TORONTO, Canada—Let me preface this article by stating that this is not meant to be a knock on Alex Bono or his performances to date this season, and this will certainly not be a solution to all of the club’s problems early on, but in my opinion, Quentin Westberg deserves a start in goal for Toronto FC—yesterday.
Getting the call for the Reds in net for the seventh-straight match Saturday afternoon in a 2-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls, Bono has been given a run of play by new head coach Chris Armas that he has not seen since 2018. Why?
Well, there is some sort of method behind the madness. First off, here’s what Chris Armas had to say when I asked him about the situation in goal following yesterday’s defeat.
“Yeah, it’s a good question and coming into this year, I knew that after speaking to some of the personnel here that things were tight in that position and Quentin clearly was the starter last year,” said Armas. “And then circumstance has it where Alex is given an opportunity and where Quentin wasn’t with us for the first part of the Champions League first series.”
As Armas mentions, entering the start of this season, Westberg was late to join the Reds due to personal reasons, and didn’t actually link up with the club until after their first match against Club Leon in Mexico on April 7. And in that match, I think we can all agree that Bono played well enough to earn the start in the return leg, where he once again backstopped TFC to an eye-opening win over the reigning Liga MX champs.
“We weren’t given much chance to do what we did, and we thought that Alex was a really big part of that,” continued Armas. “You think about leg two, he makes a big save at the very end and then since then, you know, there’s some set pieces and things in there where even today, I don’t think we give him much of a chance.”
Couple Bono’s strong performance to start the year with his preexisting Concacaf Champions League experience, and I don’t believe many fans were jaw-dropped to see Bono once again in goal two weeks later vs. Cruz Azul—even though he was subpar in the two MLS matches leading up to that CCL tie (vs. CF Montreal and the Vancouver Whitecaps).
Could Westberg have been given a look in one of those matches? Perhaps, but maybe Armas and co. wanted to keep Bono sharp leading into their April 27 bout with Cruz Azul.
But here’s where it really becomes a head-scratcher. Toronto FC got scorched 3-1 (4-1 on aggregate) by a very good Cruz Azul team. Once again, Bono wasn’t to blame at all, but he was far from perfect. In fact, he hasn’t been perfect in any of his appearances so far this season.
After Saturday’s defeat, Bono actually ranks dead last in MLS in goals against per game (2.67 – minimum two starts). Various factors come into play there that influence that statistic, but it’s at least worth mentioning.
Aside from that one big save against Club Leon and another one late against the Vancouver Whitecaps to preserve the draw for TFC, I wonder what has Bono done to earn Armas’ unwavered trust early on?
New coach, new style, new GK?
While Westberg was clearly better suited to former coach Greg Vanney’s style of play as Toronto FC were insistent on playing out of the back, is it possible that Bono may be a better fit to Armas’ style of play?
If that is the case, I have to ask how so? Because it’s certainly not due to his ball distribution.
Bono's passes yesterday vs. Westberg's passes in Vanney's last game. Yellow = incomplete.— Oliver Platt (@plattoli) May 9, 2021
One way to highlight how drastic a change the team is going through... #TFCLive has gone from mostly avoiding long balls into the middle of the pitch to actively encouraging them. pic.twitter.com/doYGOxhGQX
Even if Toronto FC don’t want to play short to avoid a press or set up for a counterpress, Bono doesn’t seem to be finding the right passes up field to put his teammates in a position to win the ball back. Often times, his kicks up field are uncontested and are easily being won back by the opposition. In contrast, as the image above illustrates, Westberg has the ability to break lines with his diagonal passes.
Bono’s also not as mobile as Westberg is. If TFC want to play a high line, you do need your keeper to be there to clean up after your defence at times—and that’s a part of the game that Westberg takes pride and excels in.
Bono, on the other hand, is still working on perfecting that side of his game, evidenced by the goal given up on Tuesday against Cruz Azul where he was caught cheating off his line a bit, and again on Saturday where he wasn’t quick enough off his line to stifle the Red Bulls’ attack.
So, I have to ask: at what aspect of the game right now is Bono objectively better than Westberg?
Another facet to take into account is age. Bono is 27 years old while Westberg is 35. If you’re thinking long term, in a perfect world, that solution is the younger goalkeeper.
Tack on the fact that Bono was as sound as you can get last season, posting three clean sheets in as many appearances, and there was reason to believe heading into this campaign that the 2015 sixth-overall pick, who is eight years younger than his counterpart, could be the viable option in net for the Reds moving forward.
Again, to further reiterate this point, if you’re a new coach coming into the mix, as Tej Sahota pointed out on our postgame show, who would you rather be married to for the next three or four seasons if all things were equal? A 35-year-old keeper who has found some success in MLS or a 27 year old who is a proven winner and has a sound resume?
If all things were equal, you go with the younger option, but the problem with that sort of line of thinking is that all things haven’t been equal (based of Westberg’s body of work since arriving in Toronto in 2019 and Bono’s play so far this season.) In fact, Westberg has been so good for this club in the past that despite Bono’s perfect run of play last season, he was still the team’s undisputed No. 1 starter, albeit under Vanney’s style of play.
But if Toronto FC are a team that wants to win now, at the very least, they owe it to Westberg to give him a chance to redeem that No. 1 spot in net because he hasn’t done anything to warrant losing that starter’s role—and Bono hasn’t done anything to run away with it.
In short, capitalize on Westberg’s value while he’s here.
Q needs to start on Wednesday
Even if you do believe Bono has played well early on and has earned more minutes in net moving forward, it’s still a bit mind-numbing that the team hasn’t given Westberg—who has been as consistent as they get in MLS over the last two seasons—even one look in goal in their seven matches so far this year.
Coming off a midweek encounter in Mexico vs. Cruz Azul, Saturday would’ve been the perfect chance to give Westberg a shot in net, but that obviously wasn’t the case.
So, what does the veteran keeper have to do in order to earn an opportunity under the new coach here?
“Quentin is—he’s a top professional and top teammate,” said Armas. “He’s a pro. He shows up every day. He’s playing well. This is a position on our team that is very competitive. What Quentin has to do is keep doing what he’s doing, he’s doing well, and we’ll make decisions.
“It’s a constant evaluation.”
Unless something bizarre is happening in training or behind the scenes, I believe Toronto FC are evaluating this situation in particular poorly. Since we’re not able to attend training like we have been in the past, that may actually be the case, but based on the information in front of us, I can’t say that the Reds have handled this dilemma well early on.
“We have two No. 1s,” said Armas, earlier this season. “In my mind, in our minds…we see two No. 1s.”
So, let’s cut to the chase. It’s time for Armas to put his money where his mouth is. If Toronto FC really do have two No. 1 goalkeepers, the club needs to start treating them that way, and that begins with Quentin Westberg finding him name in the Starting XI for the first time this year on Wednesday vs. the Columbus Crew.