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First-round pick Tsubasa Endoh’s revival a welcome surprise for Toronto FC

Fukkatsu: The Japanese midfielder is making noise after his early struggles in MLS.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Almost 13 months to the day, Tsubasa Endoh was told by Toronto FC that his contract wouldn’t be renewed by the club. Instead, the 2016 first-round pick would sign with second-team Toronto FC II, isolated from first-team action.

Now, there is only one word to describe the native of Japan: Fukkatsu.

In the Japanese language, Fukkatsu refers to someone who returns to life, a revival, or a comeback. After struggling early in his MLS career, the highly-touted Endoh has surprised most with his footballing comeback, tallying a career-high five goals and two assists in 15 games between MLS and the Canadian Championship this season.

Adjustment Period

Dealing with adversity was not easy for the Japanese youth player, who had to adapt to the culture shock and the different style of football played in North America.

Selected ninth-overall in the MLS SuperDraft out of the University of Maryland, Endoh featured in 21 league games in 2016, scoring twice and providing one assist. He teased flashes of his potential, but never found his step over a consistent period of time.

The following year, Endoh, 24 at the time, was not given the same degree of trust, appearing in just four first-team matches during TFC’s treble-winning 2017 season.

And then on August 2, 2018, the highly-touted first-round pick would be told by Toronto FC that his contract wouldn’t be renewed. Instead, Endoh found himself playing alongside a newly-formed Toronto FC II squad, breaking ground in the USL.

Most people would be dejected after a demotion.

But if you’ve ever had the chance to chat with Endoh, you’ll quickly learn that he’s a selfless team player and resilient. Mentally, he checks all the boxes. That’s why he looked at his time with TFC II not as a demotion, but as another opportunity to re-find his game — and boy did he ever.

Endoh went on to notch eight goals and two assists in 20 games with the Young Reds, earning the former Maryland Terrapin another look with Toronto FC in January.

Early on, he didn’t get a chance at first-team action, but the Japan native stayed hungry ready. And finally, on June 29, when his name was called to the starting lineup against Atlanta United, it only took him 29 seconds to let the world know he was back.

With four goals and two assists in his 12 games (9 starts), Endoh has helped propel Toronto FC back into the playoffs after missing out on the dance last season.

Most recently in MLS action, his relentless work rate was rewarded with the lone goal against Supporters Shield winners Los Angeles FC in L.A..

Making his Case

Despite the arrivals of wingers Nicolas Benezet and Erickson Gallardo, Endoh still has managed to earn substantial minutes under coach Greg Vanney. As the TFC manager has touched on, the the Japanese-born attacker provides different characteristics than some of his regular starters.

“Techincally, [Endoh]’s got a nice left foot and a nice right foot... but just the amount of repetitive sprints that he gives us is off the charts,” said Vanney. “On the attacking side, that’s something that we need because [Alejandro] Pozuelo is a guy who plays between the lines and he needs targets to run and Jozy [Altidore] is kind of a target forward more than he is a running forward. So it’s important that at least out of our wings — at least one of them — that a guy is as aggressive is as Tsubasa is on the running.”

In addition to Vanney’s comments, one could notice how TFC’s 4-3-3 shape has enabled Endoh to cut in and support Altidore upfront whenever the Reds have been in possession. With his confidence growing, he boasts enough talent where isn’t afraid to receive the ball in tight spaces.

But Toronto FC’s No. 31 is at his best when he’s utilizing his combination of pace and awareness to break down defensive lines, something the Toronto FC coach also stressed on in the post-match presser.

“Tsubasa is like a ball of energy for our team,” explained Vanney after Wednesday’s Canadian Championship loss. “Our team has a lot of guys who are very good at receiving the ball between the lines, at their feet, continuing to get the game going, so for us, it’s about finding that balance of finding guys who play inbetween lines, but also finding guys who can run through lines — and Tsubasa is just relentless at his running through the lines.”

In Wednesday’s match against the Montreal Impact, there are two situations that highlights Endoh’s fundamental contribution in this team moving forward.

First, his perfectly-weighted cross onto Jozy Altidore, with the latter squandering the chance to put TFC ahead. Here, one can underline Endoh’s lucidity and awareness. Moreover, his first touch helped him dictate the trajectory of the ball. While he has to work on the consistency of his crosses, more balls played into Endoh’s path would mean more frequent crosses from the left-hand side while Toronto continue to attack the right-flank through one-on-one situations.

Second, his 1-0 goal — the lone goal scored yet again for TFC.

Whenever the ball was being played from the right side of the field, Endoh would be willing to get into the box and attack either the near-post or far-post. On the goal, he positioned himself on the latter and with the ball flipping sides, the 26-year-old remained focused, eventually finding the ball which dropped in front of his feet, just needing to knock it into the net.

In the 82nd minute, his game came to an end to a standing ovation that could be even be heard over One Soccer’s live stream: an unthinkable scenario just a few months ago.

Whether he is over-performing or this is the real deal, is yet to be seen. But what is certain is that the 26-year-old’s selfless personality will continue to earn him fans across the 6ix.

“Everytime I play on the field, I try to give my best for the team,” said a disappointed Endoh after Wednesday’s match. “[...] I’m just trying to help my team out. My focus is not really on scoring goals. If I can score it would be great — it’s a great feeling scoring in front of the fans and helping the team out — but the main focus for me is to play for the team and if we win, that’s the main focus for me.”

Whether he plays or not, Endoh wants Toronto FC to win. But if the 2016 first-round pick can take this form (and critical goals) into the post-season, Vanney may have just found another gem on whom to bank on as the stakes become higher.