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Shane O’Neill, the hero we didn’t know we needed

Intended as a depth signing, O’Neill has been a consistent starter so far this season.

Shane O’Neill (27) in action during the MLS game between... Photo by Angel Marchini/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

I bet you were thinking the same thing when you heard that Toronto FC signed Shane O’Neill - “Who’s Shane O’Neill?” I’m not going to delve into O’Neill’s playing history too much, as Waking the Red’s Andre Schaffner did an excellent job of doing so in this article, Toronto FC signs defender Shane O’Neill.

He has moved around a lot, as per his stints in Colorado, Orlando, England, the Netherlands, and even Cyprus - (and yes, it was I Apollon Limassol, the same team that signed Doneil Henry). TFC signed O’Neill as a depth player, not expecting him to slot into the lineup as an everyday starter. He was making $115,000 per year last season for Seattle, which is just above the veteran league minimum in 2021.

So why does Shane O’Neill matter so much to Toronto FC right now? Two words – consistency and versatility. He has played 10 out of 11 matches, and played 854 minutes so far, fifth most on the team. By comparison, Carlos Salcedo has played seven matches and 616 minutes, which is the closest defender to O’Neill’s numbers. For Seattle last year, O’Neill played a total of 1856 minutes, starting 19 games. He’s well on his way to eclipse that mark, as he’s on pace to start 27 games and play 2632 minutes. For a salary that low, it’s a pretty good investment.

So, one of the biggest complaints of the season about Toronto FC has been giving up goals early and often – an average of two goals per game. Admittedly, that is a significant problem, but there is a clear explanation - he has not played with a consistent defensive partner or in a consistent formation since the start of the year.

Let’s take a look at each match:

Game 1: @Dallas – Back 4 (Shaffelburg LB, Salcedo CB, O’Neill CB (subbed on 46’), Marshall-Rutty RB)

Game 2: NYRB – Back 4 (Shaffelburg LB, Salcedo CB, O’Neill CB, Marshall-Rutty RB)

Game 3: @Columbus (Didn’t play – no injury)

Game 4: DCU – Back 3 (O’Neill LB, Salcedo CB, McNaughton RB)

Game 5: NYCFC - Back 3 (O’Neill LB, Salcedo CB, McNaughton RB)

Game 6: @RSL - Back 3 (O’Neill LB, Salcedo CB, McNaughton RB)

Game 7: PHI – CB Back 4 (Mavinga CB, Shaffelburg LB, Chung RB)

Game 8: @NYCFC – (Mavinga LB, Salcedo CB, O’Neill RB)

Game 9: Cincinnati – Back 3 (Mavinga LB, Salcedo CB, O’Neill RB)

Game 10: @Cincinnati – Back 3 (O’Neill LB, MacNaughton CB, Chung RB)

Game 11: @VAN –Back 4 (Petrasso LB, O’Neill (subbed off in 89’), MacNaughton CB, Chung RB)

O’Neill has been the most consistent defender for TFC. He’s played in two different formations, four different positions, and with seven different defenders in 10 matches so far this year. His ability to be placed into these situations indicates his value to Toronto FC. It is extremely difficult to play with teammates that he has not spent a lot of time developing a level of comfort. With this inconsistency in the lineups, O’Neill has done an admirable job.

O’Neill’s value is hard to measure with some of the intangibles he brings to the team. He has played over 100 professional matches and can offer some guidance for young players. The incredible turnover at the club this year has necessitated the need for some experience on the pitch, especially in the back line. Bob Bradley has demanded several young players to play out of a familiar position, and having O’Neill as support these players has been invaluable so far this season. Toronto FC is the second youngest squad in MLS with the average age of 23.68 years old (credit to @JonathanSigal for the number). We’ve seen the issues with defending, so we’ll not dwell on the details. However, it’s important to note that O’Neill is working with one of the youngest teams in the league.

While Shane O’Neill has not been making headlines or scoring goals, that’s not the role of a central defender. I’m not going to argue that he’s been an outstanding defender either – but that’s not the point. He’s been consistent and available for selection for almost every match, which is exceeding expectations for a depth signing. With more opportunities to develop chemistry with his teammates, O’Neill can only help to improve the fortunes of TFC’s back line. Bob Bradley should be commended for finding O’Neill, as he’s been a great addition to Toronto FC.