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Theoretically Speaking: Can Toronto FC field two separate MLS-quality XIs?

Hypothetically, at least...

MLS: MLS CUP-Seattle Sounders vs Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

To say that Toronto FC have a deep roster would be an understatement.

TFC have the resources to spend as much as any team in MLS and thus far they have done so effectively. The results are evident, as witnessed by last year’s treble performance. Although the squad remains deep, Greg Vanney has yet to significantly rotate the starting XI during MLS and CONCACAF Champions League play in 2018.

Eventually, fatigue will set in and Vanney will be forced to introduce different players into the lineup. To what extent could Vanney rotate the lineup, though, before it lacks the quality to compete in MLS? Looking at the 25 players on TFC’s roster, it seems as though they have the ability to field two unique (and competitive) XIs.

For the purpose of the exercise it is important to note that no player can appear in both XIs. Additionally, starting spots are exclusive to those on the senior roster, meaning that TFC II and TFC III players as well as players elsewhere in the academy are not eligible. Because of the make-up of the roster, the formation used will be the 4-4-2 diamond that TFC are familiar with. This is primarily the result of having only four natural centre-backs on the roster.

There are two approaches that can be taken when selecting the optimum lineups. The first approach involves maximizing one lineup, while using the remaining players to fill out the second. The second approach involves balancing both XIs as much as possible by combining regular starters with bench players.

The All-Out Approach

Not much needs to be said about the difference in quality between these two line-ups.

Although there will surely be debate about individual spots, the first lineup as a whole is superior. Jonathan Osorio gets the nod over Marky Delgado because of his excellent form to start the season and Ager Aketxe draws in on the back of his technical abilities. Van der Wiel has been shaky to start the season but beats out Auro for the right-back position based on the assumption that he will play to his full potential as he gets his feet wet.

The second lineup however is significantly more suspect. The back line and goalkeeper are easily MLS-quality with Ashtone Morgan being the biggest question mark in the left-back position. Had Raheem Edwards not been lost in the expansion draft, he would easily slot into Morgan’s position.

MLS: Toronto FC at Montreal Impact Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The midfield is where the problems start to show for this XI. While highly touted, Liam Fraser has yet to be given the chance to prove himself and remains a questionable option until he can prove otherwise. Having the ability to anchor the midfield while also being able to move the ball up-field is no easy task and having to place this responsibility on the shoulders of a 20-year-old seems like a lot to ask.

Both Delgado and Nicolas Hasler are solid options that can contribute on either end of the pitch but would have to be consistently dominant to make this midfield serviceable. While Jay Chapman has shown positive flashes, he is 24 years old and has yet to integrate himself as consistent starter. At no fault of his own, he simply doesn’t have the offensive instinct and creative ability of Vazquez and Aketxe.

Up front, Tosaint Ricketts and Jordan Hamilton lead the line. While both players have displayed an ability to put the ball in the back of the net, they have typically done so with the help of Sebastian Giovinco or Jozy Altidore. Neither of them has the innate ability to create chances with the ball at their feet and not having a proven playmaker behind them makes their job all the more difficult.

While the first lineup boasts more talent than any other in MLS, the second would be hard-pressed to share the same success. While they would likely be able to keep the ball out of their own net, bagging goals would be a difficult task for this side. Although maybe not MLS-quality, this side would be a viable option for the early stages of the Canadian Championship. This approach fails to provide two serviceable teams for MLS competition and would not be ideal.

The Balanced Approach

These line-ups were built with the idea of balancing talent while also ensuring that both teams were competent at either end of the pitch. While the first line-up provides more in the way of complete players, the second offers slightly more experience.

Goalkeeper is a position of strength for TFC. In a somewhat of a surprise, Clint Irwin remains a Red after the off-season and slides easily into one of the sides. Both Alex Bono and Irwin have backstopped the team during deep playoff runs and there’s no reason to believe that either wouldn’t be able to do it again. Although Bono is the current starter, Irwin isn’t far behind and is surely ready to step in when called upon.

Both back lines are solid, anchored by Drew Moor/Chris Mavinga and Nick Hagglund/Eriq Zavaleta respectively. It was a difficult decision keeping these pairs consistent in both approaches, however the quality they bring to the table as tandems is undeniable and therefore they remain together. Justin Morrow provides some veteran leadership to a relatively young back line in the first squad.

Both Morrow and Auro have the ability to get up the pitch and create chances but can drop back to defend very effectively. In the second squad, Morgan (arguably the weakest defender) is paired with van der Wiel, who we assume will perform better than he has thus far and will maintain the quality that he displayed in Europe. Overall, there are no glaring weaknesses that would suggest that either back line is not MLS quality.

MLS: Toronto FC at Montreal Impact Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Moving into the midfield is where things start to get interesting. The easiest decision here is to split up Victor Vazquez and Aketxe as both would sit at the top of the diamond and provide service to the strikers. These two are arguably the most suited players in the squad to play this role. In squad one, Fraser sits at the bottom supported by Delgado and Hasler.

Due to Fraser’s inexperience, Delgado and Hasler would be tasked with sitting slightly lower than normal. However, due to the presence of Vazquez up top, service to the strikers wouldn’t be a huge issue. The second lineup has Michael Bradley in his natural position with Osorio and Chapman slightly ahead of him. Neither Osorio or Chapman offer significant value at the defensive end of the pitch, however due to Bradley’s tendency to sit deep, they could move about the pitch freely looking to exploit pockets of space and move the ball forward.

The biggest question regarding the striker position would be whether Jordan Hamilton or Ben Spencer gets the nod up top. Splitting up Seba and Jozy seems criminal, however it’s required to maintain balance between the two teams. Giovinco is partnered by Hamilton while Altidore is joined by Ricketts. In the limited amount of times we have seen these partnerships, they have tended to work quite well. A lack of goalscoring wouldn’t be a concern as both pairings would surely receive quality service from Aketxe and Vazquez respectively, and the inclusion of Seba or Jozy alone ensures an MLS-worthy attack.

It is worth noting that three players on the current roster were not included in either lineup: Ayo Akinola, Ben Spencer and Caleb Patterson-Sewell. Additionally, TFC still have five roster spots left and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them add to the squad as they identify weaknesses further into the season.

After examining the ways in which TFC could build two separate starting XIs, it is clear that balancing the two would be the best option if this exercise was to be put into practice. Admittedly there are holes in either lineup, however the quality around them is more than enough to make up for it. Both teams have strong back lines, balanced midfields and lethal attacks. I wouldn’t hesitate to deem both XIs MLS quality and have the confidence that they could both compete with the top teams in the league.