The way the 2016 season started for Benoit Cheyrou made it easy to forget his quality. The veteran French midfielder appeared sparingly in the early part of the season. When he did, things didn't go well as he was sent off against the Colorado Rapids in just his second start of the season on March 20.
While serving his suspension he picked up an injury, subsequently missing the club's next nine matches. in that time he became a forgotten commodity, and a victim of recency bias as fans wondered aloud what he really brought to the table. This conversation only increased when the club's salary numbers were released, with Cheyrou making $259,333 in guaranteed compensation.
Since he has come back from injury, however, Benoit Cheyrou has been worth every penny, and probably more. The veteran midfielder has been the glue holding Toronto FC together through one of their best stretches of the season.
"I think [Cheyrou] has been fantastic, I mean the timing of getting him back couldn't have been better," said Vanney after Saturday's 1-0 victory over the LA Galaxy.
Cheyrou's transition into the lineup was almost seamless. With Captain Michael Bradley joining the United States for the Copa America Centenario, Cheyrou took over Bradley's position and the armband. After losing 3-0 to the New York Red Bulls with neither Bradley nor Cheyrou in the lineup, the club hasn't lost against since the Frenchman's return.
While Cheyrou has more than adequately filled Bradley's on-field in terms of his play, it is leadership that has been the most important role which he has filled. Cheyrou level-headedly commands Toronto FC throughout matches from his spot in the midfield, telling teammates what little adjustments they need to make. This has been especially important with so many inexperienced players currently in the Toronto lineup.
"I think a lot of [our recent success] is Benoit's support out on the field," said Vanney. "Not just what he does on the field in his space but also how he helps propel some of those other guys to have good performances for us."
Make no mistake, though, what Cheyrou has done in his position has been incredible. If he has been the leader of Toronto's recent success, he has also been the architect, setting up play all over the field in an incredible display of passing.
His ability to find attackers in good spots has led directly to two goals in the four matches since he has returned. His link up play between the backline and midfield has laid the roots for almost every attack which Toronto has had in that time. Not to mention all the times that he has tested the keeper with his incredibly accurate shot.
On top of this, Cheyrou's defensive coverage and positioning have been a big reason why Toronto FC has had three clean sheets in their last four matches. When defenders are too aggressive, Cheyrou is almost always there to slide into the opening in the Toronto backline.
With Michael Bradley's return to the Toronto FC lineup possible for next week against the Vancouver Whitecaps in the Canadian Championship, the question going forward becomes where Cheyrou fits. Early in the season, he struggled to get into the midfield over Will Johnson and Bradley.
If Cheyrou keeps this up, however, it will be impossible for Vanney to keep him out of the starting 11. A midfield with Johnson, Cheyrou and Bradley is a tantalising prospect, especially for a team which has never truly had a complete middle of the park.
Regardless of how the season goes for Cheyrou moving forward, he has led an inexperienced and hurting Toronto FC side through a difficult stretch in their 2016 season. For that alone he deserves recognition.