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WTR Top 20, joint No. 12: Nick Hagglund & Eriq Zavaleta are impossible to separate

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Both players played a huge - and surprising - part in Toronto FC’s playoff success in 2016.

MLS: Eastern Conference Championship-Montreal Impact at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

I couldn’t separate Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta, so here we are.

If I had to stick my neck out I might say that Zavaleta, as the more positional, composed defender, may have the better chance in the long term of filling the significant void that will eventually be left by Drew Moor.

But it was only really in the final month of the 2016 season - in the playoffs, in fact - that he really started to look settled. During the disappointing run prior to that, Zavaleta was shaky at best and before the change to a three-man defence many wondered why Greg Vanney was persisting with him over Hagglund.

Hagglund had been a little steadier overall, if prone to the odd lapse in concentration himself, and has a greater capacity to rectify his mistakes thanks to his superior athletic tools. His proactivity and willingness to take the ball is admirable.

“He’s not afraid to try and make a play,” Vanney said of Hagglund. “Sometimes that goes great, sometimes it doesn’t. He’s not afraid. That’s what you love about him.”

MLS: Eastern Conference Championship-Montreal Impact at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Neither player, though, had convinced over a significant period of time as Moor’s partner; Zavaleta because of that nervousness and Hagglund because his instincts and mobility were inhibited by a role that demands positioning and economy of movement. The back three was the perfect solution: Zavaleta had the extra security of Moor sweeping up behind him and Hagglund could step out of defence and play, as he did to great effect in a superb performance against New York City at BMO Field.

Vanney and Tim Bezbatchenko now find themselves with a situation at the back - much like in midfield - that challenges them to balance giving young players a chance with the need to push the team to the next level in search of an MLS Cup. Hagglund and Zavaleta did everything that could realistically be asked of them in the postseason, but with Josh Williams following Damian Perquis out of the door it is an obvious spot for an impact signing.

That could sideline one or even both of them if TFC return to a back four, but doing nothing and leaving Brandon Aubrey as the first replacement for the current trio would be seriously risky.

MLS: MLS Cup John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Such is the reality for a team primed to contend; it’s easier to develop players, in many ways, when expectations are low for a year or two. Both Zavaleta and Hagglund are 24, with the latter just six weeks younger, and have the potential to be quality MLS starters by the time they hit their prime - but they need games and experience now.

On a more optimistic note, TFC will at least now they have quality depth available if the probable new addition does not perform as hoped. There was not much really wrong with Perquis besides his salary, but the progress of Zavaleta and Hagglund convinced the front office that the Reds could survive without him.

Both players deserve more credit than they have received, too, for their performances in the playoffs. The crazy tie against Montreal - and most of the problems there were a result of breakdowns in front of the defence - tends to obscure the fact that in the other four postseason games, Toronto conceded just one goal, and none from open play. David Villa barely had a sniff across 180 minutes and Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris could not muster a shot on target for Seattle.

For now, it is hard to grade one above the other. Their success in 2017, however, may depend on whether or not one of them can pull away.