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WTR Top 20, No. 19: Tactical flexibility the key for Tsubasa Endoh

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The first-round pick needs to carve out a role for himself in the team after dropping out of the starting lineup.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Sasho Cirovski has coached the Maryland Terrapins’ men’s soccer team since 1993, winning two national championships and several conference tournaments in that time and sending a number of players to the professional game. The jewel of the program is Taylor Twellman, but the likes of Omar Gonzalez, Maurice Edu and Graham Zusi also played in College Park. You can draw up a decent XI of Maryland grads playing in MLS today.

The first pick in the annual MLS SuperDraft has thrown up a player with the potential to be a franchise cornerstone for three years running (Andre Blake, Cyle Larin and Jack Harrison), but beyond that it remains something of a crapshoot. There are worse strategies than to look to schools with a successful track record of producing professional players, and Toronto FC did just that by drafting Tsubasa Endoh from Maryland last January with the ninth overall selection.

Toronto went a little off the board for Endoh, who admitted himself that he wasn’t expecting to be taken until the second or third round and was even worried he may not be selected at all. It turned out the Reds loved him, with Greg Vanney labelling him the “best all-around soccer player in the draft” above the likes of Harrison and Keegan Rosenberry. He did not do anything to change Vanney’s mind during preseason and a professional contract was signed by the end of February.

MLS: SuperDraft Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Eight days later, Endoh was starting an MLS game against the New York Red Bulls.

Toronto were a very different team for that opening stretch of road games, and with Jozy Altidore injured and Tosaint Ricketts not arriving until later in the season they quite often simply left Sebastian Giovinco up front, got everyone else behind the ball and hoped their star man could conjure up some magic. He often delivered.

While Giovinco would score the winning goal in that Red Bulls game, however, Endoh played just as much of a part in its creation. The most impressive part of his start to life in MLS - and a real asset for Toronto in matches that often involved them resisting periods of pressure and outlasting opponents - was the fearlessness and energy that was just as visible in the last minute of a game as in the first. He consistently attempted to put himself and the ball in dangerous positions, even when there was a lack of nearby support or little chance of an end result.

In the 81st minute against the Red Bulls, it finally paid off. When Giovinco battled down the left, almost completely alone, and threw an impossibly good cross into the penalty area, you could picture the gestures of frustration coming when he realised no one had got up the field fast enough to join him. But there was Endoh, streaking across the penalty spot and failing to score only because Kemar Lawrence had pulled him back, earning Giovinco the chance to win the game from 12 yards.

(The video works despite the weird thumbnail. Just click it.)

For a long while, it looked as if Toronto had pulled off a draft-day steal - but Endoh was one of the biggest victims of the way the team evolved over the course of the season.

At first, when Toronto switched to a 4-4-2 diamond, Endoh slotted into the No.10 role at the tip of the midfield and did reasonably well, scoring the winning goal in the first game back at BMO Field against FC Dallas. His quick passing and late runs into the box continued to be effective.

Gradually, however, Vanney turned to the 3-5-2 formation Toronto would go into the playoffs with and when he returned to the diamond, Jonathan Osorio tended to occupy the position at the tip of the midfield. Endoh’s performances faded, as might be expected of a rookie, due to the lack of a consistent position, role and run 0f games, and he played just 75 minutes of football after the August 4 win over Real Salt Lake. He might even have been exposed in the end-of-season expansion draft if not for a rule that forced Toronto to protect three international players.

It leaves the Japanese 23-year-old in an interesting spot ahead of the 2017 season. In the 3-5-2, unless he is somehow remodelled as wing-back, he will start some way down the depth chart; in the positions he could play, namely central midfield or up front, the Reds are stacked with options without even having made an offseason acquisition yet.

Endoh’s poorest performances, though, came when Vanney tweaked that shape to introduce him as a winger when Toronto needed a goal. His service from the wide areas ranged from inconsistent to flat-out bad, and the experiment did not last long. It is not that Endoh cannot play on the flank, but he needs space to run into and attack. In those situations, he was often receiving the ball high up the field into his feet and crossing from a standing start.

Some adaptation is going to be needed. Endoh is not going to start many games next season, so his task will really be about carving out a niche that gives Toronto a different tactical option in certain situations or a weapon from the bench. It could be as a shuttling midfielder in front of Steven Beitashour, who tends to be less of an attacking threat than Justin Morrow. If he can prove himself as defensively attentive and responsible in possession - his passing accuracy, encouragingly, was bettered only by Osorio and Drew Moor - it could be as a more orthodox central midfielder who has the energy and speed to offer a forward passing option through the middle of the pitch and lead transitions.

The talent that the club saw in Endoh hasn’t gone away, and having seen him in action first hand for a year they will surely now have a better idea of what they want him to be. There is plenty to work with; the challenge is shaping a finished piece that fits into the rest of the puzzle.