Presenting raw statistics without any kind of context is not good analysis. But I’m going to throw one list that is exactly that at you here anyway, because it kind of shocked me.
Below is a list of MLS midfielders and the number of chances they created - from open play, to get rid of prolific corner takers and the like - per 90 minutes of play last season from Opta.
Chances created (open play) per 90 mins
|Giovani dos Santos||1.38|
That’s Jay Chapman, just-turned-23-year-old Toronto FC depth player, right at the top.
I’ve cherry picked the players on that list, but on the basis that they’re all generally regarded as good rather than to crowbar some data into an argument. In fact, only one midfielder in the entire league created chances at a better rate than Chapman last season - Mauro Rosales, who only started four games and was a bit of a super sub for FC Dallas.
Which brings us on to context. Players who come off the bench more often than they start tend to have their goalscoring and chance-creation numbers inflated for a few reasons, which explains why Chapman was apparently more creative than the guy who had a 20-assist season (by MLS’ stats, if not others). For example, they come on against tired opponents and are able to play at a higher intensity themselves knowing they do not have to keep it up for 90 minutes. Attacking midfielders and forwards are usually introduced when their team needs a goal, meaning they are likely to be on the front foot and exerting pressure during their time on the pitch.
Tosaint Ricketts is another example of this - he had the second-best goals per 90 minutes rate in MLS, bettered only by another bench option in Adam Jahn of the Columbus Crew.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the picture is still fairly positive for Chapman. In the nine starts he made in MLS, he created 1.33 chances from open play per 90 minutes - second only to Jonathan Osorio (1.38) among Toronto FC midfielders. Looking at the league as a whole, that figure would put him among a bunch of solid, established MLSers - not a bad place to be for someone with more potential still to fulfill.
Beyond the stats, the way Chapman progresses is going to be a particularly interesting case study for how Toronto develop players and also how North American soccer as an environment treats his type. Chapman was outstanding in college and boasts technique and skill levels well above the average American or Canadian player but - to the detriment of both national teams - that does not always win out above speed and physicality in MLS.
That is not to say that athleticism is not an important part of Chapman’s development, and he took noticeable steps forward in that area in 2016 compared to his rookie year. He has clearly filled out his 6’ 0” frame and looked stronger in possession, even if he still does not relish contact and playing in particularly tight spaces.
What he can’t control, however, is the overriding style of play in the league. When midfielders are being bypassed in favour of direct play to muscular forwards and the ball is being fired back and forth up the pitch, Chapman is always going to struggle to make an impact. That’s not his fault - Andres Iniesta would, too - but it is a reality that could render him ineffective in certain games and subsequently affect his confidence.
The good news is that Toronto don’t tend to be one of those teams. They do not necessarily insist on having long periods of possession in every game and are sometimes happy to play on the break, but they were up the right end of the league table in terms of number of passes per game and passing accuracy.
The shift in their style at the end of the season towards a more high-tempo, aggressive style designed to win the ball high up the pitch should also work in Chapman’s favour.
“Once we got healthy and started to increase how we were playing… we recognized that a faster game pushed the margins in our favour,” Greg Vanney told the Sun this week. “We have good players who can play at a high tempo and can be effective when the game gets faster - and more so than our opposition.”
The transition to that style was also helped by the introduction of a 3-5-2 formation, which allowed the wing-backs to hug the touchline and make the pitch bigger. That, coupled with the withdrawal of a midfielder into defence, created less congestion in the centre of the pitch and gave Toronto’s ball players more space in which to operate.
Chapman didn’t see much playing time in the playoffs to benefit from that, but he will get his shot next season. It will be interesting to see how the potential signing of another playmaker affects his situation, because - like Jordan Hamilton - he's a player it would be a shame to take minutes away from. At the very least, we saw in 2016 just how effective he can be even if he is only afforded short bursts off the bench.