TORONTO, Ont. - The 2020 season is finally upon us. The Reds will take the field for the first time on Saturday in San Jose after a short off-season and will look to start off the season like they did in 2019 - with a win.
In that game, captain Michael Bradley scored two goals and Nick De Leon added another in injury time, to seal the win for TFC. Both Bradley (ankle) and De Leon (back spasms) are currently facing some time on the sideline which will create some openings for others to step into.
With injuries and off-season personnel decisions, Greg Vanney will have to rely on his young players starting as early as the season opener.
So with that, let’s take a look at five players who Vanney can call upon and who may be Toronto F.C.’s breakout player this season (in no particular order):
Liam Fraser is perhaps the player with the best opportunity to breakout this year. The homegrown, hometown kid has been Michael Bradley’s understudy for the last two years in Toronto. Even if Bradley had not signed an extension in the winter, Fraser was likely to have been the next guy up to replace him in anycase.
While he has had opportunities to slot into TFC’s midfield, his chances have been limited. To continue his development, Fraser and Vanney have both acknowledged that an increase in minutes was needed, and a loan was certainly in the cards this offseason. Thankfully nothing came to fruition and the young Canadian has a real opportunity in front of himself here.
Although no one would have wanted that to come at the expense of the captain, Bradley’s absence will provide Fraser with additional, meaningful minutes, allowing him to continue his development while becoming an integral member of the squad.
During preseason, Vanney acknowledged Fraser’s strength on the ball, but also spoke to the skills that the 22 year-old will have to develop to become a regular feature in his side:
“He needs to continue to grow on the defensive side: reading, making sure he stays engaged and is organizing players around him,” detailed Vanney. “A lot of teams that we play, we end up having a fair amount of possession, but then we’ve got to manage the transition game and it’s important that players are prepared and organized. That’s a high level of engagement, communication, leadership that has to come out of that position.”
Developing his off-the-ball skills, along with keeping up the intensity—which is now becoming key to the deep, lying midfielder role—will also help ease the burden for Bradley when he does return from injury.
Jacob Shaffelburg made quite the name for himself when TFC were missing players through injury and international duty last summer. Shaffelburg dazzled with his pace and offered Vanney an option in wide areas before reinforcements arrived later in the season. Although he registered just one assist in 10 appearances last year, Shaffelburg often looked dangerous and, had TFC attackers finished with better consistency, he might have found himself on the score sheet more regularly.
The Nova Scotian native will have plenty of competition ahead of him this season. However, between Piatti’s load management, a gruelling schedule and any potential injuries there should be more than a few opportunities for Shaffelburg to make his mark on this team.
Gallardo was supposed to be the answer to Vanney’s winger problem once he arrived last season. However, injury troubles limited the Venezuelan's chances in the regular season which ultimately extended into the playoffs as Vanney stuck to known starting XI throughout the postseason.
This year, the club is excited to see what a healthy Gallardo can do in a full season. Although a slight knock in preseason limited his time in friendlies, over the course of a full season, and with proper man management, Gallardo may be able to find a rhythm to do what he showed glimpses of in his five appearance last season. His direct play and speed should cause problems for many defences across the league and can become an important piece of the attack this season.
A growing trend with Toronto FC in the past few years has been developing young talents and promoting players through the academy. Akinola, along with Fraser and Shaffelburg, has spent time with Toronto FC II and has been honing his craft in the USL.
The 20 year old impressed in his first start for Toronto FC last season in a starring role against the New England Revolution. Akinola scored a goal and provided an assist in a 3-2 win while playing 82 minutes. He went the rest of the season playing in a more of a limited role, but when he was handed an opportunity, Akinola brought speed and physicality to TFC’s attack that typically only Altidore can provide.
Building on last year’s experience and being able to watch a player like Jozy Altidore on the training pitch every day, Akinola can become TFC’s next reliable striker if he’s able to take advantage of the opportunities that come his way.
As far as first impressions go, they can’t get much better than what Achara has done since arriving at training camp. Toronto’s 25th overall draft pick in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft made enough of an impression to earn himself a contract right out of camp. Achara found the back of the net three times in four matches and has impressed head coach Greg Vanney with his movement on and off the ball and his soccer IQ.
On the day Achara was signed, Vanney had this to say to club’s website:
“Achara stands out as a guy who has come from the college scene and fits,” said the coach. “His skill set fits into our group, his confidence, the way he plays the game and the speed at which he plays really suits us. He’s a smart kid, picks up things tactically very quickly. Even within games, when we adapt he picks things up quickly. He’s got a nice maturity level.”
#TFCLive 2020 first-round pick Ifunanyachi Achara scored a nice chip against LAFC yesterday.— Michael Singh (@MichaelSingh94) February 13, 2020
Achara fell to No. 25 in the Draft after appearing in just 15 games last year due to injury. A 2019 NCAA Champ with Georgetown, TFC may have a good one here pic.twitter.com/dJqNIH04J3
Fresh off of an NCAA National Championship with Georgetown, Achara scored six times and provided five assists in 15 appearances during his final year. His versatility on the offensive side, can make him a dangerous weapon and can help him make his first season in the MLS a memorable one.
TFC has some strong candidates that are ready to breakout in 2020. While there may not be many vacancies in attack at the start of the season, if past years are any indication, there will still be opportunities for these youngsters to breakthrough and find their place in Vanney’s side this season. The Reds kickoff their year in San Jose on Saturday—let’s see who breaks through first!