“We need more firepower. A dynamic player, who can score and create. [Alejandro] Pozuelo is silky and can create but we need someone else who can do a little bit of that & score on his own”.
That is what Jozy Altidore described as Toronto FC’s signing priority this past offseason. The reds had just lost the 2019 MLS Cup final in a game where they dominated the Seattle Sounders professionally but were missing a killer instinct in the final third.
Given that a designated player spot had just opened up after Michael Bradley agreed to take a TAM deal, and that the most recently departed designated player was Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC fans were expecting big things. They were initially left disappointed.
In what seemed like something of a bizarre move, Toronto FC brought in 31-year-old Pablo Piatti. He was an aging Argentine winger who, due to an ACL injury, played just three matches the year prior for an Espanyol who would be relegated from LaLiga. Given the fact that the aforementioned Altidore had missed almost all of the playoffs, including most of the final, with injury, this was not greeted with particular enthusiasm.
The mentions of “load management” didn’t help, nor did the fact that Piatti missed the first two games of the season with a hamstring injury. Then came the global pandemic, which meant it was five months after Piatti’s signing that Toronto FC fans first saw him pull on a red shirt in game action.
When they finally did, Piatti wasn’t exactly the player Altidore described. He was more Michael Bradley than Sebastian Giovinco, great on the ball but with less flash and flare and raw goal creating ability than many fans had come to expect for a designated player. But that hardly means he hasn’t been a great signing; in fact, Piatti has been one of Toronto FC’s best and most important players this season.
“He’s a hard working guy, you see it every game,” said Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney when asked about Piatti this week. “He works his socks off and will work defensively and offensively and he puts a shift in every single time.”
That hard work began long before Piatti was able to step on the pitch for The Reds. In fact, Vanney said this week that he believes the Argentine winger was one of the players who benefited the most from the pandemic break.
Toronto staff were able to work with him to not only heal the injury but also make him stronger in the process. This would help prevent other injuries like the early season hamstring strain that was likely associated with returning to action after such a long injury-caused break. His injury rehab process also meant that he was allowed back into team facilities earlier than most of his teammates due to Covid restrictions.
“He was able to get on the field a little bit earlier than some of the other players to just do some isolated training and rehab work,” said Vanney, “he benefited from all of that.”
Since then, injuries have hardly been a concern. Piatti looks to be one of the most fit Toronto FC players, tied for fourth on the team in games started. In fact, that fitness is part of perhaps the most defining attribute of Piatti’s game, the Bradley-like engine that never quits.
Piatti’s workrate is nothing short of outstanding. He ranks second in MLS in distance covered per 90, and at both ends of the pitch he is one of Toronto’s most aggressive players, something that leads to both offensive chances and defensive interventions. He is tied with Chris Mavinga for third on Toronto FC in terms of tackles won, with 20. He is also fifth in all of MLS in defensive pressures.
Unlike many other designated players transitioning into the intricacies of MLS, he also seemed to fit in right away. Piatti found instant chemistry with the team’s main man, Alejandro Pozuelo, and has been a big part in helping the Spaniard to put together an MVP-calibre season both on and off the field.
While his numbers pale in comparison to his new best friend’s, Toronto FC’s recent 1-0 win over Atlanta United showed that Piatti is still capable of magic as well. It was another activity Piatti likes to share with his good friend Pozuelo, soccer-tennis, that Vanney credited with the Argentine’s deft header that proved to be the difference in the match.
The goal was Piatti’s fourth goal of the season, which ties him with Richie Laryea for second on the team (Pozuelo and Akinola are tied for first with eight each). He and Laryea are also tied for second in assists with four, while only Pozuelo has made more key passes (passes leading to a shot attempt) than Piatti’s 22.
That output combines with the more intangible part of what Piatti brings to the team in terms of his experience. The Argentine has 300 games of top flight experience in Spain to his name, not to mention being part of the 2016-17 team of season with Espanyol.
“He brings some experience in reading the game, reading what situations are happening and how to deal with them,” said Vanney.
This has all combined to make Piatti another great signing by Toronto FC GM Ali Curtis and his team. It was also one they absolutely had to get right. Given that Bradley, perhaps the most important player in club history, had just taken a pay cut to open up this designated player slot the club for the good of the team they had to do right by him.
It’s safe to say Bradley is pretty happy with where all of his potential money is going. Piatti is the exact type of player Bradley has always advocated for, and the Argentine’s efforts and abilities have undoubtedly made the team better.
Piatti’s future with the team remains to be seen. On just a one year deal with an option, his designated player status might come under more scrutiny come the offseason, but for all of the insanity of the 2020 season, Piatti has been an excellent signing.
And in celebration of his dramatic winner the other night, we’ve once again teamed up with our friends at BreakingT to launch a ‘Pablito’ t-shirt! You can get yours here today while supplies last.