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Osorio, Cooper or Delgado? A deep look at who belongs in Toronto FC’s starting lineup

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The Reds’ depth in midfield leaves Greg Vanney to ponder who to start alongside Michael Bradley and Victor Vazquez.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto FC have depth in midfield. Captain Michael Bradley has started all seven games as a defensive midfielder, and in the last four games TFC’s fourth-highest-paid player Victor Vazquez has been in the XI as the attacking midfielder.

But the third midfield spot has been an uncertainty, with three different players featuring in those four games. Jonathan Osorio started against Sporting Kansas City, Armando Cooper played versus Atlanta United and at the Columbus Crew and Marky Delgado got the nod last Friday against the Chicago Fire.

Bradley and Vazquez will be mainstays in TFC’s midfield going forward. Bradley is the motor of the team – a do-it-all midfielder who can help the three-man defence and dictate possession – and Vazquez is the bridge that connects the midfield to Toronto’s powerful attack with perfect rhythm and precise passing.

The third midfielder needs to complement them, not the other way around. Osorio, Cooper and Delgado are all starting-calibre players, but TFC coach Greg Vanney has likely rotated them recently to determine who can adapt to his star midfielders.

I re-watched the matches against Kansas City, Atlanta and Chicago (because those are the most recent matches where the three midfielders in question played the most minutes as staters) to decide who the best fit is.

Osorio vs. Sporting KC (76 minutes): three shots off target, 25 passes, seven recoveries, zero tackles

MLS: Sporting KC at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Canadian was criticized because he took and missed three shots against Sporting KC, but on the bright side, at least he got in those positions. The problem is, should Osorio be playing so high up the pitch? Skill-wise, Osorio is probably the better player of the three, but he, like Vazquez, is a more attacking No. 8.

When Osorio gets the ball, he has one thing in mind: attack. He combined well with Sebastian Giovinco, Vazquez and Raheem Edwards.

In the first clip, Osorio starts the attack even ahead of Giovinco, links up well with Vazquez and crashes the box, where the Italian should have scored.

Fifteen minutes later in another well-balanced team attack, Osorio leaves the centre of the pitch, overlaps Edwards, enters the box and becomes the point man in attack near the goalkeeper.

Osorio has good offensive instincts and as a starter would create chances with Toronto’s star-studded attack, but often leaves Bradley alone in central midfield.

Here, Osorio and Vazquez both left Bradley and the captain has no one to build out of the back with until Giovinco decides to drop and help. Osorio’s offensive capabilities are often on display, but it’s almost comical how positionally unaware he tends to be. Instead of looking to fill gaps and help with a structured build-up, Osorio darts forward when the Reds have the ball.

Vanney should use Osorio as Vazquez’s backup, or as an offensive sub when TFC are down and need offence off the bench.

Cooper vs. Atlanta United (90 minutes): One shot on target, 48 passes, 10 recoveries, one tackle

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Toronto FC Gerry Angus-USA TODAY Sports

Cooper fits better alongside Bradley and Vazquez because he covers the ground between the two, and helps Bradley both defensively and in possession.

The main difference between Cooper and Osorio is that he is capable of passing the ball, but he also knows his role without it.

In this clip, Cooper connects with Bradley and Vazquez and as the Spaniard moves the ball forward and goes with the play, the Panamanian holds his ground. When TFC lose the ball and Atlanta go the other way, he is in position to run with them and put an end to their attack.

Here, Cooper displays his all-around game. He wins a ball in midfield, keeps possession with the defence, holds onto the ball a little too long but gets out of it, passes the ball to an attacker and holds his position.

But at times – usually when he doesn’t see a pass he loves – Cooper does hold onto the ball too long, and while he’s good at getting out of those jams, it doesn’t always work out and it looks bad.

The biggest problem with Cooper holding onto the ball too long isn’t necessarily losing it to the other team, but before than even happens; when he dwells on it, the offensive flow and ball movement is already gone.

Delgado vs. Chicago Fire (81 minutes): zero shots, 46 passes, three tackles, four recoveries, two interceptions

Marky Delgado Toronto FC Chicago Fire John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Delgado was the last of the three to get a chance, and he put in the best performance forward with quick, efficient passing and solid defence. He fit like a glove with Bradley, Vazquez and... Steven Beitashour.

Part of Delgado’s versatility is his ability to play on the right side, and it benefits TFC as it allows Beitashour to stay back for the occasional breather.

In this instance, Delgado joins the attack and when the Fire go the other way, Beitashour is in position to play defence without having to run back from the opposing 18-yard-box. Last week, mlssoccer.com’s Matt Doyle wondered how long the 30-year-old Beitashour could play at a high level as a wing-back, and suggested Delgado could replace him in the starting lineup occasionally. Against Chicago, they complemented each other well.

Delgado is better on the right side of the midfield, so Vanney moved Vazquez to the left side closer to Giovinco, and the duo had their best games of the season.

The positions are clearly established here: Bradley is the deep-lying playmaker, Delgado is slightly ahead to his right, and Vazquez is on the left, closer to the forwards.

“Part of the reason the ball moved faster was because Marky [Delgado] was on the field,” Vanney said after the win over Chicago. “Marky is an efficient player – he doesn’t always try to look for the final pass. He usually plays in the fewest amount of touches possible in a moment, which means he gets to the ball, he gets rid of it quickly and the ball moves faster, and that was the idea a little bit with Marky. And it gave a little bit of a different look on the right side, and it also put Victor and Seba a little bit closer together to combine with each other.”

Delgado was always aware of where he was or needed to be on the pitch. When Bradley had the ball, Delgado stayed near him to give his teammate an option.

And on defence, Delgado shifted side to side with intensity, always on the lookout for the right spot to intercept the ball or go into a tackle.

“We know [Delgado] can cover a lot of ground,” Vanney said. “He’s got an engine, he can run. He can get forward, he can defend.”

Osorio and Cooper are useful players who should get chances to contribute in a long MLS season, but Delgado proved against Chicago that he’s the best fit alongside Bradley and Vazquez, and the boss seemed happy afterwards.

Delgado belongs in the starting XI against Houston Dynamo this Friday.