Toronto FC’s current core is about as settled and secure as it ever has been, but that does not mean there is not a number of players on the roster facing make-or-break seasons in 2017.
That group includes, bizarrely, a man who holds the distinction of being the club’s all-time appearance record holder (in all competitions) at the age of 25. Ashtone Morgan looked set to become the Reds’ first homegrown icon for a long period of time, but has found himself sidelined to varying degrees over the past three seasons due to a combination of injury and circumstance.
Morgan played seven games as a substitute in MLS in 2016, making his only two starts in the Canadian Championship against the Montreal Impact. His main problem, aside from the persistent injuries, is the emergence of Justin Morrow at left-back as one of the best players in MLS in that role. Morrow’s games played totals in the regular season across three years in Toronto read 31, 32, 31, leaving Morgan with little chance to stake a claim when he is fit.
The Canadian will be back with TFC in 2017 as Morrow’s backup and his challenge will be to carve out enough playing opportunities to progress individually and convince the club of his role and value going forward. Another season like the one just gone - or 2014, in which he played just three MLS games - and it is hard to see his long period of service with his hometown club lasting much longer.
There are a couple of possible routes back into the first-team picture for Morgan. The switch to a 3-5-2 formation, firstly, is good news for him in that it should play to his strengths as one of the fastest, most energetic players in the squad. If Greg Vanney sticks with that setup for much of the year rather than returning to a back four, Morrow is also likely to need more regular rest as a result of the demands of covering an entire flank as a wing-back.
Morrow is athletic and durable enough to take the bulk of the league workload, however, and with speculation suggesting Toronto could be waiting until 2018 to return to the CONCACAF Champions League due to a restructuring of that competition, the fixture list may not be as busy as anticipated. The Canadian Championship is something, but provides only a handful of games.
The second possibility is more speculative. In 2015, after barely featuring the previous year, Morgan got his chance early on in the campaign due to an injury to Morrow and grabbed it with both hands, persuading Vanney to find a way to award him more regular minutes. The coach did so by switching Morrow, who is comfortable with both feet, to right-back and starting both players.
In a season in which Toronto struggled badly at the back, recording the joint-worst defensive record in MLS, it worked. Morrow and Morgan took up the full-back positions in nine of a stretch of 10 league games from April to June (Morgan missed one match due to illness) and Toronto went 5-2-2 in those fixtures, conceding seven goals - almost a goal-per-game fewer than their average for the season as a whole.
It’s an intriguing possibility, especially after the departure of Mark Bloom as Steven Beitashour’s backup at right-back, but you would think that Morgan is going to have to play very well whenever he is given the opportunity for Vanney to consider it. This is not a team that will have a great deal of time or patience when it comes to tactical experiments next season and it would be a surprise if a direct replacement for Bloom is not brought in.
Beyond his own efforts, Morgan will need a few chips to fall in his favour if he is to lengthen his Toronto FC career. With all that has gone against him over the past few years, it’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve a break or two.