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Greg Vanney’s tactical tweak breathes life into Tsubasa Endoh

The sophomore delivered perhaps his best display since the early days of his rookie year against the Ottawa Fury.

Tagwa Moyo / Waking the Red

Tsubasa Endoh’s goal against the Ottawa Fury on Wednesday night was excellent:

(If the video doesn’t skip to it automatically, start at 2:29.)

Endoh provides just one touch to finish a well-worked move, but I love the lung-busting run he makes to get into the box. It reminded me of his debut last season:

(Skip to 2:00 on this one.)

Endoh not only has the energy and determination to make those runs but also the intelligence to make them to the right spots. In the Ottawa clip, you get a great view of how he curves his run and then tells Victor Vazquez where he wants the cross.

The 4-0 win over the Fury was a much-needed throwback to the exciting early days of his rookie year for the 23-year-old. Endoh could not have enjoyed a much better start to life in MLS, but his form tailed off as the summer wore on and, consequently, so did his minutes.

Part of the problem was positional fit; without Jozy Altidore available, Toronto had started the year in a 4-3-3 despite lacking wingers, meaning Endoh became an instant starter on the right wing. He then played in a couple of spots in the midfield diamond but was eventually supplanted by Jonathan Osorio at its tip, and the 3-5-2 was even less suited to his game.

The plan this winter was to convert Endoh into a wing-back in order to carve out a role for him and add depth in a position the Reds were lacking it. It made sense in a lot of ways; he has the stamina to get up and down the flank and the attacking quality to score and create goals and while the defensive side of his game was always going to need work, there was no pressure on him to log heavy minutes immediately as long as Steven Beitashour was healthy.

To this point, the experiment hasn’t really paid off. One of the problems is that Justin Morrow and Raheem Edwards like to attack on the left, and Beitashour provides a suitable defensive counter-balance that Endoh does not. In terms of the Japanese’s own form, he has struggled to show much of either the timing of Morrow or the one-on-one skill of Edwards, instead getting trapped in the middle third of the opposition half.

MLS: Canadian Championship-Ottawa Fury FC at Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

That was the issue against the Fury. Endoh was finding space against a defence tilted to its right to deal with Vazquez and Morrow, but not close enough to goal. At his best playing off the cuff and at speed, Endoh looked uncomfortable having to strategize routes around both midfielder Onua Obasi and left-back Andrae Campbell.

So when Tosaint Ricketts came off with an injury, Greg Vanney decided against making a like-for-like change and instead introduced Beitashour, pushing Endoh higher up and switching to a lopsided formation he called a 4-2-3-1.

“I thought he was doing a pretty good job of [providing offence from wing-back], but I thought he was having to come from positions that were too deep to really impact the play,” Vanney said afterwards. “When we switched to wingers it became natural for him - that’s what he’s always done as a player, is choose the right moments to come off the line into the middle. He’s very clever about finding the right timing to run in behind the back line where there’s channels and gaps and I thought he did a great job with that.”

Within 10 minutes of the change being made, Toronto were 2-0 up.

In making it, Vanney not only sparked Toronto into life as a team but found a role for Endoh that the Maryland product looked far more comfortable in. Before the first goal was scored, Endoh cut inside after receiving a Beitashour pass and fired a left-footed shot just wide of the post.

(1:33.)

Whereas previously both Obasi and Campbell had blocked Endoh’s path, now the former has to come out and challenge Beitashour, leaving Endoh to (astutely) drift into the central space he has left vacant. Campbell is left marking nothing and unsure whether he should follow Endoh or not.

Minutes later, Toronto came back down the same wing to score the opener.

(1:53.)

After the first scare, Campbell follows Endoh inside this time and leaves space for Jordan Hamilton to make a run into down the wing. That pulls centre-back Ramon Del Campo out of position and Endoh heads straight for the space he has left, with Hamilton doing well to hold off Del Campo’s challenge and pick him out.

The adjustment turned the game on its head, and Vanney and Endoh deserve to share most of the credit. Asked if he felt more comfortable in the more advanced position, Endoh said: “Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’m comfortable wherever I play, but I think it was good for me to score a goal and take many shots in the first half and second half. Obviously I should have scored twice or three times, but it is what it is.”

Endoh still has plenty of work to do to secure himself a long-term place in such a competitive TFC squad, but this was a reminder of what he can do for those who have been quick to write him off in recent months. With Altidore and Ricketts set to head to the Gold Cup, Endoh’s ability to add a second penalty-area presence in one-striker formations could be useful over the summer.

Vanney is not yet ready to call off the wing-back experiment, either - at least not publicly. “We’ll continue to work with him towards some of the defensive stuff, but understanding that he has a very good sense for timing on the attacking side of the game and good technique to be able to set up opportunities,” the coach reflected. “So we don’t want to take too much of that away from him - it’s just finding the right opportunities where he can make a difference, that he can be comfortable in and help the team.”