Opinions on Toronto FC’s recent trade for Mark-Anthony Kaye (MAK) have left the fanbase relatively split. On the one hand, MAK is only 27-years-old, is a Canadian men’s national team regular, plays a critical position in central midfield, and had success playing under Bob Bradley at LAFC for four seasons. On the other hand though, TFC gave up a promising 19-year-old academy player in Ralph Priso, who showed a lot of potential prior to his ankle injury in 2020, and also plays as a central midfielder.
This article will be split into two parts. The first part will be to examine MAK’s tactical fit with TFC. The second part will highlight why this move is an important step towards TFC fully realizing its aspirations of competing for MLS Cup once again. These articles are not intended to debate who won the trade.
Before diving into the analysis, it’s important to recognize that Mark-Anthony Kaye is a TFC academy product who counts as a homegrown player under MLS rules (previous familiarity with the club is always a bonus) and will not occupy a coveted Designated Player spot (MLS clubs are only allowed three DP players). Acquiring one of the league’s best CMs without using a DP slot significantly improves TFC, while providing them with more flexibility to use their DP slots to add more premium talent to the team.
Games are often won and lost in midfield
A team’s ability to control games in midfield typically dictates who wins and loses soccer games (the middle third of the field between the attacking and defensive ends). Strong midfield play provides solidity to your defence, allows you to progress the ball well from the defensive end to the attacking one, and can help to provide key passes to attacking players for prime scoring chances.
TFC’s only constant in midfield this season has been Michael Bradley. Jonathan Osorio is TFC’s best CM, but he has missed four games due to injury and been restricted to substitute appearances in two more games. Alejandro Pozuelo was previously the third midfielder in TFC’s starting XI, but he is now with Inter Miami.
Beyond those three, TFC entered this season with only young academy players (Priso and Noble Okello) to provide depth and spot starts at a crucial position. Both of those players are still learning the nuances of the role and transitioning from academy level soccer to the highest level of play in the region. When neither of them have been available due to suspension or injuries of their own, TFC has had to play wingers (DeAndre Kerr and Jayden Nelson) or full-backs (Kosi Thompson) out of position as CMs.
TFC has conceded the third most goals in the MLS this season and has often struggled to create prime scoring chances despite its superiority in possession of the ball in many games. By adding MAK, TFC are adding more experience to their midfield and providing a more solid base if Osorio were to miss more time due to injury.
Bob Bradley’s preferred 4-3-3 formation
Bob has been criticized by some to be very stubborn when it comes to what formation his teams use. However, this season he has tried to adapt to his team’s strengths and weaknesses and has officially used four different formations according to Transfermarkt.us:
- 4-3-3 attacking (two CMs ahead of one CDM)
- 4-3-3 defending (otherwise known as a 4-2-3-1 with a CAM ahead of two CDMs)
Results have varied across each formation, but it’s clear that his preference is to play an attacking 4-3-3. The 4-3-3 is a very popular formation for managers in the modern game. The formation allows teams to press high up the field to quickly win the ball back and transition defence to offence before a team’s defensive structure is set. It also provides more fluidity and passing angles to play progressive, fluid soccer. Full-backs have more freedom to push higher up the field to offer more attacking options in the 4-3-3 formation.
To date, Bob has not had the right players to execute his preferred system. To play an attacking 4-3-3, it is optimal to have two CMs who have the endurance to run up and down the field all match and have the technical ability to transition defence to offence. Prior to MAK’s arrival, Osorio was the only CM that TFC had that fit that profile. Michael Bradley previously fit that profile but is no longer the same player at age 34, while the recently departed Pozuelo has only really had success at TFC as a CAM.
MAK’s big breakthrough into the MLS came under Bob Bradley from 2018-2021, where he was deployed as an 8 (a CM in an attacking 4-3-3). In those four seasons, MAK scored 11 goals and added 20 assists, helping lead the team to a Supporters’ Shield in 2019. Outside of his goal contributions, he was critical in helping the team dominate possession of the ball, in progressing the ball to the front three attacking players, in making late runs into the opposition’s box to provide an additional scoring threat, and in winning the ball back when LAFC were out of possession.
MAK will likely play the exact same role for TFC. Bob needs another CM alongside Osorio for his system to flourish. Insigne and Jimenez, potentially along with Bernardeschi, will greatly benefit from the ball progression ability of both Osorio and MAK. Michael Bradley will also be able to solely focus on playing as a holding midfielder, allowing MAK and Osorio to do more of the running.
With the addition of MAK, Bob Bradley no longer has any excuses to hide behind. He has the ideal CMs for his preferred 4-3-3 formation and two more high profile wingers (Insigne and likely Bernardeschi) to help create more scoring chances and convert those chances. There is still work to be done to replace Carlos Salcedo at CB and to provide cover at CDM for Michael Bradley. Hopefully, those additions will also come before the summer transfer window comes to a close.
Finally, there is an added benefit for the CANMNT. MAK and Osorio will get the opportunity to play and train with each other on a daily basis, further helping them to develop their chemistry ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Look for part two of this article to find out why I love this trade from a club direction perspective.