If you ask a Toronto FC fan to name the club’s most important players, Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley will likely be the three most common answers you receive.
Drew Moor has arguably played his way into that top group, too, and many Reds supporters will tell you that Justin Morrow should have earned a USA recall by now. It might also be hoped that Victor Vazquez becomes an integral piece.
While his name might not immediately spring to mind among the team’s stars, however, Steven Beitashour might be as irreplaceable as any of them in 2017. Any stand-in for the likes of Giovinco and Moor will be a downgrade but Beitashour’s backups at right-back are sophomore Tsubasa Endoh, who has played the position for all of one professional game, and rookie Oyvind Alseth, a third-round pick in this winter’s SuperDraft. There is less experience behind him than at any other position on the field.
“They kind of did the same thing in Vancouver,” Beitashour told Waking the Red during the international break. “They had a young guy underneath me and it’s just one of those things where you try to mentor them and have them come along and it’s similar to here, so I’ve got to do the same.
“It’s just one of those things - no matter what, you’re competing, it doesn’t matter if he’s young or old. When I was a rookie in San Jose I played the second game of the season so I’m sure they were saying the same thing to the starting right-back [then], but it’s one of those things where you’re always trying to get better.
“It doesn’t matter who’s next to you - you’re really competing with yourself to get better every game. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rookie or an older player than I am, every game I try to do better, I watch the game film and try to improve and that’s all I can do and all I can control.”
The 30-year-old is warm and intelligent and will, you imagine, be an excellent example for Endoh and Alseth to follow - eventually. For now, he is focusing on himself and hitting top form after overcoming a concussion suffered in the season opener against Real Salt Lake.
“It’s still early in the year,” Beitashour pointed out. “Right now, we’re all just focused on getting yourself to the right level. It’s only three games in so it’s not going to be the same as if you’re in the middle of the year or at the end of the year. Right now we’re just focused on preparing ourselves and getting to top fitness and then we can kind of worry about the other things.”
It’s easy to forget, given they settled in to it with such success in last season’s playoffs, but it is also early days as far as Toronto’s use of a 3-5-2 formation goes. Shifting from an orthodox right-back position to wing-back in the new system, Beitashour has more freedom to attack down the flank and made the most of it to provide the sublime cross from which Benoit Cheyrou scored one of the most famous goals in TFC history.
“I like it,” he said of the different role. “Obviously I was an attacking player growing up all the way into college, so it’s something that I’m comfortable and familiar with and I enjoy. All my years in San Jose and Vancouver I tended to get up the line anyways, so now it just gives me a little more freedom to go up there.”
It also allows Beitashour to get tighter to opposition wingers, limiting their ability to turn into space and pick up speed. “Which is a nice thing, if you play it correctly - obviously, everyone on the field has to play it correctly - then you can really put them under pressure and not give someone time and space and let them turn and run at you, so any time the team plays like that it’s definitely difficult to break us down.
“But if some guys don’t do their job, then it becomes very dangerous and you have to be very smart with when you press and when you don’t press. It’s one of those things where experience comes into play.”
The system is a higher-risk, higher-reward proposition and the downside for Beitashour and Morrow is that they feel the effects more than anyone when things do not click as the lone patrollers of the flanks. The next time you grow frustrated in the stands at BMO Field with sloppy play, know that it is not as punishing for you to watch as it is for the two wing-backs to experience.
“It does require a lot of running, but at the same time if you play it correctly it’s not that much more running,” Beitashour explained. “It’s when you don’t play it correctly or if you’re sloppy with possession or having a lot of turnovers, then you’re asking Justin [Morrow] and I to do a lot of suicides, really.
“You’re sprinting out to give us width but then you’re sprinting back right away because we turned it over. So it’s a fine line - it’s not a lot more running unless you’re poor on the day, you turn the ball over… then it’s a lot more, then you don’t know what’s going on, you’re just blurry vision, running suicides the whole time.”
While Beitashour is now one of the teachers in the TFC squad in his second season at the club, his own education continues.
“I enjoy [watching] Chelsea, the way they play - obviously they’re doing really well right now,” he added. “But you know, [Victor] Moses in particular - he does a very good job and he’s one of the players who you think can only attack, but he’s very smart defensively, his positioning is very good. So I definitely enjoy that, the way they play.”