team in ASA’s records going back to 2011. It’s maybe not coincidental that the best xG per shot over a full season belongs to last year’s Red Bulls, where Curtis was GM until 2017. But an obvious factor in getting shot distances down was the club’s decision to let Giovinco go to Saudi Arabia, freeing up room to bring in 27-year-old midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo as their new Designated Player—so new, in fact, that he’ll probably get his debut tonight against New York City FC.

Speaking of NYCFC, there might be lessons for the club in Toronto’s sob story. We’ve already had our own trouble dumping too much cash on players over thirty, and there’s evidence that David Villa’s shoot-first style may have stunted an attack that was starting to create smarter chances under Dome Torrent. While Claudio Reyna has spent the last couple years building a younger, more balanced roster to avoid TFC-style depth problems, his new crown jewel Alexandru Mitriţă has earned the constant Giovinco comparisons as much by his electric dribbling as by his tendency to shoot on sight pretty much anywhere in the attacking half, an average of 24.4 yards from goal.

Dome has identified the problem. “In the 18-yard box he scored an amazing goal,” the coach said about Mitri after last week’s LAFC game, “but in the second half, maybe if he stopped the ball and passed the ball on the side we had two or three players alone.” In other words: make better decisions, my guy. Learn smarter habits. Reinvent yourself the way Toronto has been trying to do.

“But it’s not easy,” he added. ❧

Image: Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, Three Spartan boys practising archery