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TFC Top 30 Countdown: #20 Kyle Bekker

The 2014 Countdown continues with Kyle Bekker in 20th place, one spot higher than he finished in last year's rankings - not the kind of progress many had hoped for, but signs of improvement.

Bekker closes down Federico Higuain in a winning effort in Columbus
Bekker closes down Federico Higuain in a winning effort in Columbus
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

There is perhaps no player more polarizing in the Toronto FC lineup than Kyle Bekker. He is a lightning rod for criticism.

Sure, the likes of Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley draw much more attention, garnering many of the headlines and high-intensity chatter, but when it comes to antagonism, no player raises the ire in the manner that Bekker does. Any praise of him leads, almost immediately, to criticism; some of which is justified and some absolutely not - it's really rather bizarre.

Much of that angst derives from his lofty draft position, having been selected third overall in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, as well as with him being a Canadian national.

Drafting is an inexact science, and while, in the short term, it is easy to look at players selected after him – Kekuta Manneh, Erik Hurtado, Deshorn Brown, and Dillon Powers, to name a few – and declare them better uses of the pick, time will tell whether his selection was as much of an error as it appears to be, to some at least, now. And few can argue that a more exacting eye is cast on the domestic talent in place at TFC; the criticism of Doneil Henry more than attests to that.

Ranked #21 in last season's countdown, Bekker looked more prepared for the rigours of MLS, displaying improved strength - a necessity in MLS midfields - at the start of the campaign, and was also more assertive, less likely to be talked off of a dead-ball, than he was in his rookie season. Occasionally even taking primacy over Bradley, Gilberto, or Dwayne De Rosario on free-kicks with the game on the line – whisking his last-second free-kick just over the bar against Montreal towards the end of the year.

Bekker more than quadrupled his starts – from three to thirteen – and doubled his appearances – from nine to twenty in the league, while trebling the number of minutes he saw on the pitch – from just 335 to 1117, but still, despite those incremental advances, he has yet to produce that which is expected of him, still without either a goal or an assist to his name in MLS.

Some are anxiously waiting with bated breath for the first time he steps up to a set-piece and smacks it into the back of the net – he came very close, twice striking the woodwork against Colorado early in the season (one, two); soon, soon.

He was something of a surprise starter at the beginning of 2014, appearing in nine of the first eleven matches. Always in the middle, paired with either Bradley or Jonathan Osorio, Bekker took up a defensive-minded position, sitting deep and using his ability to read the match to clog up the opponent's passing lanes to some effect.

A significant part of Bradley's emphatic effort in Columbus back in April, where TFC won 0-2 away to their Trillium Cup rivals, was a solid, if largely unheralded, defensive contribution from Bekker, who helped build the base upon which Bradley could run rampant.

But then, when the league returned from the World Cup break, he was unsurreptitiously banished from the first eleven, playing just a combined thirteen minutes in three appearances as a substitute through the next thirteen matches, as TFC's strong start began to crumble and Ryan Nelsen was shown the door – coincidence?


Bekker would make his return to the pitch with Greg Vanney's introduction, coming on as a second half substitute at home against Philadelphia, before making his first start in over three months in Chicago – a very much disjointed display that TFC nearly snatched at the death, were it not for a controversial refereeing decision.

The MLS sophomore would go on to feature in eight of the last nine matches of the season, often fielded in a much more advanced position - occasional nearly an attacking midfielder, though still the production failed to meet the desired standards.

It was one of those matches that highlighted how Bekker has become such a focal point of the fan's ire, blamed for two early LA Galaxy goals, both from Robbie Keane. The first goal was largely the result of Bradley being too aggressive and getting bypassed easily by Marcelo Sarvas and the second was due to both Nick Hagglund and Warren Creavalle collapsing on Gyasi Zardes to leave Keane alone high.

On the first, Bekker was containing Juninho, the opposing central midfielder, only for Sarvas and Baggio Husidic to double-team Bradley and carve open the side, while on the second he had his choice of closing down either Keane or Landon Donovan and chose neither.

That is not to say that he was entirely without fault, he definitely could have done better with his tracking and awareness on each goal, but to select him of all the players involved as the primary culprit was emblematic of the dissatisfaction and disappointment angled in his direction.

After all, he was playing as the more advanced of the central two that match and Toronto was woefully set-up to deal with the Galaxy threat, faring much better when they switched to a five-man midfield in the second half; no one player is every at fault for such goals, but Bekker would be blamed.

Any number of factors could be used to rationalize why the highly-touted midfielder, who turned heads at the combine, drawing praise as the most MLS-ready player available, has not yet succeeded in the league.

TFC has not been kind to players in need of progressing their development; the revolving managerial door and the constant stream of players in and out, has left an unsettled side, which is never a good environment to get one's feet under them, and Bekker in particular has never been given a true position or a consistent run of games, appearing in fits and starts, long runs mixed with lengthy spells out of the side.

It is no surprise that a club in the midst of a rebuild, struggled to field an organized midfield at the start of the season; it never really coalesced into a cohesive unit – the player movement, injuries, and international spells continued throughout. And tensions between Ryan Nelsen's vision and Bradley's assets, often left those in place unsure of exactly what their role would and should be; by the time Vanney took up the reins, it was a desperate scrap for survival, not the time to instill a long-term tactical plan.

But put plainly, it has simply not been good enough from Bekker.

It is in no way time to give up on the player, he has become a fixture in the Canadian National Team – double-edged praise no doubt, speaking to both his quality and the lack of options for Benito Floro. He has shown progression from season one to season two, but that said it is necessary that he continues to evolve into a starter, or at least a regular contributor, with season three – just one of the many storylines around the club heading into 2015.

Much like Ashtone Morgan, Bekker has found himself at times an in-betweener, not quite guaranteed a starter's spot, but too close and useful to the first team to be sent out on loan in order to get in those much needed reps – perhaps the advent of the TFC USL PRO side in 2015 will ensure that he gets the chance to play every week, with one or the other, if he is still not quite ready to become a full-time, first-choice starter.

There are more than a few question marks hanging over Toronto FC as they begin their preparations for next season – Can Greg Vanney succeed where so many others have failed? Will Defoe be back? What about Gilberto? Is nine a lucky number? - but whether Kyle Bekker can reach the lofty heights prescribed by his inflated draft position will be one of the more intriguing ones and one that matters to both club and country.

For now, 20th place in the Top 30 Countdown of TFC Players in 2014 will have to do.