TORONTO, Canada—The culture has shifted.
As Mitchell Tierney elegantly illustrated last week, if Toronto FC haven’t already, then the club is getting very close to turning the page on an era spearheaded by their three most iconic players: Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley.
That’s not a knock on Bradley or Altidore, however, who still remain crucial components of the franchise—both on the field and in a leadership capacity—but rather a suggestion that it’s no longer 2016, 2017, or even 2019 where much of the club’s fortunes rested on the shoulders of their talisman.
Instead, with the high-profile duo spending a large portion of this season sidelined due to various injuries and other reasons, others were given an opportunity to step up, and so far in 2020—from Achara netting the game-winner on his MLS debut to the steady emergence of our very own Richie Laryea—many have risen to the occasion.
As midfielder Jonathan Osorio put it after the team’s 1-0 win over FC Cincinnati earlier this month, ‘championship teams have depth’ and this version of Toronto FC—the 2020 version of Toronto FC—are the perfect example of that.
So with that in mind, here’s my latest TFC Notebook as The Reds find themselves in first place, on pace for their best-ever season, with four matches left to play.
Bradley applauds work of Delgado, Osorio in midfield
While it was great to see Michael Bradley make his return to the Toronto FC lineup following a near seven-week layoff in Sunday evening’s 1-0 win over Atlanta United, the work that both Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio put in during their captain’s absence shouldn’t be understated.
And for what it’s worth, Bradley would be the first to tell you that.
“I think both Oso and Marky deserve big credit in this last stretch for the way they both tweaked a little bit of the players that they naturally are to make sure that the team was successful,” said Bradley after Sunday match. “They understood that in a period where I wasn’t going to be on the field, that they both had to understand even a little bit more the importance of balance in a team, they had to really find a good way to work together and play together and cover for each other to protect the defence, and I think they did an incredible job, both of them”
Osorio and Delgado started 11 out of the 12 games in which Bradley was unable to this season together in the centre of the park, and during that span, the Reds lost just one time: a 3-2 defeat to the Vancouver Whitecaps. And while the likes of Ayo Akinola, Alejandro Pozuelo, and Pablo Piatti capture the headlines, it’s the duos factory-like approach on both sides of the ball that make Toronto FC a club that’s established an identity of being difficult to play against.
“It’s easy in some moments to look at the guys who score or guys who make important plays in the attacking end, and we know how important those guys are as well, but it’s also important for people on the outside to understand in this period how good, how consistent and how important Marky and Oso have been for the group,” added Bradley. “I’m proud of them both, it doesn’t surprise me one bit.”
With the club in top form, Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney may have some juggling to do if Osorio—who left Sunday’s match with an apparent injury but looks to be OK—Bradley, and Delgado are all available for choosing moving forward. But it’s likely that the TFC manager incorporates all three into his starting XI, a notion that the TFC captain welcomes.
“I see firsthand every single day how good they are,” said Bradley. “I love playing with both of them. I think the three of us have an incredible relationship in terms of how we play together and how we understand each other, so that parts great.”
‘He’s a Toronto boy’: MB4 on Oso wearing the captain’s armband
Speaking of depth, the Reds have many options who can wear the captain’s armband should Bradley need to miss time again. However, after this recent run of play, Toronto’s very own Jonathan Osorio has established himself as the clearcut No. 2 option.
“I think for Oso to have an extended chance as captain, that part is special because he’s a Toronto boy,” said Bradley. “He understands more than anybody, what it means to represent this club, to wear that flag around his arm, he understands who he’s playing for, what he’s representing, and I know how much it means to him, so I think for anybody you have to appreciate that.”
In one of my recent TFC Notebooks, I touched on the growth of Osorio from a leadership perspective, so I won’t go into too much detail about it here, but what I will say is that I believe his recent reign as captain will continue to resonate, even without the armband.
Aside from being a role model for some of the up-and-coming talent around the club, I believe that this stretch of him as captain—a sincere sign of trust from Vanney—has injected a bit of added confidence in Osorio on the pitch, where he’s now playing with a bit more maturity, he’s making quicker decisions, he’s looking more composed.
But perhaps what’s become the most appealing asset about the Canadian international’s game is that regardless of the role that he’ll be asked to play when the squad does return to full strength is that you know the hard-working Brampton boy is going to put in a relentless shift.
‘I’m Ready’: Priso speaks to media for the first time
Meet Toronto FC’s newest signing: Ralph Priso.
The homegrown product introduced himself to media last week, giving us some insight into what the 18 year old believes that he can bring to the team.
“I’d say that I can do a little bit of everything, I’m not a specialist in anything,” said the left-footed central midfielder. “I’d say that I’m pretty good at everything. I’m good on the ball. I can dribble, decent passing range, I can cover ground, I can tackle, just a little bit of everything.”
Having come through the ranks with the Toronto FC academy, when asked if he ever considered signing elsewhere besides Toronto FC, the bilingual Canadian acknowledged that that he took all factors into account when making his decision, but was firm in stating his desire to succeed with his hometown club.
“I think I showed my commitment to the club a couple years ago when I signed a USL (contract),” said Priso, “and I think that was a sign that I was committed to the process and that I was taking the road to joining the first team.”
Priso joins a young and exciting crop of Toronto FC talent who await patiently for their opportunity. And while his position, centre of the park, is the role that the club arguably has the most depth at, the teenager feels as though he’ll be ready whenever his name is called.
“I’m ready,” said Priso. “I’m ready to play. I want to play, I don’t think any player doesn’t want to play. If I get my chance, I’ll be ready to take it and help the team win games. That’s what I’m here to do, and that’s why I signed.”
We already know that Vanney wants to give the club’s youngest-ever signing Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty his debut here before the end of the season, and it’s likely that Priso falls under that same boat as the youngster was an unused substitute in each of his two appearances since joining the first team. Both of those matches were tighter encounters than expected, so if Toronto can build a bit of a lead in one of their final four games, I’d expect to see the No. 97 shown on the fourth official’s board sooner rather than later.
Toronto FC transfer target signs with Man Utd
We wrote all the way back in January that Toronto FC were targeting Uruguayan teenage star Facundo Pellistri as a potential designated player signing. However, Penarol, his club at the time, wanted to hold off until the middle of 2020 which actually appeared to be a smart bit of business for the Uruguayan side as the 18 year old earned a deadline day move to Manchester United earlier this month for approximately €10 million.
There’s not much to see here from a Toronto FC perspective, but it’s nice knowing that the Reds are trying to get ahead of the curve. I’m not sure how close the deal was to ever coming to fruition—as Penarol were eager to hold out for a higher transfer fee—but these are the types of signings that teams are going to start looking to make as MLS starts to shift away from a ‘retirement league’ to a ‘developmental league.’
Vanney compares Richie Laryea to Alphonso Davies
Richie Laryea is a gamebreaker in this league, and Sunday evening against Atlanta was yet another reminder.
Checking into the match as a halftime substitute, the Canadian international had only 45 minutes to make a difference and was actually asked to do a lot of work defensively as Atlanta brought on two designated players, Ezequiel Barco and Marcelino Moreno, in an effort to inject some energy into their side.
Laryea, along with the rest of the Toronto FC backline (who were solid on the night) managed to withstand the brute of the United attack, before the fast-paced fullback went to work, finding himself in a one-on-one before creating an opportunity for his teammates.
89’ TOR 1 - 0 ATL— x-Waking the Red (@WakingtheRed) October 19, 2020
LATE header from Piatti gives the Reds the lead! ⏱#TFCLive | #TORvATL pic.twitter.com/JI5CbhqGOU
At one of the more underrated positions in world football, the pacey right-back continues to be a difference for Toronto FC. So much so that after his performance last game—along with a spot on the MLS Team of the Week for the second time this season—he earned quite a bit of praise from his head coach, who’s likely running out of ways to compliment the rising star.
“He’s an incredible attacking right back,” said Vanney after Sunday’s win. “His defending has gotten a lot better just through the experiences—he’s concentrated on it—but he’s an incredible attacking right back. When we’re able to get him isolated one-on-one, it’s just so difficult for fullbacks and/or wingers that are having to defend him in those situations because he’s so good, and he usually has the opportunity to really face them up and get himself set up to take them on one-on-one—and he’s just so quick in his first step.
“So, that’s the reason why you see a similar version of it in Alphonso Davies, who’s kind of that wide player or winger. When those guys get added into the attack as an extra number facing forward ... and when you have a fullback that can beat people on the dribble, that’s like gold.”
At this moment, that’s about the highest bit of praise that you can give an up-and-coming Canadian fullback, but Laryea’s play has been so pivotal at times for the first-place TFC side that coach Vanney often finds himself gameplanning around the 25 year old.
From walk on to a must-start, what a story the Toronto native has been over the past two seasons.
Injury update on Achara
I’ll end this Notebook on another positive note. 2020 MLS SuperDraft first-round pick Achara is recovering well following season-ending knee surgery. It feels like forever ago, but it’s difficult to forget the now-23 year old’s storybook MLS debut pre-pandemic, the 2020 home opener on Mar. 7, a match in which he’d eventually go on to score the game-winner.
Ifunanyachi Achara gets his debut MLS goal to give @TorontoFC the lead (and possibly all three points)! #TORvNYC pic.twitter.com/DdZ7cdzxi3— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 7, 2020
Unfortunately for the rookie, who had been named to the MLS Team of the Week for his performance, it’d be his last appearance of the year as Achara tore his ACL in one of the final plays of a Toronto FC July practice in preparation for the ‘MLS is Back’ Tournament.
“For me, he’s a potential starter everyday,” said Vanney in July. “The fact that he’s done well, he’s scored in almost every game, he’s shown that he’s goal-dangerous every game...for me, in terms of my planning, he was a really important piece...we’ll miss him.”
With his showing in preseason and in his professional debut against New York City FC, Achara was slated to be a starter, or at the very least, one of the first names off the bench this season for the Reds. And while it’s exciting to imagine what this first-place team may look like with the addition of Achara, the good news is that the Nigerian-born attacker appears to be well on his way to making a full recovery.
“He was doing excellent, so much so that the strength in the leg and the knee and everything was further along than anticipated,” Vanney told media earlier this month. “They had to slow it down because they needed to let the healing catch up with sort of the strength that he was able to build up in the recovery process.
“So, he’s doing great. He’s super, super motivated. Great young man who has a lot of desire, confidence, and resiliency on his side. He’ll be ready about as soon as anybody could possibly be ready. But I think he’s doing all the things that he needs to do to get himself as healthy as possible.”