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Armchair GM: Make your best starting XI from other 2020 Toronto sports teams

Which professional Toronto-based athletes that don’t play for Toronto FC would make your starting XI?

DC United v Toronto FC - First Round
Marc Gasol of the Toronto Raptors presents the game ball prior to an MLS First Round Playoff game between D.C. United and Toronto FC at BMO Field

It’s taken some time, but with well over a month since there has been little-to-no sporting action in North America, I’m finally coming to terms with how boring life can be. Okay, that’s a lie, no I’m not.

Around this time in Spring would have been one of the busiest times of the year on the sport calendar, and for the number of the major Toronto sport franchises, some of the most intense.

Toronto FC kicked off their season in late February with a draw on the road to San Jose Earthquakes, before getting their first win against New York City FC back at home at BMO Field on March 7. That was the last soccer action Toronto FC would see due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced commissioner Don Garber to halt all MLS competition.

The decision was swift and inevitable. Prior to the suspension of soccer, however, basketball and hockey were also put to a halt at a time when playoff seeding mattered the most.

The Toronto Raptors played their last NBA game on Monday, March 9, beating the Utah Jazz 101-92. Currently sitting 2nd in the Eastern Conference with the third best record in the league (46-18), the reigning NBA champions have already clinched a playoff spot with 18 games remaining before the post-season begins.

The Toronto Maple Leafs played their last NHL game on Tuesday, March 10, taking down the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1. At a record of 36-25-9, the Leafs are in a playoff spot, third in the Atlantic Division, however, they’re just three points ahead of the Florida Panthers in fourth, and a generous 10 points ahead of the Montreal Canadiens in fifth.

In baseball, spring training was cut short, leaving the young Toronto Blue Jays team unable to complete their preseason ahead of a regular season that would obviously be postponed. With their #NEWBLUE, next-generation promotions—and the signing of their new beloved Japanese pitcher, Hyun-Jin Ryu—2020 had TBJ fans excited.

Toronto FC’s unbeaten start, the Raptors defence of their title, the Leafs Sheldon Keefe takeover, and the Blue Jays 2020 season were all disrupted by the virus, leaving Toronto sports fans with no choice but to watch replays of old classics on the networks that provide.

In the spirit of inclusion, and for the love of Toronto sports, I wanted to include all teams, and athletes on major Toronto franchises in a single team, outlining their greatest characteristics as not only athletes, but as people, as well.

So without further ado, here is a combined Toronto based athletes starting eleven

I call it, Toronto BA FC.

FORMATION: 4-3-1-2

Goalkeeper - Serge Ibaka (Toronto Raptors, PF, C)

A rim protector on the court, Serge Ibaka would be an incredible shot stopper on the pitch. Though in today’s game, the ‘modern’ goalkeeper could be described as ‘cat-like’ and flexible, at 7-foot, Ibaka would be an old-school goalkeeper: screaming instructions to his defenders, pushing people out of the way with ease, punching away threatening crosses into the box, and most importantly, getting in the face of any striker who dares challenge him to a one-on-one. On the court, Ibaka is averaging 1.0 block per game in this 2019/20 season (2.1 career), a stat that would carry over nicely to a goalkeeping position.

Ibaka is also known to have some famous soccer star friends. He included one of them, Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku, on his hilarious cooking show “How Hungry Are You?” in August 2018. Personally, i would love to see Ibaka stop a half volley from Lukaku, then hit him with a Mutumbo finger wag.

Right-Back -Tyson Barrie (Toronto Maple Leafs, D)

No position in the game of soccer has changed more than that of fullbacks. Surging runs that overlap attackers way up the pitch have changed the role of the once boring, stay-at-home position. Tyson Barrie’s attacking play as a star defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs would make him a key part of the counter attacks from the fullback role for Toronto BA FC. The smooth-skating Barrie currently leads all Leafs’ dmen in assists with 34, tying John Tavares for second on the team. Barrie has also quietly tacked on five goals, despite being at the eye of criticism for much of his first season in TO.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Anaheim Ducks
Mar 6, 2020; Anaheim, California, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs right wing William Nylander (88) celebrates with defenseman Tyson Barrie (94) after scoring a goal against the Anaheim Ducks in the third period at Honda Center. The Ducks won 2-1.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Centre Back—Kyle Lowry (Captain) (Toronto Raptors, PG)

Scrappy, loud, arrogant, and a leader. Kyle Lowry might be the most obvious choice for captain. For Toronto BA FC, he’ll slot in at one of the most ‘bossy’ positions on the football pitch, considering all that a centre-back has to deal with.

He is the Raptors’ floor general, a veteran that is one of the best defensive point-guards in the league. All teammates listen to and respect him, all opponents respect him, but also must hate playing against him. Lowry has been one of the league leaders in charges taken over the last few years, showing he’s not afraid of getting in the way of some heavy players to protect his team’s basket.

KLow can spread the ball across the court like butter on toast, a wider pitch would mean a bit more time for him to stretch a pass from a deep ball playing CB position for a runner to get onto. I should mention that all though Lowry leads the Raptors in assists with 7.7. In the Raptors last three games before the pandemic, Lowry also recored eight steals.

Getting his side out of a spot of bother is now second nature to the experienced all-star, and there is not many players I believe would be as good at such a demanding defensive position as the leader of the 2019 NBA champions.

Centre Back—Vladdy Guerrero Jr. (Toronto Blue Jays, 3B)

I wouldn't call Toronto BA FC a long ball team, but with this kid at the back, it could be all about the hoofing... or the PLAKATA-ing? Vladdy Guerrero Jr. burst onto the scene in the minors for crushing baseballs, and after climbing up to the majors, he has taken the transition in stride.

In 123 games in 2019, Vladdy had 126 hits, 15 home runs and 69 runs-batted-in. Imagine a cross, or a ball being played into the box anywhere near the youngster... he might as-well try going for goal from his own 18-yard-box. If his hitting power could translate to kicking power, clearances would be epic, tackles would be lethal.

Left Back—Norm Powell (Toronto Raptors, SF/SG)

Though some of his best performances may come as part of the Toronto Raptors bench boost, the high-flyer would add a brilliant second wave of an attack to an already potent offence. Norman Powell is one of the more seasoned players on his team even at an age of 26. He is a vocal presence on the court and this trait would carry over well to the pitch if he was to make a sneaky overlapping run past his winger, leaping into the attack like he does off the Raptors bench. Powell also has some soccer connections, one being social media star @MoAliFC, who he teamed up with in his championship summer to work on some footwork.

Right Midfield - William Nylander (Toronto Maple Leafs, RW)

A winger in for his Maple Leafs, William Nylander would have many transferable skills for Toronto BA FC as a winger. Skating at an electrifying pace, Nylander would be one of the go-to players to get on the end of a through ball on a counter, even if he is deep in the pitch. When he gets into the attacking zone, he could be lethal through both the balls he distributes, given his 135 assists over five seasons, as-well as the goals he’s able to find.

The Swedish winger loves to score from the zone in front of the net in particular, though a number will have come from tip ins, along with shots. Expect a lot of diagonal runs from Nylander who could find his scoring form playing soccer if he cuts inside and fires from in-front.

Centre Midfield- Pascal Siakam (Toronto Raptors, PF)

It’s hard to believe that the NBA’s reigning Most Improved Player only started playing organized basketball eight years ago. It’s also hard to believe that if his career in basketball didn’t work out, he would have been working in a missionary like his father, in his home country of Cameroon. What is not difficult to believe, is that prior to playing basketball, Pascal Siakam loved soccer, and that it was his favourite sport to play growing up.

In the Raptors’ winning run of 2019, Siakam showed his ability to be explosive from all points on offence as he averaged 19.0 points per game down the stretch in a supporting role. Defensively too, he matched up with some of the best scorers in the league.

Also known for his long strides and relentless work rate, Siakam would have made a brilliant box-to-box midfielder that scores goals, spreads the play, and still gets back to do the dirty work when his defence needs the coverage.

About six minutes into season 6, episode 22 of Open Gym, Siakam showed some pretty decent footwork, playing keep-away from elementary school students. I know that I’m reaching here, but a 6’7 power forward with ball control? Deserves respect.

(Also had to DIG to find it)

Left Midfield- Fred VanVleet (Toronto Raptors, PG)

A fan favourite in the city of Toronto, the undrafted point guard out of Wichita State climbed out of the G-League like others in the Raptors team—and has performed like a first round draft pick since being included. Second in team assists with 6.6, Fred VanVleet can link up brilliantly with his teammates for scoring chances, and then go on a surging, aggressive run for a score through traffic with a tricky finish. He could be one of the more skilled guards on the Toronto team when he is on the ball. Getting by defenders would be a great skill to have out wide for Toronto BA FC, especially when it comes to playing in unchallenged crosses for the strikers.

Vanvleet is also the type of player to step up to the big occasion. In the 2019 NBA Finals, he provided an outstanding all around effort against the Golden State Warriors. Not only did he shadow Steph Curry for six games, but put in some massive scoring efforts, en route to the coveted title.

Centre Attacking Midfield - Mitch Marner (Toronto Maple Leafs, RW)

Naturally a right winger, my choice to play Mitch Marner in the Central Attacking Midfield role is based on the stat of him being 17 assists clear of John Tavares and Tyson Barrie with 34. The CAM would without a doubt play a majority of their direct forward passes to the strikers who would go for goal, so it just makes sense for Marner to rack up the assists on the pitch too. Marner also boasts a terrific work rate which would be handy in any position, but specifically in his role of provider when it comes to keeping the attack together and sharp.

In an interview with The New York Times, Marner admitted to playing soccer growing up, stating that it helped his footwork on the ice. The Markham, Ontario native also said “In soccer, [he] was a midfielder, so i did a lot of the running up and down the field”, thus helping his case for the high-lying spot.

Centre Forward - Marc Gasol (Toronto Raptors, C)

A former player for the basketball section of FC Barcelona, ‘Big Spain’ as he is otherwise known, is as comfortable with the ball in his hands as some FC Barcelona soccer players are with it at their feet. Marc Gasol boasts an incredible passing ability for someone of his size and stature. At 6’11, he distributes the ball in the same way veterans of his home nation do; Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets share the same trait of great vision in tight spaces in the midfield that Gasol does in the paint.

Averaging a little over 3.4 assists per game on the court, this would translate well into the role of a holding striker who is partnered with a scoring phenom. When Gasol works the pick and roll with his guards, he has a skill of giving it right back to them at the right time in the right place or popping out and knocking down a shot of his own.

Imagine the same technique, but a long ball to Gasol, with elegant control on the touch and then the composure to play the ball into the path of a running fellow striker. Perhaps the player in the game that would relate to this role best is Jozy Altidore of Toronto FC, in his great ability to hold up a play and release an attack high up the pitch. Another obvious trait for Gasol would be a his ability to get on the end of crosses; 99 Heading for sure.

Centre Forward - Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs, C)

This one is a no-brainer. Auston Matthews not only leads the Leafs in scoring, but the sharpshooter is also ninth in the NHL in points leaders with 80. In his own sport, Matthews is able to drive an offence forward, but the position I would play him in for Toronto BA FC is quite different, as his purpose is to solely to score goals. Not to restrict the Arizona native to standing on the toes of the defenders, I see him running onto the through balls played in behind the defence, and finishing it off in few touches for the ‘poacher’ approach inside the 18-yard-box.

If Matthews were to drop deep and carry the offence to the opponent, it would be similar to how Alejandro Pozuelo does from his midfield role, as he could play a nifty one-two, and find himself in on goal.

There is no doubt that Matthews’ habit of getting on the scoresheet would certainly carry over to the soccer pitch.

Manager - Nick Nurse

His first season in charge of the Toronto Raptors ended in him holding the franchise’s first ever NBA championship, his second sees him at second in the eastern conference, despite losing two key players. Though he was an assistant at the team before becoming head coach, Nick Nurse slotted into the role like he was born for it.

He has won the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month award on two occasions over his nearly two-year tenure and was also one of two NBA All-Star coaches in 2020, proving the point that he transitions into new challenging roles quite well.

Something of great importance in relation to the sport of soccer, is that Nurse has coached on many levels, including internationally. The Raptors head coach has been in charge of teams in the US, England, and Belgium before landing his first NBA job at the Raptors in 2013 as an assistant. He brings a wealth of knowledge of studying the game, and I think, given how well being a student of the sport of basketball has gone for him, he would do just as brilliantly as a student of soccer too.

This concludes a combined Toronto based athletes soccer team.

Formation guide below. Feel free to argue your preferred starting XI in the comments.