TORONTO, Canada—Jonathan Osorio found the back of the net just once for Toronto FC this season.
Just two years ago, when he put pen to paper on a significant TAM deal, it came after a season in which he scored 17 goals and seven assists in all competitions. Fast forward to 2020, and from a goal involvement standpoint, this was the second worst season of the 28-year-old Canadian’s professional career.
Those cherry-picked numbers tell the story of a player who was signed to an outsized deal after an outlier offensive season that he would never be able to replicate. While the offensive part of that statement might be true, the rest could not be further from the truth.
This wasn’t a year of decline for Osorio; it was one where he showed just how much he has grown as a footballer. Thrust into a new position, he diversified his game and became an even more well-rounded player. In a year where he made a record 200th regular season appearance for the club, he has never been more valuable to Toronto FC.
The team has also never demanded more from him. With Michael Bradley starting less than half of the club’s games this season, it was largely on Osorio to fill the metaphorically biggest shoes in the squad. This meant not only tweaking his game to cover Bradley’s position, but also pulling on the captain’s armband as well. Not only did he adequately fill those shoes, he thrived in them.
“For me, Oso is a guy who loves to play, he loves to train, he works, so he’s going to get better and better,” Bradley told Footy Talks weekly. “He’s versatile as well, he can play as a two-way midfielder, he can play as an attacking midfielder, if you want him to he can play [as a winger].”
Bradley himself remains a huge part of the Toronto FC team. But how well Osorio deputized in his role this season—not to mention how Ayo Akinola stepped in for the injured Jozy Altidore—shows an important progression for the club. They are slowly transitioning to the next era without losing their place among the MLS elite.
The goals and assists might underwhelm, but the numbers that do jump off the page when it comes to Oso this year have to do with his passing. He finished 9th in the league in terms of pass completion percentage with 90.2 per cent. Per MLS, he also had a 6.79 per cent completion above expected as well suggesting these are hardly easy passes he is completing.
He was also only dispossessed 1.03 times per 90 this season, the lowest of any non-defender on the team not named Liam Fraser. Combined with his aforementioned passing proficiency, that ability to make sure TFC retain possession has been critical given the role he plays.
For one, Toronto FC play a possession-based style; only four teams this season had more of the ball than the reds. Teams, however, also know this is Toronto’s style and therefore pressure them heavily when they are trying to build out of the back, so Osorio’s ability to not squander possession in that critical area is of utmost importance. It isn’t flashy work, and it won’t directly show up on the scoreboard, but it is essential to this TFC system succeeding.
He and Marky Delgado have combined incredibly well to beat opposing team’s presses this season. Osorio is often the player who is able to beat the initial press, creating extra space in the midfield for Delgado to progress the ball forward. Delgado is in the top ten in the league both in passes into the final third and progressive passes.
“[Oso] and Marky both deserve big credit for the way that they were able to tweak little parts of the way that they both play and make sure that the team didn’t skip a beat in the games that I missed,” said Bradley.
The pair, as well as the midfield in general, have also been critical to the club’s defensive success. While the backline and Quentin Westberg were a big reason why only six teams allowed fewer goals per 90 than Toronto FC, oppositions have often struggled to break through the initial midfield wall of players like Pablo Piatti, Bradley, Delgado and Osorio.
This holistic defensive approach is the main reason Toronto FC were in the Supporters’ Shield hunt until the final day of the season. In this, also, Osorio has been a leader, as his elite level reading of the game and fitness have allowed him to excel defensively this season. He led Toronto FC in tackles won this year, and was second on the team behind Piatti is successful pressures. He was also fifth on the team in interceptions and recoveries which means he not only helps the team keep the ball, he also plays a big role in winning it back.
Osorio has done all of this with the added pressure of wearing the armband for most of the season as a result of Bradley’s absence. How well he has done in that leadership role is another sign of his growth as a player.
Life at Toronto FC hasn’t always been easy for Oso. He’s missed some big games with the club: the famous 2016 playoff win over the Montreal Impact at BMO Field, for that matter, and most of the 2017 season as he struggled to find form and consistency. He was on the outside looking in with the national team for a few years as well. Even last year he dealt with anemia for large parts of the season.
But the story of Oso has always been learning lessons from all of these experiences and coming out on the other side a better player. It is knowledge that he can, and already has, imparted on the next generation of young Toronto FC and Canadian men’s national team player. This year is no different, and those learnings have continued. He says every time he has pulled on the armband this year there has been a new lesson.
“Now I understand how that feels in that role,” Osorio told the media earlier this season. “It’s actually helped me understand more of what [Bradley] has done all these years and it’s opened my eyes to how good of a job he’s done for this club.”
Both Osorio and Bradley look like they will finally be healthy at the same time when the playoffs kick off on Tuesday. Considering what the pair has already accomplished together, that is a good sign for the reds.
“The experience that we’ve had on the field together, we’ve stepped on the field on a lot of big days and a lot of big nights over the last few years and certainly the trust and the confidence that he and I have in each other that’s hard to find,” said Bradley.
Given Bradley is 33, how many more of those big nights they will step on the field together remains to be seen. But when Bradley does finally hang up the boots, he can do so knowing that he will pass the captain’s armband into Osorio’s more than capable hands.