After two seasons in the playoffs, it’s easy to take the depth Toronto FC now have in their squad for granted. When you map it out player-by-player and compare to the darker days in the team’s history, it really is quite something.
There is no deeper position on the roster than central midfield. Just three years ago, the Reds were coming off a season in which Jonathan Osorio, at age 21, had played the most games among their midfielders. Then there was Reggie Lambe, now in League Two in England with Carlisle United, the since unofficially retired Bobby Convey and the officially retired Darel Russell.
Last season, Osorio - three years older and significantly improved - could be ranked anywhere from second to fifth in the midfield group. Michael Bradley is the USA captain and arguably the best holding midfielder in MLS. Will Johnson - still in his prime at age 29 - would make his 200th MLS appearance. Armando Cooper, another full international, arrived midseason and was good enough to take Johnson’s spot. Benoit Cheyrou’s experience at the highest level of the European game was invaluable, while Jay Chapman will be a Canada regular for many years.
Then there is Marky Delgado. Having seemingly cemented his place in the starting XI last season, the 21-year-old now finds himself on the outside looking in as a result of Cooper’s arrival and the expected signing of a new attacking midfielder. Delgado is a very solid young MLS player and the fact that he could find himself as a low as seventh on the central-midfield depth chart is, again, evidence of the kind of strength in the middle of the park that this team has not had anything close to in the past.
It is, of course, great news for TFC’s chances of returning to the MLS playoffs as a force, but it is also an inescapable truth of being a contender that young players can be pushed aside by the ‘win now’ mentality. Toronto might love to give Delgado and Chapman increased roles next season and the task of solving their lack of midfield creativity, and there is evidence to suggest they could do a decent job of it. But if the club has the cap space to added a proven, impact player instead, they simply cannot turn that opportunity down - you never know how long your ‘contending’ window is going to last.
Much like Chapman, Tsubasa Endoh, Jordan Hamilton and many of the other young players on the roster who are not going to find themselves in the starting XI on day one, then, Delgado needs to carve himself out a niche.
His best shot at this, in my view, is putting a focus on the defensive side of his game and attempting to fill the boots of Johnson, who is unlikely to be directly replaced in the transfer market. As I noted at the end of the year, Delgado showed a similar aptitude in terms of winning possession as Johnson last season and has the energy and work ethic to be a useful option, whether from the start of games or later on in them, when TFC require more off-the-ball bite than on-the-ball invention.
Those situations should certainly exist for a team that will hope to be defending a few leads over the course of 2017.