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TFC Notebook: Greg Vanney has to be the favourite to win Coach of the Year

Plus more on Jayden Nelson’s debut, Jonathan Osorio wearing the captain’s armband, Toronto FC’s depth, and more in Michael Singh’s latest TFC Notebook.

Montreal Impact v Toronto FC
SEPTEMBER 01, 2020: Alejandro Pozuelo #10 of Toronto FC speaks to head coach Greg Vanney during the second half of an MLS game against Montreal Impact at BMO Field

TORONTO, Canada—At the end of the day, it’s not always about how you earn the result, but that you get the result, and that saying couldn’t be more applicable than after Sunday evening’s 1-0 Toronto FC win over FC Cincinnati.

The league-leaders in Major League Soccer escaped Nippert Stadium with all three points thanks to a Patrick Mullins first-half marker—and their good friend VAR, of course. While Toronto FC probably deserved the victory, it wasn’t by any means their best effort against a struggling FC Cincinnati team—a side that’s scored just eight times in 17 matches this season.

But you know what? That’s alright.

Because sometimes, even when you’re not on the top of your game, the fact that you’re still able to go out there and pick up the three points is what matters; it’s these types of ‘see-it-out’ wins that separate you from the rest of the pack at the end of the year.

So on that note, here’s my latest TFC Notebook after The Reds officially became the first team in MLS to clinch a spot in the 2020 postseason.

Jayden Nelson flashes potential in first career MLS start

MLS: Toronto FC at FC Cincinnati

With a game on turf four days prior (and another upcoming fixture in three days against New York Red Bulls), Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney elected to rotate his squad vs. Cincinnati, making seven changes from the side that defeated New England Revolution 1-0 last week.

2019 Canadian Youth International Player of the Year Jayden Nelson was one of those changes as he was called on to make his first-career league start. He’d play about 60 minutes in the win, connecting on 92.3 per cent of his passes down the left wing.

“It’s just another game of experience for Jayden (Nelson),” said Vanney after the match. “All of these opportunities that he plays, he’s learning on the fly, often times, learning different things each time. Today, he (and the group) did a good job of just competing, just grinding.”

While there were times that the 18-year-old Brampton, Ontario native could’ve cleaned up his play a bit more and been a little stronger on the ball, for the most part, Nelson had a positive impact on the match, and his five * skill set was apparent every time he was on the ball.

“He had some good moments,” added Vanney. “... he competed, and he battled, and he helped the team win, and if you help the team win, you get more chances. You get to keep learning. So there’s a few things that I’ll talk to him about for sure that we want to build on from this experience, but it was great to have him out there for about 60 minutes and for us to get the lead while he was out there and then see it out.”

Canadian international and stand-in captain Jonathan Osorio also had some kind words about his fellow countryman after the match.

“No, we believe in Jayden here a lot,” answered Osorio when asked if he said anything to Nelson prior to the match. “We believe in his quality. I don’t think there was much point to getting him to the side alone and putting things in his head because he’s got a great football mind already. The biggest thing about Jayden is to give him the confidence ... I know a few guys were just telling him ‘go out there play your game, be aggressive, be confident, dribble at guys,’ and I think that’s what he did today, and he did great ... I’m really excited about his future—we’re all excited about his future—and he was excellent today.”

In two years time, when Nelson turns 20, how good do you think this kid will be? For me, the sky’s the limit.

Alejandro Pozuelo records league-leading 10th assist this season

Toronto FC v FC Cincinnati

Don’t ask me how, but last night Alejandro Pozuelo managed to notch his league-leading 10th assist of the season, becoming just the second Toronto FC player to accomplish the feat in back-to-back seasons (h/t Martyn Bailey).

What constitutes an MLS assist anymore, however, is a completely different question.

Clearly it was Richie Laryea who had the primary assist on the play (the Toronto FC defender is OK by the way after leaving the game clutching his hamstring), but Pozuelo managed to somehow slide in and find his name also on the scoresheet by virtue of a secondary assist? I guess sometimes they count the ‘hockey assist’, but sometimes they don’t? Okay, then.

For the Spaniard’s sake, he’ll take it, especially when you consider that he’s likely the current frontrunner for the league’s Most Valuable Player award. Pozuelo now has four more assists than anyone else this season and actually leads all of MLS in goals+assists.

Moreover, his fitness is unparalleled. He’s the only Toronto FC player to start every game this season and leads the team in minutes played. That’s a pretty rare trait that you can lean on your most talented player for.

Osorio excelling in a leadership capacity

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Toronto FC

I touched on this topic briefly in one of my other TFC otebooks, but in Michael Bradley’s absence, it’s great to see Toronto’s very own Jonathan Osorio wearing the captain’s armband for the club, and what a job he’s done.

The Canadian international has jumped into Bradley’s role (on and off the pitch) and has shown everyone just why his coach believes he and Marky Delgado are two of the premier players in all of MLS.

Quickly coming through the ranks of the Toronto FC academy, Osorio is by far the club’s all-time leader in appearances made. But his emergence off the field is just as impressive as it is on the field. Earlier this year, it had been well highlighted that Osorio had become the blueprint to success as a Homegrown product in Toronto. But over this past month or so, I feel like the 28 year old has taken a further step forward, especially in a leadership capacity.

“Now that I understand how that feels in the (captaincy) role, it’s actually helped me understand more what (Michael Bradley) has done all these years, and it’s opened my eyes to how good of a job he’s done with this club,” said Osorio after the match. “Being in that role has made me appreciate even more than I already did what Mike has done for the club and has also helped me learn to try and get the best out of your teammates in different situations, trying to find what the team needs and what you need to emphasize in certain games.

“It’s a good learning experience for me and I’ll keep learning every time that I get a chance to wear it.”

Overall, I believe Osorio’s becoming more aware: more aware of what it means to succeed as a professional footballer while still ensuring that he maintains that ‘Oso’ edginess that we’ve come to love. It’s always been about finding that balance for the Brampton native, and I think we’re at the point now where we can definitely say that he has found it, because night-in, night-out, Toronto FC fans know what they’re going to get out of their no. 21.

‘Championship teams have depth’

Toronto FC v New England Revolution

Championship teams have depth.

I had someone ask me whether or not Toronto FC had four starters missing yesterday, and it was honestly the toughest question to answer because the reality is that this club has about 14 players who could be classified as starters.

But beyond those guys, Toronto FC’s rotation players are also putting in shifts. With the likes of Alex Bono, Laurent Ciman, Eriq Zavaleta, Tony Gallacher, Liam Fraser, Erickson Gallardo, Nick DeLeon, and Patrick Mullins all stepping up at various times, The Reds have found a way to maintain top-notch form while still keeping players fresh.

With Chris Mavinga, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Justin Morrow all absent from last night’s match—and Pablo Piatti and Ayo Akinola limited to spots on the bench—TFC were still able to come away with a deserved result, and those are the wins that, again, separate you from the rest of the league at the end of the year.

“Amazing,” said Osorio after the game. “I think everybody who stepped in did their part and exactly what was asked of them and more. ... Having not had a lot of minutes and coming into a difficult game and grinding that result, it’s not easy and they did an amazing job. Like I said championship teams have depth, and when your depth is called upon, they’re always ready to perform.”

“There’s some rotation in the lineup tonight and guys just had to compete and work it out and get the three points,” added Vanney. “And they saw it out.”

Despite playing six games in 22 days, Toronto FC have won five straight and are unbeaten over that span. They’re not quite out of the woods yet as The Reds still have five matches in the next 17 days before finishing the regular season on Nov. 8 against the opponents they’ll see on Wednesday: The New York Red Bulls. Toronto FC’s depth will continue to be key during this upcoming run of games, and it’s a positive takeaway that this past week certain reinforcements have given us reason to be confident with their involvement moving forward in Vanney’s Starting XI.

Vanney on his way to becoming two-time MLS Coach of the Year

(Sean Pollock/WTR)

While it’s still reasonably early (Toronto FC have six games remaining), I think it’s worth noting that as it stands, Greg Vanney has to be the current favourite to win MLS Coach of the Year. The TFC gaffer previously won the award during Toronto’s record-breaking 2017 campaign after leading his side to MLS’s first-ever treble, highlighted, of course, by bringing home the country’s first-ever MLS Cup.

And while that team is often regarded as the ‘Greatest MLS Team of All-Time,’ 2020 Toronto FC are actually notching points at a rate that’s higher than that 2017 TFC and any other team in MLS history. On Sunday, The Reds became the first club to clinch a playoff spot this season and are three points clear of Philadelphia atop the Supporters Shield race.

They’ve found a way even without the services of key veterans Jonathan Osorio, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Justin Morrow and others for extended periods of time at various points this season. And the accomplishments thus far are even more impressive when you consider that they’ve also had to do it on the road, away from family members—away from their everyday lives.

The club is doing it in a different country: in East Hartford, Connecticut, isolated with no one but themselves.

As fans, what we’re privy to is the end product on the field, but there’s also a special sense of camaraderie among this group that extends beyond the touchlines. At the forefront of it all is the club’s most successful manager who has once again shown his willingness and ability to adapt in order to get the most out of his team.

“... Really proud of the group,” said Greg Vanney after the match. “To stay focused, there’s lots of challenges here, not just for us but for everybody, but some special challenges for us for sure, and the guys are staying focused. They’re giving it every single day for each other and that’s huge. When you’re getting good results and competing like this, it makes the difficult times a little bit easier. And so, we’ve been able to manage to do it the right way.”

Vanney and co. have managed to instill an environment that gets the best out of their players despite the conditions. He’s found a way to keep his players motivated—keep them hungry for more. Whether it’s rotating his defensive pairings, opting for stability in the midfield, finding away to get the best version of Alejandro Pozuelo that Toronto has seen, to a certain degree, Vanney once again has to be given credit for that.

“I know the guys are proud of it, but they have their eyes on something a little bit bigger here over this stretch,” said the club’s all-time winningest coach. “And so, it’s nice to have the playoff spot, but we’re in that position where I know our guys … we don’t talk about it … but they’re looking at the fact that they’re at the top of the table and competing every play to try to stay there.”

With football icons like Thierry Henry and Jaap Staam coming in as new coaches in MLS, it’s pretty cool to think that they’ll potentially be looking up to someone like Vanney as a role model. Like Osorio, he’s also grown in front of our eyes and has one of the more impressive coaching records to boot as a result.

On a similar note, it’s also probably a good time to mention that Vanney’s contract is up at the end of the season. While that has been pushed to the side a bit as a result of the global pandemic, for what it’s worth, with Vanney’s four kids and wife living in Toronto, it’s safe to assume he’s on board with returning to the club next season.

As long as he doesn’t count against the salary cap—and coaches don’t to my knowledge—that should be a blank cheque @MLSE.