As part of a new intermittent series, looking at some of the undercovered players at Toronto FC – one can only speak with Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Sebastian Giovinco so many times - WTR caught up with Tsubasa Endoh on Tuesday as he continues his professional development and transitions to a new, interesting position.
Drafted ninth overall in the 2016 SuperDraft, the versatile attacker hit the ground running in his first season in MLS, starting the opening three matches and earning the game-winning penalty kick on opening day against the New York Red Bulls.
As 2017 begins, he has clear goals in mind.
“I want to be in the starting lineup constantly,” declared Endoh confidently on Tuesday. “Obviously, I've got to prove myself every practice, [but] the ultimate goal is to play as much as possible and contribute for the team.”
Given that early success, it is clear he has all the talent to make an impact at this level but as the season wore on, his playing time was sharply curtailed. Once TFC had adopted the 3-5-2, fielding one fewer midfielder, his minutes were few and far between.
Consider this: in 15 matches from May to August, Endoh appeared in all but one, starting 12 of them. Both his goals came during this stretch, game-winners against Dallas and Columbus (though the one against the Crew was a Giovinco shot that skimmed off his back). But in the final 12 games of the season he made just four appearances, all from the bench. He did not see a single minute in Toronto's playoff run either.
“It was tough, mentally and physically,” admitted Endoh of his rookie campaign, though he was quick to turn his mind to that which will help him in the year ahead.
“I learned a lot over the course of the season,” he continued, putting a positive spin on his diminished role. “I didn't play as much as I wanted to in the second half, which was a good experience for me. [Professional soccer] is going to be [a constant] struggle, so it's good to experience that early in my career. I take it and move forward. I'm looking forward to this season, [to seeing] what I'm going to do.”
It was the lessons that sunk in watching Toronto reach the MLS Cup that resonated with Endoh.
“As I was playing, I didn't really think of adjusting to the new environment,” he explained. “But at the end of the season, as we got into the playoffs, the atmosphere was totally different. I have to match the intensity every practice.
“I can't forget what I saw from the bench, in the Eastern Conference championship against Montreal or MLS Cup. You learn from it. It's a motivation, but at the same time you don't want to be comfortable sitting on the bench, even in the playoffs. You want to contribute, to play. It's a dedication, work hard every day.”
That message was driven home by none other than the side's captain, Michael Bradley.
“I talked to Michael when I didn't play as much as I wanted to,” relayed Endoh. “He told me, 'You have to play hard, compete every day, come on this practice field and prove yourself... [prove] that you're the one who should play'.”
“That's the right mentality; I agree with that. I didn't have [that initially]; my confidence wasn't high [when I wasn't playing].”
Such lessons in tow, Endoh was able to unplug for a few weeks in the winter. “It was a long season for me. I played in the combine [last January], non-stop all year. I tried to take a break for a couple weeks, go back to Japan, and relax.”
But as the new year arrived, Endoh began to work “on specific things that I can improve” before rejoining the squad for preseason at the end of January.
Greg Vanney provided some possible insight on what he needs from Endoh in 2017, noting a positional switch was on the cards.
“He played a fair amount of out and out winger,” outlined Vanney after training on Tuesday. “Last year we played him as a central midfielder, in the high part of the 3-5-2, in the diamond in attacking midfield. He's most naturally a wide player, so we're trying to see how he can fit as wing-back.
“We know, from the attacking side, he can give us good service, has the engine to get up and down. He's got to prove and work towards his defensive awareness, ability to compete physically, whether it's protecting the ball, winning it, the challenges he's got to win. Any time those wing-backs end up in the back line, you have to defend, win challenges, in the air and on the ground. That'll be the challenge for Tsubasa.”
“In terms of his technical ability and understanding of game, he's been fine,” concluded Vanney. “It's some of that maturity in the moment, where the challenge is to come out on the right end more times than not.”
With Steven Beitashour's role on the weekend uncertain – he has not trained with the side this week while undergoing concussion protocol following a late point-blank ball to the face in Salt Lake – could Endoh be in line to see some time in his new role against the Philadelphia Union?
Vanney said he had no qualms putting Beitashour right back into the lineup, despite missing training, if cleared, but did outline that with the 3-5-2 as the starting point for the side this year, having options in the wide roles was no bad thing.
“We have different profiles on each side,” said Vanney. “Beitashour is slightly more defensive, whereas Tsubasa is more attacking. In a situation where we need more of a winger on that side, Tsubasa gives us an option. He's a little more comfortable in the attacking half.”
“Same thing on the other side,” continued Vanney. “Justin, who has grown to become a goalscorer and an assist guy, gives us good balance, whereas Raheem [Edwards] gives us more of a winger look when we want to be more attacking on that side. Ashtone [Morgan] gives us more of a defensive posture. Slightly different looks, depending on what the scenario is in the game, the opponent.
“For the young guys we're trying to balance out their game a little; they're good attackers, [the question is] can they grow on the defensive side as they continue to hone in on the position.”
Assignment in hand, Endoh will be eager for the opportunity on the field. He spent much of the week training in that right-wing-back role with the provisional starting lineup and should Beitashour be unavailable, the position will likely fall to either Endoh or Marky Delgado, who saw some time there last season.
Now settled and with a path forward in mind, Endoh candidly admitted that moving to a new city to begin his professional career was anything but easy.
“The first couple of months were kind of tough,” he said. “I was living in a hotel, didn't have many friends. But now I'm comfortable. It's a great city, great people, they're so friendly. It's good.”
Some of his favourite things to do in Toronto: “I like to go out, especially in the summer... on the patio, have a coffee.” And like all visitors to southern Ontario, he has made his way to the must-see spots. “I went to Niagara Falls last summer, it was a good experience.”
When away from the pitch, Endoh confirmed himself a soccer hound.
“I try to get everything done here at the KTG (Kia Training Grounds), so when I go home it's Champions League, Europa League, EPL,” recounted Endoh. “I love soccer - whenever a game is on I watch and learn.”
Some of his favourite sides to study: Tottenham, Chelsea, and Real Madrid. One senses a pattern of sharp attacking football and goals aplenty, indicative of what tempts his palate.
With the lessons of his first season, a new determination and a stiffened resolve under his belt, as well as a shift to a position that may best fit his talents to the needs of the team, Endoh will look to see TFC to the MLS Cup final for a second consecutive season, this time with him playing a key role.
If there is a player you would like to hear from, or an angle you think uncovered, please let WTR know and we shall see what we can do.