It’s one of the biggest cliches in sports: when things aren’t going well, go back to basics. That was the thinking behind the surprising change that saw Marky Delgado return to Toronto FC’s starting lineup against the Chicago Fire.
Through the first six games of the 2017 season, Toronto’s central-midfield three had been consistent. Michael Bradley played in the defensive role, and two of Jonathan Osorio, Armando Cooper and Victor Vazquez played in front of him.
That group hasn’t quite clicked yet this season, so Greg Vanney decided it was time to give Delgado his first start of the year. The 21-year-old made the most of his chance, and did so by doing the simple things very well. His body of work on Friday was a big reason why Toronto was able to get their first home win of 2017.
“[He has] the ability to cover ground and play simple,” said Bradley of Delgado after the match against the Fire. “To see plays quickly, to find the next guy, to not use extra touches, those things make a big difference.”
One of Toronto’s biggest struggles up to this point in midfield has been moving the ball far too slowly. Whether it was players holding onto the ball for too long or always trying to make the perfect pass, it wasn’t working. Delgado simplified everything.
The perfect example was his contribution to Toronto’s opening goal. It was a simple pass to Vazquez, who in turn found Sebastian Giovinco, but it was the kind of pass the Reds’ midfielders haven’t been making enough this season. Delgado kept the ball moving all night.
Toronto’s midfield as a whole thrived around him against Chicago. He, Bradley and Vazquez combined for an impressive 87.4 per cent pass accuracy rating, according to WhoScored. Toronto’s three starting central midfielders have not passed more accurately all season.
“He’s an efficient player, he doesn’t try to always look for the final pass,” said Vanney of Delgado. “He usually plays in the fewest amount of touches possible in a moment, which means he catches the ball and he gets rid of it quickly. The ball moves faster.”
Delgado had the lowest pass accuracy of the three, at 83 per cent, but completed five of his six long balls. He was a perfect complementary piece to Bradley and Vazquez, playing in the background while allowing them to thrive as the team’s playmakers.
“[Playing Delgado] gave us a little bit of a different look on the right side,” added Vanney. “It also put Victor, Seba and Jozy a little closer together to combine with each other.”
With a solid defensive player like Delgado able to make up the ground behind him, Vazquez looked as comfortable as he has all season. He was pulling the strings offensively for Toronto all match, and is now tied for the league lead in assists.
Delgado’s ability at both ends of the field, and the fact that his insertion into the lineup brought out the best in both Vazquez and Bradley, makes him an intriguing option going forward. After a performance like Friday’s it will be difficult to take him out of the lineup.
Last season Delgado was a fixture in the Toronto lineup until the team switched to a formation that plays three central midfielders, not four. However, when he did start in 2016 the team won 11 times, drew eight and lost only four matches. Without him, they won three, tied three and lost five (cheers Steve Gennaro for that stat).
His emergence this year adds to an already crowded Toronto midfield. With Vazquez and Bradley locking up their spots in the starting lineup for the foreseeable future, only one place is up for grabs. Delgado, Osorio, Cooper, Benoit Cheyrou, Jay Chapman and Sergio Camargo are all competing for it.
It’s a nice problem to have, especially since Osorio, Bradley and Cooper are all likely to miss time during the Gold Cup. But one has to wonder if eventually the team moves one of these midfielders to open up space for depth in another position, particularly on the back line.
For now, though, Delgado may have earned himself the edge. After the way the team performed with him in the lineup, it is hard to see Greg Vanney making any changes ahead of Friday’s match against the Houston Dynamo.