Almost a year ago, Jozy Altidore was meeting with reporters, saying words that Toronto FC supporters hope they’ll never hear again.
It was December 13, 2016, just three days after the team had lost in the MLS Cup final to the Seattle Sounders in heartbreaking fashion. Altidore was explaining what the team needed in order to make sure history didn’t repeat itself.
Despite - now infamously - not registering a shot on target during the match, the Sounders had been able to frustrate Toronto’s offence for 120 minutes. Then they won on penalties.
“To be completely honest, I think we can use a little bit of a more creative player,” said Altidore that day. “I think we’re a very good team. But if we have another piece that is creative, whether it be a winger or a creative player that can kind of, on his own, help us decide games as well, [that] would be great.”
Heading into the 2017 edition of the MLS Cup final, it is fair to say Toronto have found that missing piece. When the club acquired Victor Vazquez this summer, they not only added the creativity they needed, but also one of the best all-round players in the league.
In an exemplary first MLS season, Vazquez scored eight goals and added 16 assists. He was recently named to Major League Soccer’s best XI for the year.
On Saturday, however, comes the moment of truth. A year later, another MLS Cup final, same teams: can Vazquez be the difference maker that Toronto lacked against Seattle in 2016?
The evidence to this point looks promising.
When Altidore outlined the need for a game-breaking creative player, what happened in this year’s Eastern Conference final was probably exactly what he had in mind.
The American has been getting the vast bulk of the credit - and, considering the circumstances, rightly so - for the goal that sent Toronto through to the final. But that goal doesn’t happen without the vision of Vazquez, who played the through ball which Altidore was ultimately able to bury.
“His eye for the final pass, for the moment, is special,” said Greg Vanney after the win over the Columbus Crew. “It brings a lot of confidence to our group. It brings a lot of connection from our defence through Michael [Bradley], and from Michael to Victor onto [Sebastian Giovinco] and Jozy.
“It’s a link that maybe we didn’t have last year that we have this year.”
There is no question that Vazquez’s vision has helped to make Toronto’s attack more diverse and dangerous in 2017. Between 2015 and 2016, Sebastian Giovinco and Altidore combined for more than half of the goals the club scored. Giovinco also assisted on or scored more than 60 percent of TFC’s goals during that time.
This season, the goal share of Toronto’s attacking pair is down to 42 per cent, and ‘only’ 31 per cent have been assisted or scored by the Atomic Ant. The result was one of the best offensive seasons in league history.
That’s because teams could no longer just worry about Toronto’s front two. In fact, Columbus did a masterful job of shutting down Giovinco in the second leg of the conference final. In the first half, especially, the Italian barely touched the ball.
But having that extra attention elsewhere allows Vazquez more room to create. So far these playoffs, only Bradley has touched the ball more among TFC players. He leads Toronto players in shot attempts (six), shots on target (three) and key passes (nine), per WhoScored.
Last year, Toronto didn’t really have a shooting - much less a scoring - threat in the midfield for most of the season. Vazquez has changed that, using his high soccer IQ to make himself a constant danger in and around the box. He scored in Toronto’s first playoff game this year, a 2-1 win over New York Red Bulls.
His composure on the ball has helped Toronto get out of a lot of tough spots, as has his composure off it. Vazquez’s level head has been key in ensuring Toronto prevailed through a tough Eastern Conference field.
Adapting this well to the shenanigans and unpredictability of the MLS playoffs isn’t always a given, even for someone as experienced as Vazquez. Just look at how Bradley, Altidore and Giovinco handled their first foray into these games back in 2015.
Toronto is likely to need a whole lot more where that came from on Saturday. This won’t be the same game as last time; the Sounders are a better team than they were a year ago and won’t simply invite Toronto forward and let them dictate the tempo.
Last year, the script seemed almost perfectly written for Toronto but for the fact that nobody was able to write an ending. That’s why Vazquez is here; to help stir creativity among the other authors of TFC’s success.
He was brought in for this exact moment, and we are days away from finding out if he, in fact, was the missing piece.