After conquering the United States by winning every competition in 2017, the aftermath proved to be tough for Toronto FC with one of their most disappointing campaigns in recent franchise history.
Compared with that fatalistic year in 2018, 2019 has been a drastic improvement for head coach Greg Vanney’s side. The team showed a little bit more stability when it counted, rolling up its sleeves in August and September to put together a six-game unbeaten in the league, catapulting the Reds up to fourth in the Eastern Conference.
Prior to Wednesday night’s first-leg defeat to the Montreal Impact, it had been over a month since the team last lost a game: a 2-0 loss vs New York Red Bulls on Aug. 4 was their last slip-up, as a run of nine positive results in all competitions followed that night in the New Jersey.
Various factors contributed to this progress, in particular the addition of wingers Nicolas Benezet and Erickson Gallardo, which allowed coach Vanney play his preferred 4-3-3 formation.
But it’s quietly been another department on the field giving the Toronto FC head coach a helping hand, creating a potential controversy for Greg Vanney to sort out.
One of the questions marks heading into the season was the depth at the fullback position, specifically on the right side as U.S. International Justin Morrow long-established himself as a quality first-choice option for TFC on the left side.
At the beginning of the year, Brazilian Auro Jr., who originally arrived at BMO Field in 2018, took some time to adjust to the speed of North American soccer, which meant former Orlando City player Richie Laryea had more opportunity to develop and make his case to play.
And the now-Canadian International, who earned his first two starts for Canada in their recent Concacaf Nations League wins over Cuba, took advantage, emerging as a viable first-choice option for TFC thanks to his offensive ability and willingness to get into the attacking third.
Fast forward a few months to when Justin Morrow goes down injured and misses some time thanks to an early August red card vs. NY Red Bulls, Vanney is forced to deploy both Auro and Laryea. In fact, in their last ten games in all competitions, Laryea and Auro were deployed together in the starting XI on three occasions, and at least one has been in the starting side for almost every contest this year.
⚽️A forgettable first half, the VAR-debate continues, and a difficult decision with Laryea/Auro Jr. lies ahead.@MichaelSingh94 shares his five quick thoughts shortly after tonight's 1-1 draw against Eastern Conference leaders #NYCFC.#TFCLive | #TORvNYChttps://t.co/FFgzK9w6H9— Waking the Red (@WakingtheRed) September 12, 2019
In particular Auro has shown his versatility as a right-footed defender being forced to play left-back in a 4-3-3 formation. The 4-3-3 shape has enabled TFC to implement a more free-flowing type of football, finding more passing channels while exploiting more space, but has also potentially raised the ask from Vanney out of his fullbacks, specifically getting forward.
Both Auro and Laryea have the ability to play a key role in this formation because their both young, pacey, and possess quick feet while maintaining a high tempo of play on offense.
In the case of the Brazilian fullback, he’s looked comfortable currently replacing Morrow as left-back. When Laryea earned his International call-up, Auro even shifted to the left side of the field to compliment makeshift RB Nick DeLeon. And despite noticeable difficulties on the defensive side of the ball, as he underlined post-game interview after their win against the Rapids Sunday, TFC’s sturdy fullback adjusted to still try and make an impact offensively.
“When I defend it’s easy, because everything is direct and it does not affect,” said Auro after the match, explaining the difference between playing on the left side versus the right. “But when I attack, I find it a bit more difficult to cut inside since I am right-footed.”
While three assists in 20 MLS games may not look encouraging, Auro shouldn’t be looked upon, at least right now, as someone who can provide an final end-product. However, the Brazilian still provides a sense of stability on-the-ball by constantly contributing to simple, positive transitions to help Toronto attack in numbers.
And while he’s one of the more steady fullbacks that TFC has, the former Sao Paolo fullback still needs to work on several situational plays in his game. In last weekend’s contest against Colorado, the 23-year-old was potentially at fault in both goals, more so in the second than in the first. On top of that, throughout 90 minutes, Auro is prone to losing his concentration and failing to provide the necessary coverage at the back, especially when it comes to individual marking.
Laryea, meanwhile, has been TFC’s revelation of the season. A central midfielder turned fullback, Laryea boasts great natural ability on the ball, especially in holding up the play when necessary or in contributing in the dialogue as soon as he steps into the final third.
One of the nicer under-the-radar stories of the season is TFC turning Richie Laryea into a very, very good attacking fullback.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) September 15, 2019
Amazing how many guys hit their groove once they leave Orlando. #TORvCOL
The 24-year-old, who played only 503 minutes over three seasons with a struggling Orlando side, has a different gear that enables him to push forward, adding numbers to TFC in attack.
What’s been most impressive, perhaps, is the defender’s ability in creating numerical advantages through one-on-one situations. Against the Rapids, he was fundamental in such situations and could have also earned a penalty for his team only for the referee to not give a damn about VAR (?).
Like Auro, Laryea has room for improvement, especially when his side is not on the ball. He can be prone to mental lapses at costly times and can be isolated on the wing by better players (see Piatti on Wednesday). His progress has been revitalizing for the Reds, who are now beginning to get 100 per cent healthy.
In all this enters a healthy Justin Morrow, who returned to action Wednesday night following a hip injury that has kept him sidelined for almost a month. The US international is one of the most experienced players on the roster and Vanney will be more than happy to bank on him as the season comes to an end.
Morrow is a player whose versatility allows him to play in a 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2 formation, both as fullback or as advance midfielder on the flanks. In possession, the 31-year-old is also key as he is often aligned with the midfielders to give them options, and possesses the knowledge, calmness, and ability to keep the ball when necessary. Barring any sort of injury, he’ll be the team’s starting LB moving forward.
However, nursing a sore hip amidst a congested September schedule thanks to a pair of Canadian Championship matches against Montreal, minutes down the stretch become heavier.
Auro’s emergence on the left side could prove to be useful for Vanney as a way of giving Morrow rest and getting both of his up-and-coming young fullbacks into the side.
But that still brings up the question: who will be the team’s starting RB in a playoff game?
In their own way, both Auro Jr. and Laryea provide a spark to the Reds. While both players are capable offensively, Laryea offers more going forward than Auro Jr, but also gives something up defensively that the Brazilian doesn't.
With the Reds back-four constantly in question, could it be Auro’s stability that earns the nod over Laryea? Or will Laryea’s dynamic 1v1 prowess win over Vanney enough to keep him as the team’s first-choice RB?
Either way, the fullback dilemma could be the best thing happening to TFC as quantity and quality are needed in the post-season.
Who is your starting RB for TFC in a 4-3-3?
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