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TFC Notebook: How long before Akinola and Laryea attract European interest?

Plus more on Vanney and his fullbacks, Alex Bono/Quentin Westberg, Julian Dunn, and Toronto FC’s youngest-ever signing in Michael Singh’s latest TFC Notebook.

MLS: Toronto FC at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

TORONTO, Canada—Toronto FC are the hottest team in Major League Soccer. The Reds are in first place overall and are the closest to winning a Supporters Shield since 2017.

The team continues to find different ways to produce results, and Wednesday evening at Gillette Stadium was no different. TFC managed to grind through a rather difficult game to walk away from New England with three points for the first time since 2013.

The confidence among this team is real. The swagger that this team exhibits is real. And the bonafide talent top-to-bottom that exists on this roster is 100 per cent real.

On that note, here’s my latest TFC notebook.

Ayo Akinola’s movement a difference maker vs. New England

Toronto FC v New England Revolution

20 year old Ayo Akinola is scoring at a rate no one else is right now in MLS. The Brampton-raised, Michigan-born striker found a way to get himself on the scoresheet yet again Wednesday evening, recording the lone goal in a 1-0 win. In bully-like fashion, the marker was Akinola’s team-leading eighth goal of the season—in as many starts—as the forward once again put his brute strength on full display before calmly slotting home.

But what impressed me about Akinola on Wednesday evening wasn’t just the goal. It was more so the overall work of chaos that he created for the New England defence by making constant, direct runs in behind. He was predictable, but with his repertoire of size, strength, and a knack for goal, I believe it could be the perfect recipe for success when you have a quarterback like Alejandro Pozuelo. There were about four times when Pozuelo picked up the ball and immediately—without looking—played the ball on the ground beyond the opposition back line knowing the young forward would be making that run. In a way, it was Victor Vazquez-Sebastian Giovinco/Jozy Altidore-esque.

As’s Matthew Doyle points out, it’s Akinola’s subtle movement that has him really separating himself from the rest of the pack.

How long before Akinola and Laryea attract European interest?

D.C. United v Toronto FC

If they keep trending in this direction, it won’t be very long before either Ayo Akinola or Richie Laryea generate serious interest from bigger clubs overseas.

“People talk about the goals, but I’m on him (Ayo Akinola) for everything else because holding the ball up, clean touches, making sure he’s alert, those are the things that take you to the next level and get you to Europe where I think eventually he’s got to go to continue to grow and thrive,” said star Jozy Altidore to media on Oct. 2.

“And I think Toronto FC is a fantastic place for him at the minute,” Altidore continued, “but I think he’s got to test himself at a higher level. He’s got to continue to work first to get there, but I’m very hopeful for Ayo as I am for Jayden (Nelson), Noble (Okello), Julian Dunn, Ralph (Priso-Mbongue), I’m very hopeful for these kids...”

Akinola isn’t the only breakout story garnering serious traction around MLS. With the way Canadian international Laryea is playing, Altidore believes you can throw him into that mix as well.

“For Richie, I have the same thoughts as I have for Ayo,” answered the former Sunderland striker. “Another terrific young player who has come in and taken his chance with both hands and continues to progress. I think for Richie, he has to keep his head down and continue to do what he’s doing. ... He’s a guy that I think has to continue to be hungry, has to continue to climb the ladder, and continue to try and play at a higher and higher level, and I think Richie has that hunger in him as does Ayo.”

Akinola, 20, and Laryea, 25, are both significant assets to Toronto FC thanks to their impact on the field combined with their low salary budget cost. No doubt losing either player would significantly weaken their squad, but if TFC want to attract the top Canadian talent moving forward, if they get a legitimate offer, say, at the end of this season, they need to sell.

“You know, you love to have those guys at your club but with the quality that they have, how long we’ll have them? We don’t know,” added Altidore. “But that’s just the reality of football. But in the same breath, it’s a great thing to see. To see that they came here and they got themselves to a point that now they’re moving on, that’s huge.

“Obviously, we want them here as long as possible, we love them here in Toronto, but at the end of the day, it’s also a huge plus when you see guys go on to a new level and take what they learn and continue to excel.”

Vanney keeping everyone guessing with usage of fullbacks

MLS: Montreal Impact at Toronto FC

Last season, Toronto FC’s depth (or lack thereof) at the fullback position was at the very least noteworthy. Can anyone recall fullback Nick DeLeon?

One year later, cue the emergence Laryea, Auro Jr., Liverpool loanee Tony Gallacher, alongside the steady presence of Justin Morrow and the position is now one of the team’s deepest areas of strength. In fact, so much so, that coach Greg Vanney often game plans around his getting Laryea his outside backs involved in a way that’s keeping everyone guessing.

Take in his fullback combinations for instance. So far in 2020, we’ve seen Vanney deploy six different pairings (not including Griffin Dorsey):

  • Morrow (LB) and Auro Jr. (RB)
  • Laryea (RB) and Morrow (LB)
  • Gallacher (LB) and Auro (RB)
  • Laryea (RB) and Gallacher (LB)
  • Laryea (LB) and Auro (RB)
  • Laryea (RB) and Auro (LB)

With Vanney’s go-to right-back Auro Jr. returning from injury, the TFC coach will have to continue to be creative in order to get the most out of his defenders. With Laryea in-form at right-back, it’s difficult to ask him to do what he’s doing somewhere else on the field, even though he’s shown he’s very effective regardless of where he plays. That’s why on Wednesday, we witnessed the first instance in 2020 of Auro playing left-back and Laryea playing right-back.

“Richie did a phenomenal job of making good decisions, which is showing more of his progression in the position,” said Vanney after the New England match. “His ability to close down, get tight to guys and defend one on one, to stand guys up at the right times, I thought he had a very mature performance and a different kind of performance. Usually, in games he impacts a lot more on the attacking side. Tonight, he showed that he continues to grow on the defensive side. I thought he was excellent.”

With Auro generally deployed down the right-hand side, he’s been able to link up well with Pablo Piatti and Pozuelo. If Vanney does decide to keep Laryea at right-back and start Auro on the left, does he then shift Piatti over to the left as well? Or will Vanney start Laryea on the left and Auro on the right like he did earlier in the year?

To go full circle here, your guess is as good as mine.

Bono continues to show value on and off the field

MLS: Toronto FC at New England Revolution

Alex Bono continues to impress.

The 26 year old made six saves to post his third consecutive clean sheet in as many starts this season. On a macro level, it really doesn’t get any better than that.

“He looks solid back there,” said Vanney after Wednesday’s match. “...he just looks really assured out there and he has three shutouts, and all three of them were great performances. He continues to compete. We’ve got two good goalkeepers right now. Two goalkeepers I believe are in form and we’re going to try to keep it that way and see where we go.”

And then you add in what Bono brings to the team off the field. After making his 100th start as a Red, the 2015 sixth-overall pick and 2017 MLS Cup winner was asked how difficult it is to essentially stay sharp despite a lack of game action. This was how he started his answer, which shows just the type of person Bono really is.

“Yeah, it’s obviously difficult but I just want to start off by thanking this organization,” said Bono. “Thanking Toronto FC, thanking the front office and my coaches for allowing me to have the opportunity to play as many games for such an awesome club. This is all I know from a professional standpoint and I’ve learned so much here along the way. I’ve been here for six years now, if you told me that six years down the road I would have started 100 games when I first walked into the training facility, I probably would of thought you were crazy and I’m so honoured and I’m so blessed to be part of this organization and so grateful for the opportunity they’ve given me...”

The type of person that Bono is cannot be understated enough: his humility and likability goes a long way in the locker room. It also makes him an easy person to root for. And while his cap hit is a tough pill to swallow for a backup goalkeeper, you can’t argue that Bono isn’t doing everything within his power to prove his worth.

While Bono has earned a few more starts before the end of the season, what I will add is that I believe Quentin Westberg is still Toronto FC’s No. 1 moving forward and Wednesday evening’s numbers just further cement my argument.

As a team, Toronto FC completed just 306 passes, by far their lowest total since New York City FC. Individually, Bono completed just 36.4 per cent of his attempted passes (12-for-33), far below Westberg’s season average of 77.5 per cent. I highlighted why that’s important here.

Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty ‘very close’ to making MLS debut

MLS: Toronto FC at Montreal Impact

While Toronto FC fans haven’t been introduced to him formally yet, hype is building around the club’s youngest ever-signing Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty. The 16-year-old winger was signed to a Homegrown contract earlier this year and has been coming along nicely in training according to Vanney.

“I just spoke to him the other day and the last two-three weeks I really think he’s (Marshall-Rutty’s) taken a jump,” answered the TFC coach when asked about the youngster. “... he’s gone away from just kind of keeping things simple and playing within the team to again kind of putting himself out there and showing now that he has the strength, the physicality at the right times, the confidence, to do a little bit more in those moments.”

Often praised for his maturity on the field, the highly-touted Brampton, Ontario-native is a smart soccer player. While most footballers his age are trying too often to do too much, Vanney’s noted the opposite out of the young Canadian.

“He already has a foundation of kind of respect for the game,” said Vanney. “Respect for the team, trying to play, mak(ing) the right plays at the right times, not making the game about him but making it about the team. My challenge is always going to be to keep allowing this young man to take some risk because he’s a difference maker and not for him to become such a simple player while he’s trying to get used to playing with men.”

With the Reds set to play five more matches before the end of October, expect Marshall-Rutty to make his debut before the end of the season.

“I do think he’s very close to that opportunity and he will get it because I really want him to get that feeling of what it’s like to play in MLS so he has that experience that he can continue to build upon as he is training, finding game time, all of that kind of stuff,” concluded Vanney. “You have to know what it feels like in order to really be able to set your sights on what you need to do keep improving, so he’ll get there.”