Before the 2020 season, Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney wondered if Liam Fraser needed to leave the club in order to get more playing time.
The 22-year-old homegrown midfielder was coming off a year in which he made a career-high nine starts. Internationally, he also made his debut for Canada, earning four caps in total, including rave reviews during a 2-0 win over the United States.
He was proving to be a really good player. The issue, however, was that he was hardly alone in that designation among Toronto FC midfielders.
Heading into this season, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, Alejandro Pozuelo, Marky Delgado and Nick DeLeon were all ahead of Fraser in the pecking order.
During the offseason, however, everything changed. In January, it was announced that what seemed like a minor injury that captain Michael Bradley suffered to his ankle during the 2019 MLS Cup final was actually serious and would keep him out for months. All of a sudden, Fraser looked like he might be a key part of Toronto FC’s early season action.
Many around the club spent preseason hyping up what Fraser could do for the team. Jozy Altidore said he thought Fraser had been the best player in Canada’s January camp and was confident he was ready for the increased minutes. Vanney, as he is wont to do, was a little bit more guarded in his comments, but also he said he thought Fraser was ready. The young midfielder would start at his coveted holding midfield spot throughout preseason.
Greg Vanney tells me why no Liam Fraser did not make the XI: “Liam has played every preseason game. This is a team for a specific opponent who go man to man all over the field. We feel we need more of a central playmaker more than a sitting defensive midfielder.” https://t.co/hO1dx5iSIt— Kristian Jack (@KristianJack) February 29, 2020
Then the regular season started, and Fraser played all of 14 minutes through the first two games. It was the start of what has ultimately been a season where Toronto FC has consistently mismanaged the young midfielder and might well spell his exit in the process.
The next hurdle for Fraser in 2020 was hardly unique to him, as the global pandemic would put the season on extended hiatus. Unfortunately for his playing time, that also meant Bradley had time to heal and reclaim his place in the starting lineup when the season finally resumed in Orlando. Despite fixture congestion, Fraser would play just 24 minutes at MLS is Back.
After all of the hype surrounding him in preseason, it would be August 21 when he made his first start for Toronto FC in a 1-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps. He played just 57 minutes. In fact, Fraser has only gone a full 90 minutes once this season. He has made four starts total this season, with 15 days being the shortest period in between starts.
Even after a second long-term injury to Bradley, Fraser couldn’t get an extended look. In all, Bradley has not been in the Toronto FC starting lineup twelve times this season. Fraser has started just two of those games. His other two starts have come alongside Bradley, which hasn’t exactly been ideal considering how similarly the two play.
One of the biggest hurdles to Fraser’s playing time this season has been just how good Delgado, and especially, Osorio have been as deep-lying midfielders this season. But even with that being said, Vanney ultimately overplayed both of them to the point of exhaustion instead of rotating in Fraser and they are now sidelined with injury.
With Delgado and Osorio out then, perhaps the toughest pill to swallow yet for Fraser came this weekend, when he was taken out of the starting lineup for 18-year-old Ralph Priso. Full credit to Priso, who was undoubtedly fantastic in his debut and provided Toronto with more balance in their midfield. But, optically, sitting Fraser in a critical game and instead trusting a teenager didn’t look great for his long-term future with the team.
This has to be especially frustrating for a player who has stated multiple times how important he believes the age of 22-24 is for a player’s development. That means playing week-in and week-out soccer, something that even an injury riddled version of Toronto FC hasn’t offered him yet.
While Fraser hasn’t quite looked like a world beater in his limited appearances this season, he has quietly continued to do the things that make him such a promising player. Only Marky Delgado and Alejandro Pozuelo have averaged more progressive passes this season. Among players who have played at least 200 minutes, only Justin Morrow has won more tackles per 90, and only Piatti and Osorio have had more successful pressures (number of times the team gained the ball back within five seconds of a press), than Fraser. For a team that often struggles defending in transition, only Omar Gonzalez has a better tackle percentage against dribbles than Fraser’s 62.5 per cent (all stats per Fb Ref).
Perhaps he hasn’t been training well. Perhaps he and Vanney don’t see eye-to-eye for whatever reason, or he doesn’t like some part of his game. There are only 11 spots on the field, after all, and it’s not like Toronto FC have exactly been struggling without him. Maybe he just isn’t that good or is having an off year.
But there can be no doubt that he hasn’t been put in a position to succeed this season, either psychologically or with his playing time. Given Fraser’s ambition and the fact that even given a perfect storm of injuries he isn’t getting minutes, this might well be his last year with the club. It would be disappointing to see him go without really being given a proper chance.