With less than half the season left to play, Toronto FC are a third of the way to securing what would be a historic domestic treble of the Voyageurs Cup, the Supporters’ Shield and the MLS Cup. They have already secured a place in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.
Right now, even with plucky Chicago nipping at their heels, it’s a safe bet to think that the Shield race is Toronto’s to lose. The depth of this team has allowed it to march forward through injuries or and international call-ups with relative ease - or, at the very least, without cause for major concern.
Depth to that extent is unprecedented for an MLS club and especially for a team like Toronto, who in some seasons couldn't find 11 USL-calibre players for their lineup.
But with depth comes a (nice) problem. Greg Vanney can rotate his team through the summer months, but the question remains for the fans to debate; assuming everyone is healthy, who are the players that would make the starting XI for Toronto FC in a one-off final match?
Let’s take a look at what the first team could or should look like if the MLS Cup were tomorrow. This lineup prediction is done on the assumption that Vanney continues with a 3-5-2 formation.
Alex Bono: Clint Irwin got injured and lost his starting job, and there is an old (overused and quite frankly short-sighted) adage that says “you should never lose your starting job because of an injury”. But if that were always true, Tom Brady wouldn't have displaced Drew Bledsoe and the Patriots wouldn't have been the team of the century thus far. Sometimes it’s just time. And in this case, Bono has stolen the net with solid performance after solid performance. The job is his now, and could be for years.
Eriq Zavaleta: The best compliment I can give a defender is that you can not notice him for 90 minutes. That’s certainly the case with Eriq; he does work that goes unnoticed, and he does it well. Fans have also seen him develop into a player who is starting to take more of a leadership role and grow more comfortable in his skin. The Zav of last season would never have ripped into Armando Cooper after a costly turnover.
Drew Moor: He hasn't been 100 per cent sharp since returning from his time off, but he will get there. Moor’s ability to anchor the back line and communicate with his younger teammates is vital. He is still prone to the occasional head-scratching moment where he looks completely lost in position, but some of that comes with how often we see him as the lead defender to the attack. Of the choices available, he is still the most solid.
Nick Hagglund: No, this has nothing to do with him spending 30 minutes discussing Breath of the Wild strategy with my four-year-old a few weeks before his return and instantly becoming his favourite TFC player ever. For a team that doesn't always defend set pieces and corner kicks with polish, it’s important to have an athletic defender who can get up and win balls on sheer athleticism alone. Nick more than deserves this spot.
Justin Morrow: The perfect pairing with Steven Beitashour on the the opposite side. Morrow can defend and still get to the net to score goals. In any system that employs wing-backs to extend the field laterally, it’s important to have speed to kill. Justin is one of the few players in the league who can get ahead of a Michael Bradley long ball and then still track back with relative ease to join the defence.
Steven Beitashour: On a team full of scoring options, Beita does what is needed the most: cross the ball from wide and make long runs to advance the play. He is still one of the best one-on-one defenders in the squad and can play a full game end-line to end-line. When Moor and Beita joined last season to improve an abysmal 2015 defence it was Moor who got the majority of the credit, but Beita's ability to stop attacks from the wing has been just as vital.
Michael Bradley: With the exception of 'Maverick Max Pacheco', there’s a reason that we at WTR had Bradley as our midseason MVP. He remains the key to connecting defence to offence and making the long-ball plays that this team thrives on. His impact off the field cannot be overstated. Teams talk about 'changing the culture' and 'institutional stability' to describe changing something/anything in the hope that they are not terrible anymore. For TFC, Bradley is the culture. Irreplaceable.
Victor Vazquez: Seriously, how a TAM signing has had more impact than 80% of the DPs in league history is testament to Tim Bezbatchenko’s recruiting and scouting. Going into this season the biggest need was for a creative playmaker to support the strikers. Well...bingo, bango. He can score, he can dazzle, and it looks like he does it without even breaking a sweat sometimes.
Marky Delgado: To borrow an old trope from a different sport: he was given the ball and he ran with it. In fact, he left Cooper and Jonathan Osorio trailing behind. His ability to extend wide and make plays across the field is the perfect compliment to Bradley and Vazquez, who have the space to pick a long pass or a shorter, more creative through ball. And if you are Sebastian Giovinco, the best thing you can say about Marky Delgado is: “he's not Tsubasa Endoh”.
Jozy Altidore: A perfect compliment to Seba. He can play with his back to the net and hold up play, allowing Seba to get into better one-on-one match-ups, or turn and shoot himself, which makes reacting to him difficult for opposing defences. Jozy has proven in the last two years that even without Seba in the lineup, he can generate his own offence and create for the other striker alongside him whoever that may be.
Sebastian Giovinco: Seba had a 2015 the likes of which no player has ever had before in MLS history, and very few ever will. If you constantly compare 2016 and 2017 to his debut season, you will be disappointed, but you will miss the forest for the trees when it comes to understanding how this is a more efficient and effective Sebastian Giovinco for Toronto FC. Go read this column by Oliver Platt for more on that.
To paraphrase Drake: Put both hands together for the 6-God, that’s amazing grace.
So that’s my ideal/optimal starting XI. Let me know in the comments section if you would do anything differently.