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‘We have a good team’: Without key veterans, Toronto FC are still finding ways to win

At some point in the next couple of years, Toronto FC are going to have to transition away from some key veterans. This year has proven that they will be ready when that time eventually comes.

Toronto FC v Montreal Impact Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

It has been feeling a little bit like 2017 for Toronto FC of late. Having gone unbeaten in their last eight games, Toronto FC sit alone atop the MLS standings with just six games remaining in the 2020 season. They have booked themselves a spot in the Voyageurs Cup final and have to be considered a favourite to return to the MLS Cup final.

The squad that has put them in this position, however, looks quite different. On Wednesday, Toronto FC drew 1-1 with the New York Red Bulls without a trio of mainstays in that 2017 team as Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Justin Morrow all missed out through injury. In fact, a 1-0 loss to the Montreal Impact on Sept. 1 was the only time all three were in the starting lineup for The Reds this season.

Toronto FC have already vaulted a number of hurdles during this incredibly disjointed COVID-19 influenced season. But their ability to absorb the absence of these talismanic players largely in stride has been one of the team’s most impressive feats.

“We have a—as Poz has alluded to a couple of times—we have a good team,” Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney told the press this week. “We have a lot of depth in our team, we have a lot of experience, we still have a group of guys who have won a lot of games together.”

The Reds are undoubtedly still a better team when they have Morrow, Bradley and Altidore available. The Championship pedigree, experience, leadership and ability they bring is undeniable. But the fact that they no longer appear reliant on these players to win games shows just how good this team has become—and bodes well for its future.

Delgado and Osorio combine to fill in for Bradley

MLS: Toronto FC at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest question marks surrounding the Toronto FC squad the last couple of years is what to do should captain Michael Bradley ever miss an extended period of time. Luckily for Toronto FC, it’s a question that they haven’t really had to answer prior to this season. After starting 86 per cent of the club’s regular season matches the past three seasons, Toronto FC’s “Mr. Reliable” has been in the lineup for just 7 of 18 (39%) of the club’s games this year.

In fact, Bradley has been so important to what Toronto FC has done since arriving in 2014 that it has largely taken two players to fill his role. The brunt of the absence fell on Jonathan Osorio, who has worn the captain’s armband and has been the club’s deepest lying midfielder. Perhaps that armband comes with superpowers because Osorio has looked every bit the part of MB4.

Part of what makes Osorio so effective as a deep-lying midfielder is his engine and incredible ability to keep the ball. His 90.5 per cent passing percentage is especially impressive considering he has attempted the third-most passes of any Toronto FC player this season. He is also second in MLS, behind only Nico Lodeiro, in terms of distance run at 7.35 miles per game (Bradley is in third at 6.99) and leads Toronto FC in tackles won.

What has really set Osorio apart in the deep-lying midfield role, however, is his close control. Opposing teams have had a lot of joy against Toronto FC this season by sitting on their deepest midfielder and disrupting the team’s buildup. Osorio’s technical ability allows him to wriggle out of the other team’s press as well as play line-breaking passes that have been key to Toronto’s transitions.

The 28-year-old’s leadership ability has also been put on full display. When, eventually, Bradley moves on, Toronto have a ready-made captain replacement in the Canadian international. Speaking of Canada, John Herdman has to be thrilled with what he has seen recently. Osorio was one of the players he heavily considered for the captain’s armband with the national team. The midfielder has now also demonstrated flexibility to slot anywhere in Herdman’s midfield and promises to be a mainstay for many years to come.

While he hasn’t quite made the same headlines, because he never does, Marky Delgado has quietly been critical during Bradley’s departure as well. Only Pozuelo has played more passes than Delgado this season, who continues to serve as the connector in Toronto’s midfield.

Vanney announced yesterday that Bradley will be back for Sunday’s match, which given how well Osorio and Delgado have played, might give the TFC coach some selection headaches going forward. But it saves him perhaps a bigger headache, which is wondering what to do should Bradley be unavailable again.

Ayo Akinola’s breakout season

MLS: Toronto FC at New England Revolution David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Like with Bradley, coming into this season one of the biggest questions was what would happen when Altidore inevitably missed part of the year through injury. Toronto had just come off a run to the MLS Cup final with Alejandro Pozuelo playing as a false nine, but it was clear both from the player and coach that wasn’t a long-term solution.

With just two MLS starts prior to this season, 20-year-old Ayo Akinola probably wasn’t plan B. In fact, The Reds were considering playing rookie Ifunanyachi Achara as their number nine before he suffered a serious injury of his own prior to the MLS is Back tournament. Up stepped Akinola, and he never looked back.

Akinola is tied with Pozuelo for the club lead in goals with eight, although the Spaniard has played nearly double as many minutes. Impressively, he has also done so in a sustainable fashion, putting up 7.6 expected goals, and a team leading 0.78 xG per 90 minutes.

The young striker’s intelligent movement has always made him a threat, whether that threat opens up chances for himself or others. This season it has largely been the former, and even when the ball isn’t going into the net, he is causing problems for opponents. Just see this past week’s 1-1 draw with the New York Red Bulls, where it was Akinola’s quick reactions that ultimately won the penalty which led to Toronto’s goal.

Akinola’s willingness to make runs in behind has also been infinitely rewarded by the incredible passing ability of Pozuelo. Once the youngster finds himself in those positions, his calm finishing ability and physical strength have made him a nightmare for defenders and goalkeepers alike.

When called upon, Patrick Mullins has been reliable as well. His work rate (and energy) often seen coming off the bench late in matches gives Toronto another option when they need a spark.

“Obviously Ayo has really stepped up and proven his value,” said Vanney. “[Mullins] in the absence of Jozy as well is a guy who has really grinded in this league and is capable of stepping in and scoring goals as he has.”

Toronto FC showing depth at fullback

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Toronto FC David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

While Altidore and Bradley were both crucial players in Toronto FC’s 2017 treble-winning season, only one player still with the club made MLS team of the season that year. That was Justin Morrow, who also finished as runner up to Ike Opara for MLS defender of the year that campaign. He was excellent at both ends of the field, but his eight goals and general attacking presence were key to the reds devastating offence.

This year, it has been Richie Laryea who has filled that role, whether that be on his natural right side or cutting in from the left as a replacement for Morrow. Laryea’s four goals this season sits third on the team and he has been unlucky to only be credited with two assists, such has been his influence on Toronto’s attack.

Given Vanney’s constant cries for more attacking options in wide areas, Laryea’s play has been a breath of fresh air. His ability to beat players down the wing and play cutbacks and crosses from out wide has made Toronto’s attack significantly more dangerous.

Laryea isn’t alone in his versatility either. Auro has shown an ability to play quality minutes on either flank. Like Laryea, he has also been dangerous when getting forward, sitting tied for second on the team with 2.1 xA per game. Tony Gallacher also appears to be a nice add, as the 21-year-old has fit in nicely and shown a good willingness to get stuck into challenges in limited minutes so far. He also provides an option going forward, getting in behind well down the flank while showing he has a great left footed cross as well.

There is no question that Vanney deserves a lot of praise for his ability to find solutions for these injury issues as well. He has spoke at length about the importance of squad management this year, with all of the travel and disjointedness of this season especially. Of course, it helps when the team is winning.

“Everybody is riding the wave of confidence,” said Vanney. “It doesn’t matter whether it is the first guy, second, guy or thing guy in the position, everybody is feeling the confidence.”

Morrow, Bradley and Altidore have helped set a standard around Toronto FC that any player to which any player who pulls on the shirt is instantly held.

“[Players] know when they are called upon they have to step up because things are rolling and they have to hold up their end of the bargain when everyone is producing,” Vanney said, before underlining the importance of the camaraderie the team has developed.

At some point in the next couple of years, Toronto FC are going to have to transition away from Altidore, Morrow and Bradley. This year has proven that they will be ready when that time eventually comes.