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Toronto FC 2013 Top 36 Countdown: Number 2 - Matias Laba

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Perhaps not the most physically talented, but one of the smartest footballers TFC have ever had. At number 2, it's Matias Laba

Martin Bazyl Photography

Average Ranking: 2.79
Highest Ranking: 1
Lowest Ranking: 6

Dave: 3. Matias Laba only managed to play 16 MLS matches this season but in basically half a season the 21-year-old proved to be one of the best players to ever pull on a Toronto FC shirt. Sure, BMO Field has been graced by some well known names with impressive resumes like Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans but they have been on the tail end of their careers. If Laba continues on his current trajectory he could easily be the best defensive midfielder MLS has seen and that is not just hyperbole.

So why am I so high on Laba? Well, because in a year where there were not a lot of things to get excited about he was an exciting player to watch. He may have only found the back of the net on one occasion and was rarely included on the highlight reel but he played the game in a technically sound fashion and when you watch him in isolation you really get a sense of his impact on games.

I have written words already this year making the case for Laba already being one of the top defensive midfielders in MLS. He led the league in tackles per game this season at a rate of 4.9 which was a full tackle per game better than the next best player in the league. Some of that tackle rate was down to having to do so much work on the defensive side of the ball with TFC this season but when you consider other top ball-winners around the league the number stands out ahead of the likes of Osvaldo Alonso, Diego Chara, Marcelo Sarvas, and Kyle Beckerman by a comfortable margain.

Laba also had a good year in terms of interceptions. His 3.1 interceptions per game was the third best number among midfielders this season behind just Jun Marques Davidson and Oriol Rosell. When you combine interceptions and tackles per game Laba is easily number one in the league having created 8 turnovers per game for his team. That is a good rate no matter how you spin it and it pretty much unrivalled by any other midfielder this season as Rosell is a distant second with a combined total of 7.3.

Not only was Laba capable of winning the ball and creating turnovers but he was able to do it without causing his team to have to worry about him giving away free kicks in dangerous places. Laba averaged just 1.2 fouls per game but still picked up 5 yellow cards in 2013 which would lead to a number of suspensions if he were to maintain that rate over the course of a full season.

There is not doubt that Laba proved to be very good at getting the ball back for his team. To dispel any suggestion that his defensive numbers were inflated by being on a team that did so much defending it is worth comparing him to Toronto's most used defensive midfielder, Jeremy Hall. Hall had a similar foul rate at 1.1 per game but he was well behind in both tackles (1.8) and interceptions (1.9) this season.

The one weakness of Laba's defensive game comes from the fact that he is not exactly the quickest player and that allowed for players to dribble past him with some regularity. According to Who Scored's stats he was beaten an average of 2 times per game this season which was the worst mark in the league among players with more than 10 appearances.

Once Laba won the ball for Toronto FC the positive parts of his game did not just end. Laba's 82.1% pass completion rate was the second best among TFC players this past season behind just Jonathan Osorio. With the team average at just 74% Laba is one of the few bright spots.

When you break down Laba's passing into different types his number actually becomes more impressive as you can see that he is not just hitting simple, short back passes to inflate his numbers. In fact, according to Squawka's stats only 35.8% of Laba's passes were backwards. They list his average pass as being 19m and he completed 72% of the 100 long balls that they recorded. His worst type of pass should not really surprise anyone as he was barely above 50% when it come to headed passes as Laba clearly struggles on the aerial side of the game.

So the numbers are there to suggest that Laba is already a very good defensive midfielder. The good news is that he is still just 21 years old and was only starting to look comfortable in MLS when he went down injured. He will never be the kind of player that fills the highlight reel up game after game like some other DPs around MLS but he is the kind of player that can help you win games.

If you go ask any Seattle Sounders fan who the one player on their team is that they would never part with you would probably get a lot of people saying Alonso. There is a reason that the Sounders made him a designated player this past season and why he is widely considered their most important player. He may not win them games with goals but he is the one that wins them the ball, launches the attacks, and anchors the team. That is the kind of player that Laba could very well become for Toronto FC and he is already well on his way.

When Laba joined the club he was actually a bit of an afterthought. All of the press back in the spring was about that young DP attacker that the club was going to bring out of Argentina. Maxi Urruti was grabbing all the headlines and it seemed that Laba was just going to be the added bonus. In the end, Kevin Payne only managed to sign one Argentine in the spring and in the long run it may just prove to be the right one.

At the time the deal was reported to involve a transfer fee in the area of $1.5 million which is a substantial amount for a 21-year-old playing on a struggling club. With that fee involved in the deal it assured that Laba would arrive as Toronto's first every young designated player. In the case of Laba the fact that his former club, Argentinos, was struggling probably helped to get the deal done quickly as they needed the money more than the player.

Laba was officially signed on April 26th and arrived at the club less than a month after reports first surfaced that TFC were targeting a young Argentine midfielder. Compared to some of the drawn out processes fans had to endure in 2013 the Laba transfer seemed like a walk in the park.

His debut for the club did not have to wait long. He was an unused substitute the day after he officially signed and then started a week later on May 4th playing 87 minutes in a 1-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids. Once he got into the lineup there was no looking back as Laba went on to rattle off 16 straight MLS appearances including going the full 90 minutes 13 times. The only time off that Laba got in three months came in the Voyageurs Cup where he did not feature in either leg against the Montreal Impact.

Laba got his lone goal of the season in his 14th MLS appearance. He found the back of the net in a 1-0 win over the New England Revolution in what was one of the more entertaining individual efforts by a TFC player this season. The celebration was clearly that of a player who has not scored a lot of goals in his life. In fact, that goal against the Revs is the only goal Laba has scored in nearly 100 professional games.

Things were going well for Laba and he was starting to cement himself as a quality player but then this happened and sadness ensued:

Laba's tweet suggested that he would be out injured for one month which would have left him time to return for the end of the season but the timeline from the club was a bit longer suggesting he could be out up to six weeks. In the end, with the season already lost it would have made little sense to try and rush him back so Laba was shut down for the season.

With the season now over Laba has confirmed that he is once again fit and back to training. That is good news for fans looking ahead to 2014 as a full season from Laba would be a huge boost. Any time you can get a player who represented Argentina in a U-20 World Cup in your squad and playing their best, chances are they are going to be quite good and so far Laba has not disappointed.

When looking towards the future with Laba the biggest reason for optimism outside of his play on the field is the fact that he seems to be settling in nicely since coming to Toronto. It is not an easy transition to make but Laba seems to have connected with a number of his teammates and has worked hard to pick up the language. With his english rapidly improving those connections should only be strengthened.

Hopefully in the long run Laba's 2013 season proves to just be the appetizer for what is to come in future seasons. His first year may have been cut short but his first 16 games were more than enough to leave most of us wanting more.

Duncan: 2 With all due respect to this year's number one, Steven Caldwell, Matias Laba was by far TFC's best player this season, he'd be my number 1 without a question if an injury hadn't kept him out for so long. Dave's given you all the statistical info already, but just by watching him you can see his reading of the game and his composure is a step ahead of the rest of the team, he's the best we've had in that respect since Torsten Frings. Where many players at TFC and in MLS look just a bit too slow, that's not a problem with Laba, he looks like he knows what he's going to do with the ball before he gets it, he doesn't have to focus on getting the ball, then figure out what he's going to do, he's got that figured out before it gets to him.

He knows what the opposition are going to do as well. Those interception numbers mentioned above aren't by accident, I remember watching his first game against Colorado and at one point he moved a few yards into space and a Rapids player passed it right to him, as if Laba knew what he was going to do before he did. TFC of course lost that game, but he impressed, also looking like he wasn't shy of a nasty tackle if and when it was needed.

The 5 booking stat looks bad, but is also a pretty telling one, he got 4 of them in his first 5 games. After he'd adapted to the league and to the ref's tendencies, that dramatically dropped, only 1 in his last 11 games (which was very weak). And they generally weren't dumb yellows either, this one against Philadelphia was a very good foul, stopping what might have been a dangerous break, well worth a booking.

He's never going to be a great goalscorer, but the highlight of his goal still contains two aspects of his play that will be seen again and again and make him such fun to watch. First the anticipation to make the initial interception, then as he's running towards goal, his head is swivelling, he's looking around and figuring out where everyone is and what he needs to do. Also, it shows in the main picture illustrating the article, he's crouched, low to the ground, like a cat, alert and ready to pounce, and in how when under pressure he can keep his calm and keep control of the ball until he gets an opening to pass. It's like the game is taking place at a much slower speed in his head than everyone else's.

His Dedo Gordo Fracturado tweet was a real downer, hopefully he can stay fit throughout next year. Presumably the team around him will be better and given his anticipation and passing ability, the thought of him linking up with some top quality DP type players is a bit mouth watering really. Kevin Payne's adventures in South America were probably what finished him off really, Urruti and Forlan will forever be just two more punchlines in TFC's long history as a comedy club, but Laba's the player that justified it all. I wouldn't put it past TFC to somehow mess this one up as well, but for now at least, the only way i can see him leaving is moving on to bigger things, probably sooner rather than later.

Armen: 6. My favourite new player of the season. Laba is a champ and a bulldog. El Recuperador, can't wait to see more.

James: 5. Would be 1st had he been here all season - or played all he was - perhaps the best foreign acquisition in the club's checkered history; will be a star

Kristin: 1. I'd like to say that I'm surprised I put Matias at No. 1 except that would be a lie. Even with only a partial season under his belt there is no denying that not only is he by far the most talented player on TFC but that in his short time on the pitch not only did he change the look of the midfield but he made those around him better. Suddenly Jeremy Hall didn't look so bad, Osorio was free to roam, the defense looked tighter. I cannot wait to see him for a full season. One of the most talented players to don TFC red - huge future for this kid. Note to TFC: do NOT ruin him! Let us have nice things, please?

a_miller16: Very effective player, TFC played much better with him in the lineup. Scored a pretty solo goal to open his MLS account. His ability to disrupt plays and win the ball back is an invaluable asset. Could even prove to be an improvement on Frings.

Angus Chung: Excellent young player on a justifiable salary, I cannot wait to see how TFC screws this up.

Bruce Harding. (3)Would be number 1 if it wasn't for the broken foot. Class signing, first name on the team sheet.

Elusivecart: Big difference maker, comes out of nowhere, calmly kills plays and relaunches the attack. He'll be a great midfield killer as he matures into the role even further. Mr. Poise.

Ignirtoq: #buenoPeroNoExcelente

Jon Spratt: Can't wait to see a full season out of him, looks like potentially the best defensive midfielder the team's ever had.

Mark_HSV: Only played half a season, but is clearly the most talented player on the team. Looking forward to him taking charge of the field next season and beyond.

Michaelvee: Laba earned his Young DP tag and it was readily apparent when he went out injured that we didn't have another midfielder who could both tackle and pass.

Mweezy: Awesome signing, has a great future. One of the only reasons TFC could control the ball in the middle this season.

Prizby: By far, the best player on the pitch for Toronto FC this year. Laba does a lot of little things that go unnoticed. If you spent 90 minutes watching him play, you'd still miss things. The way he positions himself when the opposition is attacking and how he see the field and weaves through 2 or 3 guys who swarm him when he is on ball is just brilliant. He was clearly missed in the last 2 months of the season and will be an important piece of the lineup going forward.

Robert Snider: # 2 only because he didn't play all year but when he was on he pitch things were different.

Schtevetown: I have a full on footballing crush on this guy. Really wish we sign more of his ilk from the footballing mothership that is South America. Pleasure to watch at my favourite position. He's playing at a higher level 2 seaons hence.

Spence Snell: He was probably the most impactful player on the field. If he played the whole season, no doubt he would be #1 in these rankings. Pretty much singlehandedly won the game in New England for us.

The Yorkies: Easily would have taken # 1 if not for injury. A different skill class from teammates.

Tim: Not even a contest! The man is the most talented player we have by a mile and impacts each game he plays in.

Tyler: Looking at the games with vs. without Laba say everything really. This guy is the key to the future of this team.

Yohan: One of those rare DMs in MLS who combines technical ability and positioning. Laba is not the typical MLS DMs that wins balls with physical strength, but Laba has his share of tenacity as well. He is so composed with the ball under pressure and rarely gives it away. It is unfortunate that he was injured just as he was starting to get in the groove and figuring out MLS. But I think he will be one of best DMs next season, if he stays healthy.

Number 1: Steven Caldwell

Number 3: Joe Bendik

Full Top 36 Countdown