When Greg Vanney introduced his prefered formation to start 2019, it really did seem like he was just winging it. The Toronto FC manager introduced the 4-3-3 at a time when the club didn’t have the wide attackers to properly succeed in the formation.
In a season opening 4-0 Concacaf Champions League loss to Independiente, the reds rolled out a 4-3-3 with Justin Morrow and rookie Griffin Dorsey playing as wingers. As a result Vanney would mostly abandon the formation for the first half of the season, until personnel finally allowed him to reintroduce his initial vision.
What a difference a year can make. Going into the MLS is Back tournament, Vanney appears spoiled for choice with wide players, all of whom seem to bring something different to the table. It’s a level of depth and quality that could prove critical to the club’s success at this competition, especially with the amount of squad rotation required, and substitutions allowed.
Here is a look at the several options that have presented themselves to Greg Vanney out wide.
The mystery man. The Argentine has been successful at the game’s highest level for multiple years, but Toronto FC fans have yet to see how that resume translates. It doesn’t help that his resume also includes an injury history, and that the most recent entry came before he could even step on the field for the team.
With all that being said, first impressions out of the BMO Training Ground on Piatti have largely been positive. His chemistry with Alejandro Pozuelo has reportedly been almost immediate, and he can play both wings. Greg Vanney has been using him on the right side so that he can cut in during training matches. He remains the most talented winger on Toronto’s roster, now it will just be about putting him in the right situations.
Gallardo was part of an influx of players brought in to try and improve Toronto FC’s width during last summer’s transfer window. On July 9, he joined a Toronto squad that was significantly struggling. The club only lost twice more in 18 matches before a third loss in the November 10 MLS Cup Final. Vanney had finally found his squad, Gallardo wasn’t part of it.
Despite that timing, those inside Toronto have remained high on Gallardo’s potential. In his limited time playing for the club he has appeared a player with good speed and directness, who also gets back well. What he hasn’t done very well is connect with teammate, with just 71.2 per cent passing accuracy last season for example.
Toronto will need him this tournament. The ability is clearly there. But as mentioned above and below Toronto have other options, it has been a year since Gallardo signed with the club and he needs to prove he is worth the money.
The Tsubasa Endoh renaissance remains one of the craziest stories of Toronto FC’s season last year. After being dropped from the 2017 championship side, he came back and dominated USL with Toronto FC II the following season. Given a first team deal, he sat on the bench until late June when he was given a start against Atlanta. He promptly scored the fastest goal in club history.
The result was a turning point in the season for the reds, who had been winless in their previous eight matches. Endoh would become a regular starter, which would carry over into all four playoff games. The Japanese winger is a hard worker, who’s technical ability on the ball makes him a major threat in the final third. His willingness to shoot — he was fourth on the team in shots per game in 2019 — also makes him an asset. Above all, he rarely turns in a bad performance, and that is something Vanney values highly.
The architect of likely the best moment in Toronto FC’s 2019 MLS Season, Nick DeLeon was an incredibly positive surprise for the reds last season. Coming off a season cut short by injury with D.C. United, DeLeon was one of the most dependable reds last year, and put an exclamation point on that fact with an outstanding playoff performance.
He scored a career high six goals, and added four assists, his best season production wise since his debut year in 2012. He added two more, and an assist, in the playoffs including that memorable curler against Atlanta United. The fact that DeLeon is reliable, strong defensively and can play anywhere in the attacking midfield means he will likely see solid minutes at the MLS is Back tournament.
Shaffelburg burst onto the scene last summer with a couple of exciting performances and ended up getting eight starts in his rookie season. His speed and the quality of the runs he made gave Toronto a legitimate threat in behind that they had been missing for most of the season.
However, the 20-year-old was still fairly raw and ending up being a bit of a stopgap before Nicolas Benezet took over the position. His composure still needs work in the final third as many of his crosses ended up missing their target or being cut out by defenders. With that being said, only Pozuelo and Marky Delgado had more key passes (passes leading to a shot) per game than Shaffelburg last season suggesting he was still able to create a decent amount of chances.
Laryea would be much higher in this article if he were primarily played as a winger. In fact, he is a midfielder converted into a right back who now sometimes Greg Vanney plays as a right winger because he is spoiled for choice at the right back position. So far both of Laryea’s appearances this past season have come as an attacker. He has scored a goal and set up Ifunanyachi Achara’s goal in the Home Opener, even if he wasn’t officially credited with an assist.
With that being said, at least at the MLS is Back tournament where significant squad rotation will be required it is unlikely Laryea plays too many minutes further up the pitch. When he does it will likely be late in games off the bench, still a very solid option for Vanney. Laryea’s ability to beat players one-on-one and deliver strong crosses, makes him a difference maker. More than that his defensive acumen and compete level means he can be critical to helping the club see out games.
If things go to plan for Vanney, Nelson could well make his Toronto FC debut at this tournament. The 17-year-old is one of the most promising prospects in the country, maybe on the continent and has already been capped three times by the senior Canadian national team. He has already scored for his country in a 4-1 win over Barbados.
Provided he can quickly adapt to senior level football, Nelson could actual be a legitimate asset for Vanney at this tournament. His speed and ability to beat players off the dribble could be a difference maker late in games should Toronto need another option. Given his limited senior experience, teams also won’t quite know what to expect from the young Canadian.
Unfortunately after undergoing significant knee surgery, Achara will have to wait until next season to build on his impressive debut. The club remain high on his abilities, with General Manager Ali Curtis even saying in a recent interview with Gareth Wheeler that he believed Achara would win rookie of the year. He likely would have played big minutes.
Other options: Osorio? Pozuelo? Marshall-Rutty? Dorsey?
It likely won’t be a big problem at this tournament, but at some point Vanney will have to solve what to do with Osorio, Pozuelo, Delgado and Bradley with only three midfield spots. Could that mean pushing one of them out to the wings? It is not an ideal scenario. Pozuelo is at his least effective out wide, and will be critical as a false 9 when Jozy isn’t available. Vanney originally saw Osorio as a winger, but the player has since proven to be an excellent number 8. Both have the ability to at least do a job out wide, however.
Like Nelsen, Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty remains a player that Vanney would like to give a taste of senior soccer at this tournament. But at just 16, it is unlikely he plays any sort of significant role even given his clear abilities as the club’s youngest signing. Griffin Dorsey is another player who Vanney values highly. As aforementioned, he even started last season at the role in Champions League. With that being said, he probably gets lost in the numbers game here.