Plagued by injuries to its backline, Toronto FC continues to struggle on defence.While plenty of statistics illustrate Toronto's turnaround in the second year of manager Ryan Nelsen's tenure, stopping goals is not one of them.
Toronto (9-8-6) ranks 15th in the 19-team league in goals against, conceding an average of 1.57 per outing (36 goals in 23 games). Last year, the 6-17-11 club averaged 1.38 per contest (47 goals in 34 games).
Injuries have contributed to the frailty in the back. But Nelsen has lamented soft goals of late and pointed to the backline being left without adequate help from the players in front of it.
"Look, I don't like conceding goals," Nelsen, a hard-nosed defender during his playing days, said after practice Tuesday. "I don't want to concede goals. The goals that we're conceding, they're goals that are very avoidable.
"But we're also creating a lot more chances. We're a lot more of an attacking threat. We always look like we're going to score. So you have to take a wee bit of the good with the bad and hopefully marry the two.
"What we've got to understand is that there's going to be times in the game where you have to knuckle down, you have to really defend. You're not going to be able to have the ball and possess it all the time, and always look to attack."
The goal is to withstand the opposition pressure and then counter-attack.
"At the moment, we're not seeing out those little periods (under pressure)," Nelsen added.
Scoring is indeed up, despite assorted injuries to England striker Jermain Defoe. Toronto is averaging 1.43 goals a game, compared to 0.85 last year.
But Toronto's desire to counter-attack can leave gaps as midfielders and forwards look to set the scene for an onslaught on the other end. At times, that has meant leaving the defence exposed with the Toronto players in front of them expecting their backline to win the ball and send it forward.
One half of the Toronto lineup is poised to attack, like a relay sprinter waiting for the man behind him to pass the baton.
If they do, the passing of Michael Bradley and others can lead to scoring chances as Toronto slices open the opposing defence. But if the handover fails, the Toronto defenders can be left stranded and normally reliable goalie Joe Bendik exposed.
"What we've got to understand is that if somebody gets in trouble, we need to help out," said Nelsen. "It's not just the backline, it's the midfield as well. And the midfield need help from certain areas, the strikers need help in certain areas. We can't just rely on hoping that in a one versus one battle we will win it 10 out of 10 times."
Nelsen believes it's just a matter of reinforcing the message.
The TFC boss faces more challenges this weekend with captain Steve Caldwell, the club's defensive lynchpin, and fullback Justin Morrow both out as the New England Revolution (9-12-3) come to town Saturday. With the Revolution just three points behind Toronto in the standings, it's a crucial Eastern Conference matchup.
Caldwell lasted just 22 minutes in his return to action on the weekend against the Chicago Fire before re-injuring his quad muscle.
Morrow, another of Toronto's defensive rocks this season, left in the 58th minute with a hamstring problem.
Nelsen says Caldwell, who missed seven games in the first go-round with the injury, will be out for a couple of weeks with Morrow expected to be sidelined three to four weeks.
Asked if the injury situation may hasten a move to bring in help, Nelsen replied: "Maybe."
The good news is that versatile defender-midfielder Warren Creavalle has recovered from his own hamstring issue.
Caldwell, who has played 14 of Toronto's 23 league games, and fullback Mark Bloom (17) have both been sidelined through injury on a backline that seems to get one player back and then lose another.
Centre back Doneil Henry has missed games through both injury and suspension. He has also sat out in favour of athletic rookie Nick Hagglund, perhaps to give him a break after conceding a string of penalties.
Nelsen has used Hagglund and Brazilian Jackson, normally a winger, at fullback when needed. Bradley Orr is also comfortable there but his veteran savvy is diminished by lack of mobility. Young Canadian fullback Ashtone Morgan and midfielder-defender Jeremy Hall seem so far down the depth chart you'd need a GPS to find them.
Nelsen, however, says everyone — including Morgan, who has seen just one minute of league action this season — has an opportunity.
"When one door kind of closes, another one opens," Nelsen said.
Noting Toronto is 2-1-1 in August, Nelsen says his club is on the right track.
But Toronto, which has given up eight goals in the last three games, needs to close its defensive door if it wants to stop dropping points as the business end of the season looms.