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Experience making a big difference for Toronto FC in 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs

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DeLeon and Ciman have helped the club survive difficult injuries.

MLS: MLS Cup Conference Finals-Toronto FC at Atlanta United FC
Atlanta United defender Leandro Gonzalez (5) gets in the face of Toronto FC defender Laurent Ciman (26) in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
(Davis/USA TODAY Sports)

TORONTO, Ont.—Throughout the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, Toronto FC’s composure has been key to their success. In some incredibly tough situations — notably on a baseball field in New York and away to Atlanta after falling behind early — the team has looked largely unflappable. But why?

Captain Michael Bradley has been quick to credit this to the fact that Toronto FC has more experience than anyone in the league in big games. Evidently, he is correct; the club has a proven track record of winning crucial matches, getting to two MLS Cup finals (a third on Sunday) and a Concacaf Champions League final.

MLS veterans Nick DeLeon, Laurent Ciman and to a lesser extent Patrick Mullins have put in critical performances to get the Reds to their third final in four years.

DeLeon has been one of the most consistent performers for Toronto all season, but during this postseason he has elevated his game to the next level. Coming off the bench he has provided the team with a crucial splash of class and composure — most famously when he scored the winner, his second of the playoffs, against Atlanta after replacing a seemingly overwhelmed Tsubasa Endoh.

Toronto FC v Atlanta United - Eastern Conference Finals Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

After a mostly difficult season, Laurent Ciman has rounded back into form at a critical time. Starting in place of the injured Omar Gonzalez, Ciman hasn’t always put in the most calming performance at the back during these playoffs. It has, however, highlighted his strengths which include getting the Reds out of trouble (5 clearances per game) and accurate distribution from the back (58 per cent passing on long balls; for comparison, Bradley is 43 per cent during the playoffs).

Meanwhile, Gonzalez, who has been injured for the playoffs, was critical in getting Toronto to the position they are in now, while Mullins has also proven an effective option off the bench late in games.

All this has shown, perhaps, in a league that has become so TAM player obsessed, the importance of MLS experience. A quick look at Toronto FC’s transfer history might further underline this point.

The above chart shows the number of MLS games of experience players who Toronto FC acquired during the offseason brought with them.

What stands out right away is what has already been well documented. In 2016, Toronto FC built around MLS experience by acquiring Drew Moor, Steven Beitashour, Will Johnson and Clint Irwin.

In 2018, however, after winning MLS Cup, that strategy changed. Part of this certainly has to do with roster regulations and the fact that TAM money can mostly only be used on players brought in from outside the league.

There are certainly many other factors in Toronto’s disappointing 2018, but only acquiring 4 minutes of MLS experience (Jon Bakero) while losing Steven Beitashour and Benoit Cheyrou probably didn’t help.

MLS can be a tough league to adjust to as the team’s big signings that off-season, Ager Aketxe and Gregory van der Wiel, quickly found out. There are major travel, stylistic and lifestyle differences than other leagues and not every player can adjust.

This year, Ali Curtis deserves plenty of credit for acquiring players proven in MLS. Between Gonzalez (180 games prior to TFC), Ciman (107), Mullins (115) and Richie Laryea (21), Toronto have been helped immensely down the stretch by having a strong core of players who know how to handle the unique quirks of the league.

It has been a reminder that while acquiring flashy talent from around the world can provide team’s with gamebreakers — we have all seen what Pozuelo has done this year — a core of MLS experienced players is just as important.