A day before the game against Atlanta United last week, a friend who I play basketball with asked me to describe who were the most important players on Toronto FC. He sheepishly admitted that he doesn't really watch soccer (at all) but had heard that TFC were on their way to a historic season, and he wanted to get an idea of which players were the ones to keep an eye on as he got ready to jump on the playoff bandwagon.
His first remark was about Michael Bradley. He knew he was the captain, and therefore automatically assumed he was the leading goalscorer on the team. When I made a scrunchie face emoji (with my real face) and remarked “no, not really”, he asked me to describe what type of player Bradley was. First thing that came to mind: “Well, he's kind of like a mid-career Paul Scholes”. I may as well have said “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” (ST: TNG fan shoutout) because I had just confused him more.
So I thought, as many of our fellow sports fans all start paying attention to Toronto FC, it would be nice if there was a handy little guide to describe the TFC players to non-soccer fans. And seeing how most Canadians all have an appreciation of hockey, why not compare each TFC star to a historic or current NHL player? That way, when you have a bunch of friends over to watch the playoff games, instead of saying “well, he's like a Xavi...” and drawing them to utter confusion and sadness, you can instead say “think of a Mike Bossy!” and at least be appearing to speak the same language.
So let's take a look at the (potential) starting XI in hockey terms:
Jozy Altidore = Cam Neely
He's a goalscorer. Sure, there's some finesse in that game, but by and large he's the strongest player on the field and will bully your defenders as he gets to the net. It may not be the prettiest of goals, but they all count for one. While the counterpart next to him may be more of a Ferrari, Jozy is a bulldozer on the way to the net. Like Neely, good luck to the defender whose job it is to clear him from in front of the goal.
Sebastian Giovinco = Pavel Bure
Once a game, he does something that makes you stand up and applaud - or, if you're an opponent, just shake your head. Goals come to him like bees to honey. And while you're not getting much defence from him, that's not why he's on the field in the first place.
Much like the Russian Rocket, his propensity to create something out of nothing makes him the most dangerous player on the field most nights. While Bure wasn't the biggest guy on the ice, the old adage of ‘you can't hit what you can't catch’ always applied to him. Same with Seba. And yes, some of the moody superstar diva treatment applies to Seba too at times.
Victor Vazquez = Peter Forsberg
Can he score goals? Sure! But you almost get the feeling he takes more pleasure in setting up teammates to score. He plays the game at a pace that suits him, allowing things to slow down around him so he can pick you apart with little bursts of speed at only the most opportune of times. Peter was a maestro on the ice, and a tougher player than most people realize. Vazquez shares a lot of those attributes.
Marky Delgado = Nazem Kadri
You're not the boy wonder AM34. But you're not getting waived like Eric Fehr either. You're somewhere in the middle... you're Nazem. Your job is simple: line up against the other teams’ best players and make life hard for them while making it easy for your goalscorers to have the space they need.
A little chippy? Sure. And unless you get into a deeper understanding of the analytics, most nights your work goes by quietly and unnoticed. Just like the plans called for.
Michael Bradley = Bob Gainey
Legend has it that after the Soviets played Team Canada in some famous tournament, the player they were most impressed with wasn't one of the many goalscorers Canadian hockey fans cherished but Bob Gainey.
A checking centre was seen as just a disposable winger prior to him, but Gainey turned it into an art. So much so that the Selke Trophy was invented as way to honour what his impact truly meant. Breaking up the other teams’ offensive chances, covering for his defenders and getting the ball to his forwards is Bradley's raison d’être.
He's the rare forward-thinking player who also acts as the last line of defence for his team at times - as he did against Atlanta United, standing tall on the goal line.
Justin Morrow = Paul Coffey
Yeah, his job is kind of to play defence, but boy does he know how to score. Streaking down the side, providing support to the strikers, blazing speed... he's a forward in a defender’s body.
It's often said that the best defence is a strong offence, and that's Justin's advantage as well. Who cares if you can clear the net in front of your goalie if the puck is always in the other team’s zone when you are on the ice? (Marc Bergevin will disagree with this vehemently, while I can hear Mitchell sobbing in the next office.)
Steven Beitashour = Janne Niinimaa
Much like his counterpart on the opposite side, he has speed for days and can join the attack at any time. Then you look at his stats and see he has... zero goals. Including none last year. “Hmm,” you say, “I could swear he's always in the attacking third, are you sure he hasn't scored?” He seems to be contributing to the offence somehow, just now sure what the net result is. Yes, that's Janne.
Drew Moor = Jeff Petry
You look at him for 90 minutes and count all the mistakes that he made. You swear you can attribute almost every goal scored against to him. He was a step slow, he wasn't covering the right guy, he just had a brain fart, coughed up the ball at the wrong time, etc. And then you take a look at the advanced stats and see that he was the most reliable defender that night. He did way more good than bad. And you're left confused and wondering whether you even know the game anymore.
Your life spirals out of control. You start arguing with people online about “do you even watch the game or do you just read the spreadsheets?!” You trust the opinion of good hockey men like Mark Spector, and ignore these new-age analysts like Matt Henderson. Eventually you realize that winning teams have guys like this... and losing teams trade them away... like my Edmonton Oilers do... and then you cry yourself to sleep. The Drew Moor Experience, ladies and gentlemen.
Chris Mavinga = Duncan Keith
He's physical, fast and fierce. Once a game he does something that, if you were a fan of the other team, would have you screaming for a penalty, but because he's your guy it's just physical play. You could make a case for a few other guys in the league being better defenders... I mean, you'd be wrong, but you could make the case if you wanted to.
He's not as offensive as an Erik Karlsson or a P.K. Subban, but he cleans up everything in front of his goalie. And unless something drastic changes in his game, you have on your hands a reliable candidate for Defender of the Year for a while.
Eriq Zavaleta = Brent Burns
He was a striker once, but circumstances moved him to being a defender. And while maybe not as dominant as Burns, he's a steady hand back there. The kind of player winning teams have, and losing teams spend years and $$$ in free agency chasing... only to get them on the downside of their career, rather than the upside.
Alex Bono = Cory Schneider
Starter goes down (Clint Irwin = Roberto Luongo), backup gets the net. Never relinquishes it back. Quietly makes his case as one of the top-three goalies in the league.
That's Bono. He's going to be in line for making national team starts soon and with that will come a pay rise. Just be glad that it's Tim Bezbatchenko making these calls, and not whoever ran the Vancouver Canucks and somehow lost both Luongo AND Schneider with very little to show for it.
Now, each Toronto FC player has dozens of historical NHL comparatives; I just went with the first one that came to mind. Was there one that I totally got wrong? One that you agreed with wholeheartedly? Let me know in the comments!