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WTR Top 20, No. 10: Super-sub Tosaint Ricketts has come a long way

With his role now clearly defined, Toronto FC’s 12th man could have a stellar 2017.

MLS: Conference Semifinals-New York City at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Though he was born in Edmonton, Tosaint Ricketts’ journey to Toronto FC saw him travel approximately 29,500 kilometres over seven years. From the University of Wisconsin to stops all across Europe (through Finland, Romania, Norway, Turkey, Israel and Turkey again), Ricketts had one heck of an excellent adventure.

Including the playoffs, Ricketts made 17 appearances for TFC in 2016. Signed only in late July, he played 433 minutes and scored five goals. Those with quick fingers, and a calculator, will equate that to an average of one goal every 87 minutes - better than a goal per game. But Ricketts can’t play a full 90 minutes, let alone score at that pace as a starter. He is a sprinter (quite literally), not a marathon runner. That’s not a slight against him; rather, it’s what made him so valuable to the team during its epic run to the MLS Cup final.

He was the sub of choice, showing a nose for goal within the tight confines of the six-yard box. His lanky, explosive physicality kept opposing defenders and goalkeepers off balance, taking advantage of their tired legs and minds. He scored three clutch goals late in the year: the 86th minute equalizer against Montreal during the regular season, the goal to put Toronto 2-0 up in the first leg against New York City and the goal in the 100th minute of the conference final that allowed us to finally exhale.

No. 87 became our super-sub; not quite of the prowess of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Nwankwo Kanu, but a super-sub nevertheless.

MLS: MLS Cup Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

While Sebastian Giovinco was out, Ricketts was given the opportunity to start alongside Jozy Altidore. He had scored an important goal against Orlando City with Giovinco but was not nearly as effective without him, finding himself bogged down in the centre of the pitch as defenders with fresh legs kept him under wraps. It was clear that the starting XI was not the right place for him.

Greg Vanney’s words proved prophetic. On the day of Ricketts’ signing, he said: “I don’t know if you can have too many forwards. You never know exactly which are [in form]. You want to keep them in rotation.” So the rotation continued; Altidore and Ricketts, Altidore and Hamilton, Altidore and Ricketts and Babouli. None really worked, and not everyone was convinced Ricketts would not be just another failed Canadian experiment.

Not so. With hindsight, we now know that it wasn’t the player who was at fault but that he was not being used correctly. What an awesome surprise, and a great confidence boost, when his ideal role was finally discovered.

During the last few games of the regular season, and all through the playoffs, when Ricketts took the field with 20 minutes or so left in a game we all expected him to make a difference. Anything less than a goal, or at the very least an assist, became unusual. These are the expectations that his late-season success created, and that’s a really good thing.

MLS: Eastern Conference Championship-Montreal Impact at Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

You could see his confidence build as the season progressed not only with TFC, but also with Canada. With 15 international goals, Ricketts is now the fifth-highest scorer in the history of the men’s national team, only seven goals behind first place (currently held by Dwayne De Rosario). At age 29, assuming that he remains healthy, he has every chance of climbing to the top of that list.

However, to truly live up to these expectations, and to reach his full potential as a forward, Ricketts needs to work on two key areas. The first aspect of his game that needs improvement is his aerial play. Before he came to TFC, Tosaint was lauded for his ability to head the ball with power and accuracy, but that skill seemed to elude him during his 2016 stint with Toronto. Rediscovering this in 2017 would go a long way to upholding his super-sub status - especially if the Reds make more use of the flanks than they did last year.

The second skill that he needs to develop is his first-time shot from further than six yards out. It was not an accident, nor was it an error in judgement, that Ricketts was kept out of the MLS Cup final shootout. Vanney chose the likes of Benoit Cheyrou, Drew Moor, Will Johnson and Justin Morrow ahead of his third-best forward for a reason.

MLS: Conference Semifinals-New York City at Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Despite his excellent scoring rate, Ricketts failed to hit the net when presented with a clear scoring chance on a few occasions. In total, he took 31 shots on goal, with 15 of those finding the target for a shooting accuracy of 48%, which isn’t bad at all - as a contrast, Giovinco was at 33% and Altidore 54%. But it is not so great when you consider that almost all of Ricketts’ shots came within 15 yards of the net, sometimes with no defenders between him and the goalkeeper. Quite simply, he must strike the ball with more venom, confidence and accuracy in 2017.

Ricketts’ highest single-season goal total is 10. This banner year came in 2010, while he was playing in Finland. With his TFC role clearly defined, and with his confidence growing, I predict that Ricketts will surpass that tally in 2017. This is the season that his playing statistics finally catch up with his passport and prove that he has, indeed, come a very long way.