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  • Socks at Half-Mast

The Toronto Preview, Part II

Today is a must-win game, but how much it will ultimately matter is very much up for debate. I'm of the opinion that our losses to Chicago and Orlando have doomed our playoff chances. I hope to be proven wrong.

 

Team

Possession

Shots per game

Shots on target per game

Goals for (xG)

Goals against (xGA)

Points (standings)

WhoScored team reating (SofaScore team rating)

Charlotte FC

52.4%

10.93

4.19

34 (30.6)

42 (37.0)

32 (10th in the East)

6.54 (6.78)

Toronto FC

52.7%

11.04

4.48

40 (33.2)

47 (48.1)

30 (11th in the East)

​6.62 (6.83)

Toronto's unbeaten streak came to an end on Saturday, as they fell 2-1 to Miami. Before this game and coinciding with the arrival of Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, Toronto had been on a 5 game unbeaten streak (3 wins and 2 draws). This run of form started with their 4-0 victory over Charlotte back on July 23.


Since that game, these teams have been trending in the wrong direction. Coming into that game, Charlotte was at 11.10 shots/90 while Toronto was at 9.67 shots/90. Since, and including that game, Charlotte's shots/90 has fallen to 10.93 while Toronto's has exploded to 11.04. Charlotte's shots on target/90 is still a healthy 4.19 (actually up from the 4.05 it was before the first meeting), but Toronto's increased shot total has been accompanied by a huge increase in their shots on target/90 as well. It now sits at 4.48/90, up from 4.10.


In those six games, Toronto has gone from 26 goals as a team to 40 (Charlotte's increase has been a much more modest 25 to 34). Meanwhile, Toronto's goals against has slowed dramatically. Coming into the first meeting, Toronto was one of the worst teams in the league when it came to goals allowed, having allowed 39 (on a 41.4 xGA). While their total number of goals allowed (47) remains one of the highest in the league, the fact that they've only allowed 8 over these past 6 games is a definite improvement for them. To put it another way, coming into the first meeting, Toronto was allowing 1.86 goals/90 (39 goals allowed in 21 games). As it stands now, they're allowing 1.74 goals/90. It may not seem like a huge improvement, and they definitely won't be confused for Philadelphia's defense, but the impact of Insigne and Bernardeschi is being felt on both the offensive and defensive side of their game. Namely, Insigne and Bernardeschi's offensive contributions are allowing this team to control the game better.

 
Toronto vs. Portland, 8/13, via MLS
Toronto vs. Portland, 8/13, via MLS

Injury/Suspension

Midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye got the start versus Charlotte but hasn't played since. He's been out with injury (lower body) and is still listed as questionable according to the MLS Availability Report. Noble Okello (lower body) and Quentin Westberg (lower body) join him on the report, though they are listed as out. Okello was injured during the last meeting as well.


Attack/Midfield

If you didn't get a chance to check out the first preview for Toronto, I highly recommend that you do. In all honesty, not much has changed when it comes to their team since our first meeting except that Insigne and Bernardeschi have had time to settle in. Toronto has been rolling with a 4-3-3 since their arrival and has made very few changes to their starting lineup over this time. Aside from Kaye having to miss time due to injury, the only other change that has been made is at striker. Over the past two games, Ayo Akinola has come in for Jesús Jiménez, however, Jiménez has 26 appearances (25 starts) to Akinola's 19 appearances (9 starts). Additionally, Jiménez has 8 goals and 3 assists on the season to Akinola's 1 goal.

Toronto vs. NE, 8/17, via MLS
Toronto vs. NE, 8/17, via MLS

It seems that Jiménez has been struggling for goals, which has led to his absence (he wasn't even on the bench against Miami). Indeed, he hasn't scored in the league since June 29 against Columbus. In fact, of his 8 goals, 7 came before the end of April, meaning, that since May, he's had 1 goal. For his part, Akinola hasn't scored since May 21, but it seems Toronto is trying to mix it up in the hopes of getting one of them going. Considering the form that Insigne and Bernardeschi are on (more on that in a bit), it's doubly concerning for Toronto that they can't get their strikers going.


Speaking of Insigne and Bernardeschi, I made these statements about them in the first preview. Regarding Bernardeschi, I stated,

At the end of the day, Bernardeschi has talent. His time at Juventus could have been a case of a player who needs a team built around him. Maybe at Toronto, he becomes more of a focal point and performs closer to the player he was with Fiorentina. Or maybe he's just a solid, but unspectacular player. At only 28, he still has a number of potential good years left. People are going to make a big deal of this move, and I don't think it's a bad one. However, Bernardeschi isn't Insigne, or Cucho, or Bale. This is a player who has clear talent but has never really produced consistently. He may end up a dynamite signing for Toronto, but I don't believe it's anywhere close to a sure thing.
Toronto at Montréal, 8/20, via MLS
Toronto at Montréal, 8/20, via MLS

To pat myself on the back, I'm thinking I may have nailed this. I won't back down that Bernardeschi isn't the caliber of player that Insigne is, nor will I go back on the statement that, overall, he was a disappointment at Juventus. However, with Toronto, he's showing his talent. In 6 games, Bernardeschi has scored 4 goals and has 1 assist. To put this in perspective, in 5 seasons with Juventus, he had 8 goals.


It seems that Juventus was a step too high for Bernardeschi, while Toronto, and MLS as a whole, is probably more his level (probably a bit below his level, to be fair to him). Honestly, that's nothing to be ashamed of. Juventus is one of the biggest clubs in the world and has tons of talent. MLS is improving, to be sure, but it's nowhere near what Serie A is. He's now a big fish in a small pond, so to speak, and he's proving it.


Of Insigne, I stated,

Toronto has literally signed one of the best wide attackers in the world. Yes, he is 31. Yes, that means he's on the downslope of his career. No, I don't care. Unless there is a dramatic drop-off in his fitness, I wouldn't be surprised if he's the best player in MLS over the next two to three years.

In his six games with Toronto, Insigne has 3 goals and 1 assist. I'm going to continue my trend of gushing about Insigne by posting his 3 goals so far. While they're all good goals, the third is just spectacular. The technique he consistently shows is unmatched in MLS.

As Insigne learns this league and his team, he's going to be unstoppable. Normally, the reverse would seem to be true too, i.e., that as the league learns Insigne, they'll be better able to stop him. That won't be the case. The book is already out on him. He's had 13 seasons of high-quality production. We know what Insigne is, we know what he likes to do, and we know how he'll go about his business. MLS players are not going to be able to stop him.


While Akinola and Jiménez haven't been able to profit from the arrival of Insigne and Bernardeschi when it comes to goalscoring, Jonathan Osorio has. Before the first meeting in Toronto, Osorio had 5 goals and 4 assists on the season. In the 6 subsequent games, he's scored 4 more goals, bringing his season tally to 9 goals. This is his most since 2018 when he had 10 goals on the year. In fact, it's one short of his total for the past 3 seasons (2019-2021) combined.


Osorio's role has changed a bit since the arrival of the Italian attackers. Through the first 21 games, Osorio's heatmap looked like this:

Osorio heatmap, through first 21 games, via SofaScore
Osorio heatmap, through first 21 games, via SofaScore

As his heatmap shows, he's mostly being deployed on the left side of the midfield. With the arrival of the Italians, he's now much more varied in his positioning and playing a lot more on the right. Indeed, over the past 3 games, he's started on the right side of the midfield trio.

Osorio heatmap, entire 2022, via SofaScore
Osorio heatmap, entire 2022, via SofaScore

Defense

This might be a little lazy to do, but I'm going to literally reiterate what I said about the defense 6 games ago:

Toronto list 6 defenders on their website, with one (Luke Singh) loaned out. The other five are Criscito, Shane O'Neill, Chris Mavinga, Lukas MacNaughton, and Kadin Chung. As discussed above, I will be adding Marshall-Rutty, Thompson, and Petrasso here.
Mavinga (9 appearances, 9 starts), MacNaughton (14 appearances, 9 starts), and O'Neill (17 appearances, 15 starts) are the central defenders. Petrasso and Thompson have both played as fullbacks, wingbacks, and occasionally wide midfielders. Petrasso is deployed on the left, with Thomspon on the right. Marshall-Rutty has played as a fullback or wingback on both sides. Chung and Criscito have been used as fullbacks, but occasionally as a CB. Chung is a right-sided player, while Criscito is a left-sided one. Criscito's use as a fullback/center-back is unsurprising, considering his versatility in this respect has always been part of his game.
To be honest, I'm going to keep it short in this section for 2 reasons: 1) I've gone long in the previous 2 sections, and 2) this is a bad defense. Again, they have given up 39 goals on a 41.4 xGA. Being that they've parted ways with Salcedo and signed two attack DPs, it looks to me like they're going to try to solve their defensive issues by getting possession and outscoring the opposition. It's not a bad strategy.
With a defense that has given up this many goals, I'm not sure what we really gain from looking too deeply into any of the metrics. O'Neill is probably their best defender, while everyone else is average to below-average. Many are below average defensively and when you think about it, that's not surprising. Considering the fact that Toronto is listing many of these guys as forwards or midfielders, but playing them as defenders, one would expect to see decent offensive numbers from these players with poor defensive numbers. The good news for them is that many of these guys they're trying to convert are young, so it may work out in the long term. Right now, though, it's a struggle.

This is still a defense that is allowing a lot of goals per game, even with their improvement over the past month. The defenders haven't gotten better, though, the attack has. With Bernardeschi and Insigne pulling the strings up top, it's allowed fewer opportunities for opponents. "Fewer" is the key word here, though, as there still will be opportunities for Charlotte to score. The bigger question is whether Charlotte will be able to stop Toronto on the other end.


Goalkeeping

This is the goal that Alex Bono, Toronto's starting goalkeeper, allowed. Yeah, it was bad.


The change in his goalkeeping numbers from before the first meeting is also drastic. Coming into that first meeting, Bono was at a +4.5 PSxG+/-. That number has plummeted to +2.4 over the past 6 games. While his season average for goals/90 has dropped to 1.71 (from 1.87), it's still not great. In the end, Bono is an average keeper who will give you inconsistent results.


Conclusion

This preview was shorter than usual, but that's because not a lot has changed for Toronto, as far as personnel goes. They've become a better attacking team and a better defensive team because of their attack. They play the same players, basically, and have had mostly good results over this time. They're going to need to keep outscoring their opponents in order to make the playoffs. They will be an incredibly tough test for our defense.


I'll be curious to see if we do see any changes at the back, though I doubt we do. I know people are frustrated with Walkes, but what are the alternatives? Fuchs at CB with Sobociński and Mora at LB? Does that really make us a better team? Probably not. At the same time, Fuchs versus Bernardeschi scares the s#*t out of me. I'm more confident on the right side of our defense because I think Jaylin has really played well over the past few games, especially against tough wingers. Talles Magno of NYCFC is not the same caliber of player as Insigne, but he's very, very good. He did nothing against Lindsey all game. Insigne is a different animal and Jaylin will need help, but I have confidence he can do a job there.


In the midfield, who can say what is best? I was hoping the news of Nuno Santos being available would break early this week because I'd love to run out him against Toronto (I'd also like to see Byrne but how in the world do you justify taking Lindsey out of this lineup?). Toronto got to deploy their shiny new toys against us; why can't we return the favor? If he's not available, I'm not sure it matters much what we do.


Bronico will play but he's gassed. His passing has simply not been very crisp the past few games and I have to imagine fatigue is part of it. Jones had a great game against NYC, but I thought he got nowhere close to that level against Orlando. McNeill brings energy, some technical ability (his pirouettes this past game were exciting!), and grit, but at this point in his career, he's not a game-winner. Bradley, Osorio, and Nelson outclass him, to say nothing of Kaye if he's available. I still prefer Bender as a sub, but maybe you give him a start to get the offense going. I do think there have been definite improvements in the defensive side of his game recently, which makes him more playable as a starter.


Up top, Świderski will start and, if he's not injured, Gaines has absolutely earned the right wing spot. That leaves the left wing spot open for Vargas, Jóźwiak, or Reyna to occupy. Vargas shouldn't start again, as he's not ready. He has talent and he's had moments the past couple of games, but outside of some shots, I don't think he's been able to assert himself on the matches. Reyna can provide some quality, however, his lack of consistent energy and effort really frustrates me. I'd be for Jóźwiak starting as I thought he looked good when he came on this past weekend. He has talent; it's just a question of if he can ever consistently unlock it during games. Only more game time will determine that.


Please note that I didn't mention Shinyashiki. That's not because I don't want him to play; it's quite the opposite. Rather, it's because we know he won't start. Lattanzio has left no doubt that he doesn't see him as a winger and he's not going to play him over Świderski. The news of an extension coming is welcome news, but I do wonder if it signals a larger change, namely, that Lattanzio won't be the head coach next year. I have to believe that Shinyashiki has been given assurances about his role and playing time moving forward. He's come over from a club, Colorado, where he wasn't a starter, and has made an immediate impact. I can't believe he's going to be satisfied with a substitute role on this team. If this is the case, the next manager's primary goal is going to be how to fit Andre and Karol into a team together (I don't believe this will be too hard; 4-4-2 anyone?).


Overall, I just can't be too optimistic about this team right now. The hangover from Orlando is real. However, I'm trying to force myself to be. This team has surprised me quite a few times this year and with their backs to the wall, maybe they do it again. Maybe Toronto's good form has also been broken by their loss to Miami. It may not matter in the end, but we're not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs yet. I do believe this team will fight.


Prediction: Charlotte 3 - Toronto 2

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