There was a surprise in the starting eleven on Saturday against New England.
Michael Bradley appeared in his first match for Toronto FC since May 21, a span of ten league matches, encompassing both his absence for the Copa America Centenario and the knee injury suffered in the Third-Placed mach of that competition.
There was very little foreshadowing in the build-up that implied he would be put right back into the lineup.
Consider alternatively how Jozy Altidore has been worked slowly into the side, still yet to make a start, appearing in four consecutive matches as a substitute.
Now, of course, there are differences between the two.
Altidore's injury was one that was very prone to re-aggrevation; hamstrings have been a long-standing problem for the forward, whereas Bradley's sprain was more of a one-off, rather than a recurring issue. Once Bradley was ready to go, there was little fear the injury was part of a pattern. For Altidore, on the other hand, that fear will linger.
Then too there was the effect of position.
With Sebastian Giovinco on fire, Jordan Hamilton proving his mettle, and Mo Babouli coming along, as well as the club signing speedster Tosaint Ricketts in recent weeks, there was less need to force Altidore back into the side.
Bradley, on the other hand, came into a midfield that despite excelling in the absences of himself, Will Johnson, and Benoit Cheyrou, was at risk of a dip, playing a third match in six days.
And for his part, Bradley barely skipped a beat, looking his usual eminent self, confident on the ball, shifting his way out of trouble and generally bossing his space on the pitch. Some of his longer passes did lack his usual accuracy, rust that will be shed in time, but all said, captaining his side to an impressive 4-1 victory, it was a fine return.
He may even have been beaming post match; it is very difficult to read his ever-balanced demeanour.
The question going forward, given the two differing case studies, is how Greg Vanney will choose his side when the others – Clint Irwin, Johnson, Cheyrou, and Daniel Lovitz – are back; which model will be followed.
While fans and pundits alike will fret over the 'problem' of selection headaches, a manager will relish the situation.
No longer will necessity be the determining factor, instead Vanney can look to form and function in choosing his eleven.
One must wait and see, but there are some hints in the upcoming schedule.
TFC plays their next three matches on the road. Having climbed to the upper reaches of the Eastern Conference, it will be important to maintain a semblance of that effort, winning when possible, drawing when not.
Added to that, it will be necessary to not overburden the returning players. Regardless of injury type, there is always a risk of regressing, or for some other compensatory problem to occur. While also allowing them to build match fitness. There exists a vast gap between ready to resume training and ready to contribute for ninety minutes.
The end of August, encompassing two-thirds of the road trip and a home match again Montreal, will see the side play three matches in a week. The same happens come the end of September with a run of three-straight at home. And in between there is a crucial set of World Cup Qualifiers that will likely see good portions of the squad – both Canadian and American – join up with their respective national teams.
If there is one lesson to be taken from the returns of Altidore and Bradley, it is that Vanney will make his decision, at least in part, on need. There was no reason to rush Altidore back; Bradley may prove the exception.
As such, expect to see the returning players worked back into the side gently. It would make sense to see Johnson and Cheyrou brought on towards the end of matches, garnering twenty, thirty minutes at a time to work their way back, especially if the side is protecting a lead, where their quality on the ball is advantageous. The same goes for Lovitz, though perhaps, as a more attacking player, he will see time either in search of a goal, or to stretch out a pushing opponent – much as Ashtone Morgan made his return on the weekend.
The youngsters – Jay Chapman, Marky Delgado, Tsubasa Endoh, et al. – have done exceptionally well and they will continue to be a force as the side pushes forward, but as Vanney was at pains to emphasize: nobody earns a starting spot forever, competition for places is the goal of a squad game.
Toronto has lofty ambitions. Along with collecting points over the next three months, one of the goals will be to get every piece of the side revving in unison. Injuries will come, of that there is no doubt, the key now will be to have the replacements ready to step in without the whole missing a beat.
There is, however, one situation that stands alone: the goalkeeper, as always a man apart from the rest of the side.
Despite that singular gaffe in San Jose and a handful of nervous moments, Alex Bono has done better than any would have predicted. He has proved a viable starter in this league.
In light of that, just how Irwin returns is difficult to predict. Look for Vanney to balance the need to get Irwin matches with the reality that Bono has done nothing to lose his spot. Those three-match weeks are the best bet. And Bono will know that should he lose the spot through no fault of his own, it is not a slight.
After all, there can be only one.
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