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Three players are making Toronto FC a better team in 2017

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Stagnation was a big threat to the Reds this season, but they have taken a smart, three-pronged approach to improvement.

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

Toronto FC spend more money on their three designated players than any other team in MLS, and they generally get a good return out of them.

It’s hard to identify a better trio in the entire league, in fact. The Seattle Sounders’ group of Nicolas Lodeiro, Clint Dempsey and Osvaldo Alonso is good, and might get even better if Alonso’s contract is paid down with targeted allocation money to make way for another DP. At the moment, though, few Reds fans would trade Sebastian Giovinco for Lodeiro, Jozy Altidore for Dempsey or Michael Bradley for Alonso and an MLS Cup has eluded them only due to the luck and bounces of one particular night.

That is not to say, however, that they can do it alone, and one of the challenges presented to Bill Manning, Tim Bezbatchenko and Greg Vanney this offseason was improving a team that went so close to winning it all without being able to add another player in the price bracket of their three stars. The early signs are that stagnation has been avoided, and another three players in particular highlight the trio of team-building methods by which that has been achieved.

Offseason signings: OK, so we haven’t seen a great deal of Chris Mavinga or Jason Hernandez yet, but Victor Vazquez has been so good that everything else is noise for the time being. Toronto’s biggest offseason priority was to add a quality attacking midfielder, and Vazquez’s 3.53 chances created per 90 minutes ranks second only to Sacha Kljestan in the entire league.

Vazquez chances created

“Since we announced the signing of Victor - and if you want to go back two years ago when we started looking at him - we knew that was his capability,” Vanney said after the win over the Houston Dynamo. “His vision, his awareness of where things are around the field is second to none. Sometimes even in these transitions, even before he gets the ball, he knows exactly where Sebastian and Jozy are and he is ripping one across the field and into space and finding those guys.”

Vazquez has looked like the perfect use of targeted allocation money and if he can add a few more goals to his game - which Vanney appears to expect he will - Toronto’s attack will be almost impossible to stop.

Internal growth: There are a few examples I could give here, but the most prominent - albeit only two starts into his season - is Marky Delgado. The 21-year-old had a solid 2016 season, but both his confidence on the ball and awareness off it have been on a completely different level this term.

I hadn’t chalked up Delgado as much more than a reliable depth player this season and thought his best shot at a place in the lineup might be as a wing-back. With the 4-4-2 diamond gone and Vazquez and Armando Cooper brought in, more players were competing for fewer spots in central midfield.

He is proving me very wrong, very quickly, so I asked Bradley, who has a better vantage point of his play than most, after the Dynamo game: does he think Delgado has more upside than people have given him credit for?

“Yeah I do, absolutely,” the captain replied. “He is a very good player. He covers ground, he plays simply, he understands the game. He's a two-way player, which means that he's in on tackles and really helps things when we don't have the ball. But his ability to move around and find space and again, play one and two-touch when we have the ball really helps the team.

“I think he's a classic example of a guy who in some ways doesn't catch people's eye right away, but if you understand the game and you're able to really look and watch, then you start to see what he's all about. I think he's going to continue to get better and better.”

Delgado was not taken until the 14th pick of the Chivas USA dispersal draft, with Toronto eventually taking a chance on him. Kudos to Vanney for seeing something in a player who might not stand out to nine out of 10 onlookers.

Youth promotion: Perhaps the only player Reds fans are more excited about than Vazquez is Raheem Edwards, who is getting better and better by the game. Not much seems to faze the winger, who has added something Toronto simply did not have in his speed from wide areas and is yet to meet a full-back he can’t beat.

If Edwards is at all pinching himself about starring for his hometown team, he does a good job of hiding it. In the post-game media scrums that have greeted him on more than one occasion this season he has always appeared completely at ease, and is inevitably asked about exactly that.

Jozy Altidore Toronto FC Houston Dynamo MLS Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

“It's a question I get a lot of times, if I feel confident, because I'm a young player but obviously I feel confident,” he said in the most recent one. “The team feels confidence in me and I just play and do my thing.”

Just another day at the office.

Building a deeper pool of Canadian players through the academy will take time, but for now - while it sounds cynical to say - identifying and nurturing one talent like Edwards is far, far more valuable than finding five borderline MLS players. If Toronto can push just one or two prospects like that into the first team every couple of years, they will be doing a decent job at youth level.