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WTR Top 20, No. 20: Jordan Hamilton is one to watch in 2017

The young striker has shown glimpses of potential and has time on his side.

Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

It’s always challenging to predict the future of young players with the kind of evidence we have readily available in North American soccer. In Canada, especially, there is often little in the way of solid data to go on thanks to what tend to be non-traditional development paths.

So it’s hard to guess, from the outside, exactly what Jordan Hamilton is going to be. What we can say, however, is that he seems to have separated himself from the many others coming through the Toronto FC system as one of the club’s most promising prospects.

Born in Scarborough, Hamilton played 14 times in MLS last season plus another four in the Canadian Championship, in which he played his best game - a two-goal showing against the Montreal Impact. Hamilton had three goals in the league. They’re reasonable basic numbers for a 20-year-old player who was mostly appearing from the bench and had a lot of competition up front in Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and, later, Tosaint Ricketts.

Jordan Hamilton Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Hamilton’s age is important, because ‘young’ isn’t always as young as you might think in MLS. Unlike in Europe, where the vast majority of players are signed to an academy by their teenage years and start peaking in their early 20s, players in North America can go to college or, as is the case with a team like Toronto still working on their academy footprint, just be spotted late. We think of Mo Babouli as a young, developing player, but he turns 24 in January. Tsubasa Endoh is just coming off his rookie year but is also 23 and even Jonathan Osorio, who is much further along the line than those two, is still making fundamental improvements to his game six months off his 25th birthday.

Babouli and especially Endoh still have a chance to be good Toronto FC players, but it’s hard to predict just how much more upside they have because of their age. With Hamilton, that is much less of a concern because he is playing top-level, senior football a good three or four years before we might expect to see something close to the finished product.

Although it’s still a very small sample size, his MLS games also give us some more in-depth data to look at, and it’s encouraging.

Player Games Played Goals Shots on target Chances created Chances created (open play)
S. Giovinco 34 0.64 2.15 1.91 1.24
J. Altidore 29 0.65 1.39 1.39 1.39
T. Ricketts 17 0.84 2.53 1.18 1.18
M. Babouli 16 0.00 0.14 1.53 1.11
J. Hamilton 14 0.30 1.19 1.58 1.48

These stats, per Opta, are pro-rated per 90 minutes of play. Hamilton may seem to be lagging behind the others in the goalscoring and shooting departments, but some context is required. Giovinco, obviously, is the best player in MLS and a shooting machine, with only David Villa matching him (or even coming particularly close) when it came to shots on target last season. Ricketts, meanwhile, was stupidly effective in short bursts of play off the bench, by the end of the season changing nearly every game he came on in.

Hamilton is not miles off the very, very good Jozy Altidore in shots-on-target rate, even if Altidore is making more of his chances at the minute. The biggest takeaway is that it is not unreasonable to hope that Hamilton might creep up to somewhere in the range of his teammates’ numbers as he grows older and improves and, to repeat, these are not just average players.

The chance creation stats are even more interesting. Giovinco looks dominant here initially, but when you filter for chances created in open play only and lose his free-kicks and corners, Hamilton comes out on top. Again, it’s a small sample size but it’s encouraging that Hamilton has been able to exert his own influence on games and create opportunities for his teammates rather than just waiting for the play to come to him.

As always, I make this comparison in stylistic terms only, but Hamilton’s strengths and weaknesses at a young age remind me a little of Romelu Lukaku. In his early days in the Premier League, Lukaku was very effective when his team could play on the counter attack and he had space to move into with the ball, and Hamilton is at his most dangerous in those situations too. In the 3-3 draw with the New York Red Bulls, who are a very aggressive pressing team, he made a couple of good runs into the channels to help Toronto bypass the midfield pressure and just couldn’t quite find a killer ball in the final third.

He is also tall, fast and strong and deadly with his left foot, and an impressive feature of the goals he has scored as been his patience in the penalty area; he is capable of taking a well-timed touch or two to open up more space rather than just firing from the hip.

Jordan Hamilton Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

His next step is a common one for young strikers; Hamilton simply must start making more of the dangerous positions and situations he has shown he is capable of getting into. It will also be a challenge for him to make an impact in games, unlike that Red Bulls match, where Toronto are dominant in possession and having to work hard to carve out space in the opposition half against a deep defence.

I’d be disappointed if Toronto go out and sign another striker this offseason, because I think Hamilton has something to give. Giovinco and Altidore will always start when fit and Ricketts has been a home run of a signing, giving them the best option off the bench in MLS. Hamilton, to me, is exactly what you look for as a fourth-choice option; a young, developing player who does not necessarily need to be playing every week to be kept happy but is certainly capable of making his mark when given the chance.