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Toronto FC’s season winds down with Jordan Hamilton & Jay Chapman’s minutes limited

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Both youngsters have played well when called upon, but can we really say they have progressed?

MLS: D.C. United at Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

As the regular season winds down and Toronto FC’s biggest games of the year approach, Greg Vanney will not have time for everyone.

Much like LeBron James takes a leave of absence from all forms of social media during the NBA’s postseason, the MLS playoffs demand that Vanney narrows his line of vision and concerns himself only with what is relevant to the next match.

For a man who describes himself as “obsessed with the game” and sees his role at the club in much broader terms than that of a simple first-team coach, that might not be natural or easy.

It will be impossible if the entire senior squad does not buy in to six weeks of complete focus and togetherness. They did last year, when Will Johnson was not happy at all with the way he had been replaced in the starting lineup but kept quiet, did what was asked of him and then aired his grievances once the season was over.

Johnson appeared in every playoff game, at least, starting once. For others, the start of this year’s postseason is likely to mark the end of their campaign entirely.

The Oyvind Alseth, Ben Spencer and Tsubasa Endoh projects, for example, will be shelved for the rest of the year.

Even a couple of veterans as reliable as Clint Irwin and Jason Hernandez will probably not see the pitch unless injuries strike, and Ashtone Morgan is buried down the depth chart.

MLS: Toronto FC at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

If everyone is healthy, it’s easy enough to map out: Vanney will lean on his ‘normal’ starting lineup and a bench of Irwin, Benoit Cheyrou, Nick Hagglund, Raheem Edwards, Nicolas Hasler or Steven Beitashour, Jonathan Osorio and Tosaint Ricketts.

Which leaves us with a handful of players who are more - or have the potential to be more - than just backups but for now lurk on the periphery because of the competition in front of them.

Armando Cooper is one such player, having just not found any semblance of consistency or fit within the lineup this year.

Jay Chapman and Jordan Hamilton are two others.

It’s been a puzzling year for both Canadians. They have played well when called upon, with Hamilton maintaining his impressive goals-per-90-minutes ratio and Chapman impactful almost every time he plays more than half an hour.

But the bulk of 2017 has now passed, Chapman is now 23 and Hamilton is 21 and the clock is ticking on the big breakthrough we are all expecting them to eventually make.

That they are yet to make it is not really their fault - at least on the evidence we get to see from the outside looking in. It doesn’t have to be anybody’s fault, but it increasingly feels like Toronto are struggling to balance their desire to win now with Chapman and Hamilton’s development.

Hamilton is down to 142 minutes in MLS this season, the lowest total of anyone to have seen the field in a TFC jersey. He played 911 minutes in 2016.

MLS: D.C. United at Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Chapman has also seen a drop-off from 780 minutes to 385, and though it is less dramatic than Hamilton’s it is still substantial.

Sometimes, talented young players are held back to the frustration of fans because behind the scenes, they are just not showing something - whether it be day-to-day consistency, a professional’s mentality or application on both sides of the ball - that their coach needs to see.

But that does not seem to be the case here - or, if it is, no one has dropped any hints about it.

“It was great to get him going; he’s been excellent through training,” Vanney said after Chapman’s outstanding first start of the season against the Seattle Sounders in May.

“He’s an unbelievable kid,” Michael Bradley said of Hamilton in June. “He has a personality, he’s funny, he has a huge heart and every guy on the inside of this locker room cares for him in a big way.”

The biggest problem, rather than any of their own shortcomings, is the same one that will face every Toronto prospect wanting to play an attacking position: Chapman and Hamilton are competing for minutes with the highest-paid players on the team.

They have had a couple of bad breaks in that regard. It was not ridiculous to wonder whether TFC might have an internal solution to their playmaking problem in Chapman last winter but then Victor Vazquez arrived, and a player with a couple of serious knee injuries behind him has been a picture of good health.

Hamilton had it hard enough when he only had to contend with Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco for minutes, but then Ricketts - who was really just a cheap gamble at first - arrived and carved out a niche as a near-unplayable super sub.

MLS: Toronto FC at New York City FC Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

There have been occasions this season, though - if we’re being really picky - when you would have liked to have seen more trust placed in the two youngsters.

Take the most recent two games Vazquez did not start, in Chapman’s case: at home to the Montreal Impact and away at FC Dallas. Vanney went to Cooper instead on both occasions despite the fact that the Panamanian has played his best football for Toronto in Marky Delgado’s No. 8 role, not as the chief playmaker.

Perhaps even more confusing than that was when Ricketts came on ahead of Hamilton against the Colorado Rapids literally hours after returning from the Gold Cup, or when Spencer got the nod from the bench in that Montreal loss.

Vanney had his reasons for all of those decisions, and picking Cooper or Ricketts or Spencer does not necessarily have anything to do with Hamilton and Chapman. He just chose other players.

But pretty soon, Toronto are going to have to let these two prized prospects off the leash or risk losing them. Perhaps the extra games on the schedule due to the CONCACAF Champions League next season will ease that process.

Unless Vanney decides to ring the changes one last time before the end of the regular season, though, Chapman and Hamilton may well be done for 2017.

And while it seems likely they will both be back for another year at BMO Field, they cannot come out of 2018 with fewer than six full MLS games between them to show for their work.