It was one of those strange scenes that North American soccer occasionally produces.
A small, open, pop-up stadium in Arizona sandwiched between Scottsdale and Tempe, on the sharp eastern border of the former city that divides it from the Salt River Pima and Maricopa community.
In the new red jerseys of Phoenix Rising Football Club, Chivas’ all-time leading scorer Omar Bravo lined up for kick-off. Behind him was Chelsea’s former £21 million man Shaun Wright-Phillips, now playing at a lower level in the United States than his brother Bradley, who had never cracked the Premier League.
Later in the season, this rebranded club with MLS aspirations would add Didier Drogba as a player-owner. Drogba joined a long list of shareholders that includes the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy and musicians Diplo and Pete Wentz.
The USL can throw up some unusual settings, and it was in this one that Marky Delgado made his first start of 2017 with TFC II.
There is a good chance it was the last USL appearance of his career. Delgado was handed his first MLS start of the campaign just under a month later, and shone in a 3-1 win over the Chicago Fire. He clicked with Michael Bradley and Victor Vazquez in a way that promoted him to automatic-starter status in near-record time, and Toronto FC embarked on their first winning streak of the season.
Since then, Delgado has rarely been out of the lineup. He is a tireless runner and has only picked up one yellow card since being sent off in May, avoiding any further suspensions. Going into the second leg of the Eastern Conference final, he had started 20 league games in a row - the longest active streak on the team.
And then, for the biggest match of the season, he was dropped.
“I just felt it was what we needed to do in order to try to get the result against Columbus,” Greg Vanney said.
Vanney is a big fan of Delgado’s - they have worked together for a long time, dating back to the midfielder’s teenage years at Chivas USA.
It certainly seems likely that Vanney and his assistant Robin Fraser, who was the head coach in California, were behind the decision to acquire Delgado late in the dispersal draft following Chivas USA’s demise. He was an afterthought, selected with the 14th pick after seven teams had declined to make a selection.
Delgado has continually flown under the radar, because the important things he does well are not always immediately detectable in one viewing. Neither do they jump off the stats sheet.
You can measure the number of passes he plays and tackles he wins, but it is much more difficult to put a figure on the subtle movements he makes to create space for others. We can’t measure the value of his ability to feed his more attacking teammates quickly and cleanly when they have created a split-second of separation from their marker.
It was the little things Delgado does and a much-improved defensive game that nudged him ahead of Jonathan Osorio in Vanney’s pecking order, because they are very similar players in possession.
Remarkably, both have averaged 53.1 passes per game this season. Osorio is more consistently accurate (89.4% to 84%) but Delgado tends to push the play more in the opposition half (36 passes per game to 32).
But off the ball, the difference is evident: the eye test says Delgado is a more mobile, proactive player and the stats show that he outperforms Osorio in just about every defensive category.
Which begs the question: what has happened that prompted Vanney to leave Delgado out of the lineup for the first time since June?
Answer: the playoffs started.
Delgado played only two minutes in last year’s postseason, and the increased pace and intensity has clearly been an adjustment for him.
So far, the results have not been too good.
Defensively, Delgado’s game looks okay - there has been no major drop-offs there.
But in possession, it’s a much different story. He is playing nearly 13 passes fewer per 90 minutes on average, and the bulk of the decline is coming from a large decrease in his activity in the opposition half.
As well as struggling to get on the ball as much as usual, Delgado has been much less efficient with it: his passing accuracy is down to 72%, a mark more typical of strikers playing a far greater percentage of high-risk passes.
Osorio, on the other hand, has been here before.
Consequently, he has seemed more comfortable with the way the tempo has gone up. The Canadian’s basic performance markers have barely changed - certainly not enough to read much into them over a small sample size.
With that being the case, it made sense to turn to Osorio against Columbus: Toronto needed a win to progress and knew they would make their lives much easier by scoring the first goal. Swift and efficient ball movement was of the utmost importance.
It turned out, though, that the game would have a silver lining for Delgado.
He came on for Eriq Zavaleta at half-time as Toronto switched to a back four and delivered his best 45 minutes of the playoffs so far. In those aforementioned statistical categories, he was back to normal (24 passes, 83.3% accuracy). You noticed, giving him a +136 rating in our post-game poll.
“I thought Marky came in and was excellent,” Vanney said. “So maybe him taking 45 minutes or so to just take a look at the game again and step back for a second and take it all in, maybe was a good experience for a young guy, again, to see it all.”
It may have been a display good enough to earn him a recall for a match in which his defensive acumen is more likely to be needed.
“It’s not a dilemma,” Vanney said, adding that his Columbus selection was “neither here nor there” when it comes to Saturday’s team. “I’m going to pick the guys that we think will give us a chance to win the game.
“There's a lot of guys who are deserving, Marky included, so I don't look at these things as a dilemma. I have a lot of good players to select from and its up to me to choose the right mix of guys who can hopefully do well against Seattle and get us the result.”
Whether he starts or not, we’ll almost certainly see Delgado at some point this weekend. And a season that started at a pop-up stadium near Phoenix will end at the MLS Cup.