Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney’s stated goal this off-season was to play a different style and formation than the 3-5-2, which had become commonplace in the last three seasons.
The biggest change to this style would be out of necessity as Sebastian Giovinco’s departure left the club with only one premier quality striker available in Jozy Altidore. With Altidore occupying the lone striker role, Vanney stated that he would prefer more playmaking from his wings, who could compliment the style and pace of this off-season’s prized acquisition: Alejandro Pozuelo.
Unfortunately, those two pieces, Erickson Gallardo and Nicolas Benezet, didn't arrive until late in the summer — and in the case of Gallardo, picked up an injury in training before even making his official debut. After a few games of both players surprisingly finding the bench, the two Toronto FC TAM signings have finally been eased into their roles in which they brought to BMO Field to play.
So with a few games under their belts, do Toronto FC fans know what we have in these two players? And are they really an upgrade over our previous options?
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From a purely subjective standpoint and despite limited action, it’s hard to argue that both of these players haven't been impressive, and at the worst case, passable at the wing slots. It’s safe to say that if Ali Curtis didn't hit home runs on both of these signings, at worst, he hit solid doubles into the outfield gap.
Gallardo has been fast. Like really fast. Like Connor McDavid kind of fast. His ability on the right wing to get up into the attacking third and help support a wider option for Pozuelo has allowed the team to deploy a legitimate threat from that side that has been missing since the departure of, perhaps, Steven Beithashour.
The Venezuelan doesn't try to do too many things with the ball, instead opting to run into gaps as a passing option or make overlapping runs with Auro Jr. to extend the defensive coverage thin until one can either get the ball back into Pozuelo with single coverage, or make a looping cross into the box.
Where Gallardo has been really impressive is how much of an effort he makes to get back on defence when the other team is counter-attacking. A few times in the last three matches I’ve watched, a red blur flashed across my screen as Gallardo tracked back to pick up a player who otherwise would’ve potentially been in on goal.
Now, the Auro Jr. vs. Richie Lareya as the right back debate is for another column, but for what it’s worth, my opinion is that Auro Jr’s stability and conservative play edges him out over the Canadian International.
With that in mind, the perfect pairing on the right side is then indeed the Brazilian with Gallardo, who would then be able to focus on making runs behind the opposition, while still being able to cover for his defenders when the play necessitates it.
I’m not sure as yet if Gallardo has elite soccer skills, but he’s certainly fast. And on a team with Michael Bradley, Altidore and Pozuelo...a player with speed is an absolute necessity to compensate for the lack elsewhere.
On the left side, Benezet hasn't been a speed demon — or the second coming of Usain Bolt — but rather a more patient winger who uses his time on the ball to carefully pinpoint his next pass. When the signings were first announced, I imagined two players of equal speed on either wing who would run up-and-down the pitch to wear out defences, but Benezet has been different.
Not a good or bad different, just different.
His game is certainly slower, and he likes to spend a longer time on the ball in order to facilitate as a playmaker. Furthermore, he’s shown more ability to find the back of the net than other wingers in the past. It’s not unfair to say that he fills in a bit of the role that Victor Vazquez used to play — and Jonathan Osorio has failed to do consistently.
Benezet also looks the more polished of the two wings, as he's shown flashes of creativity that allow him to sneak into a more central role, rather than stay on the outside. This allows him to partner up with Toronto’s No. 10 Pozuelo to create an attacking triangle with Altidore spearheading the point.
This notion is important because rather than have that role played by our CM Bradley, which invariably leaves the TFC captain too far up the pitch to effectively snuff out the counter-attack, Bradley can play back to his strengths and choose his spots more carefully.
With the tendency of Benezet to play on the wing and venture into the central midfield, it’s important that whoever plays the left back position, is able to provide support down that side, and in turn, the left central defender may need to play a little bit more towards the line. Ideally this would pair up Justin Morrow and Chris Mavinga, but with their recent injuries, Vanney may have some shuffling to do with the fullbacks, as Nick DeLeon made an appearance at RB against FC Cincinnati.
The next few games, beginning with Wednesday’s tilt with NYCFC will be interesting to see what more we learn about the new(ish) TAM wingers, but so far, all signs are positive. Both provide a mixture of skill sets which are different from one another, but in their own way so crucial to this team’s ability to make a run into the playoffs, and perhaps to the MLS Cup.
So far the two TAM wingers have earned the right to keep being called into the starting XI, which perhaps leave Osorio on the bench. If that’s the case, Toronto would have an option off the bench that could replace either winger, or Marky Delgado who has appeared to earn a solidified spot in Vanney’s starting XI.
Either way, it looks like Ali Curtis’s plan may work out after all. And here I thought he was just winging it.