The player to inspire the greatest improvement in Toronto FC’s play in a particular position in 2016 was Drew Moor, but Steven Beitashour was not far behind.
The Reds’ problems at right-back in 2015 came to a head in their sole playoff game against the Montreal Impact, during which they were killed by Ignacio Piatti. Jackson, a utility man tasked that night with marking Montreal’s best player, was a tire fire of poor positioning and bad decisions and ahead of him on the wing, Robbie Findley offered no protection whatsoever.
Just being able to describe Beitashour as steady would have marked a drastic upgrade on TFC’s existing options - not including the injury-troubled Mark Bloom - when he signed from the Vancouver Whitecaps, and he has delivered that and a little more. At $244,000 in guaranteed compensation, the Iranian-American is more expensive than Toronto would like but it speaks to their progress over the past two years that perhaps the worst-value contract they currently have on their books belongs to a consistent starter.
Beitashour has his flaws. He is not as much of an attacking threat, either from an orthodox right-back position or at wing-back, as Justin Morrow. The left-back netted five goals, added four assists and created 31 chances in the regular season and playoffs, while Beitashour did not score, provided one assist and created 16 chances in total.
He also had one or two less convincing outings in a defensive sense, with the home-and-away defeat and draw near the end of the regular season a worrying preview of his ability to contain Piatti if the two clubs were to meet in the playoffs.
Many of the criticisms that can be weighed against him, however, are not as pertinent when put into context. On the attacking side, for example, it is beneficial to Toronto that he provides more of a cautious counterweight to Morrow’s aggressive, attacking style, ensuring the Reds are not caught on the break as brutally as they were by the Impact back in 2015.
When he was troubled at the back, it was often due to the lack of a midfield shield provided by the wingerless diamond formation. In the aforementioned Montreal games, for example, few defenders in MLS could have stopped Piatti due to the way he was able to drop 10 yards off Beitashour, get the ball under control in wide-open space on the flank and be running at speed by the time he met the right-back.
Once Toronto had switched to a 3-5-2, those occasional problems faded. I still maintain, often to much disagreement, that their issues in the Impact tie were entirely of their own making and had little to do with the system they were playing. Piatti, despite recording a goal and an assist over two legs, was far less of a threat than he normally is as a result of Beitashour’s ability to push higher up the pitch and reduce the time he had on the ball with the insurance policy of Eriq Zavaleta behind him.
Take a look at Piatti’s contributions on the scoresheet: the assist is the result of a woeful clearing header from Beitashour that created all kinds of trouble from what should have been a routine situation, and his goal was one of the most ridiculous Toronto conceded all season (and came from the centre of the pitch, not Beitashour’s wing). Four of the five goals Toronto conceded in that tie were attributable to individual errors.
Given Toronto’s goals for and against columns in the playoffs outside of the Montreal tie read 10-1, I’ve been surprised by how keen many seem to see Greg Vanney switch back to a four-man defence. We will undoubtedly see both systems throughout the course of the season, but I would be surprised if the 3-5-2 is not the one they start with.
That would be good news for Beitashour, who slotted in well. He created four chances in six playoff games - a notable increase on 12 in 29 in the regular season - but at the same time was almost always in position to create a back four, with Nick Hagglund sliding over to left-back, when Morrow roamed high up the pitch.
Oh, and that cross for Benoit Cheyrou was absolutely perfect.