Toronto FC will pose plenty of challenges to whichever teams (let’s hope it’s plural) face them in the MLS playoffs, but the element of surprise will not be one of them.
Last season, the Reds signed two important players in the summer and switched to a 3-5-2 formation on the eve of the postseason. This year, that system has long been established as their default setting and Nicolas Hasler, likely to be their only midseason addition, will probably only feature prominently if Steven Beitashour’s recovery from injury is slower than hoped.
There is still time for that to change, but Toronto are five points clear at the top of the table and it probably won’t.
As long as Beitashour returns sometime in September as hoped, there is really only one position in which there is any doubt or debate left to be had: centre-back.
There are four candidates - Drew Moor, Chris Mavinga, Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund, all of them starters on most MLS teams - for three spots.
(Greg Vanney noted that he had a fifth in Jason Hernandez when I asked him about the level of competition at centre-back after the 4-0 win over New York City FC. But while Hernandez has been an excellent, dependable depth addition, I don’t think it is controversial to say that he is last in the pecking order when TFC are at full strength.)
This poll of the four most likely combinations in my mind finished with three of them in a virtual tie:
So, Nick Hagglund is fit. What is your first-choice #TFCLive back three?— Oliver Platt (@plattoli) July 21, 2017
One conclusion we can draw from the results is that the overwhelming majority have Moor in the starting lineup, and that is unsurprising. The 33-year-old is a quality defender, one of the most experienced players in MLS and an important voice in the locker room.
Moor slots into the middle of the three-man unit as its organizer and leader.
More than two-thirds of voters have Zavaleta to his right. Again, I think that’s likely (even though the most popular unit did not include him); nervy and error-prone late last season, the former Seattle Sounder has looked far more at home ever since the 3-5-2 was adopted and leads the team in minutes played in MLS this year.
“I always say the same thing about Eriq: he defends so consistently,” Vanney, who has also praised Zavaleta’s ability in one-on-one situations, said in April. “He understands his priorities, that's why he's steady back there. And that's what you want in a centre-back. You want to know what you're going to get every single day that you put them out on the field.”
Zavaleta’s safe, conservative game complements both Mavinga and Hagglund, who tend to be more aggressive and tasked with playing a more active role in bringing the ball out of defence.
Which leaves those two to fight it out for the left-sided spot.
If Vanney’s decision does, come playoff time, come down to Mavinga or Hagglund, whoever is left out is going to feel very hard done by. Hagglund was arguably TFC’s best defender through the first couple of months of the season, and many would argue Mavinga has been since the former first-round pick suffered an MCL injury.
It is very difficult to find any way to meaningfully separate them. Mavinga would seem to have the edge statistically, recording more tackles and interceptions and boasting an impressive 85% pass-completion rate, one of the top marks on the team. That said, Hagglund is the team leader when it comes to blocks and clearances and no one on the roster is better in the air.
The one nagging concern I have with Mavinga was highlighted in Sunday’s win over NYCFC.
He was largely excellent, forcing Jack Harrison to switch to the left wing having got nothing out of him through the first half hour or so. Later on, with the score at 1-0, he capped off his strong performance with a spectacular last-ditch tackle that Vanney labelled “game-saving”:
It was one hell of a recovery and put Mavinga’s outstanding athleticism on display.
There was just one problem: would the goalscoring opportunity for Maxi Moralez have ever arisen had Mavinga not been caught in no-man’s land in the build-up?
Both Moor and Zavaleta throw their arms up in frustration immediately after the ball is cleared. That could have been directed at Mavinga, the assistant referee or somebody or something else; we don’t know, but they certainly weren’t celebrating.
Those lapses have become less frequent for Mavinga as the season has worn on, but they do still exist. Unless he can eliminate them over the next couple of months, the question will be whether or not his impressive skillset as an individual - and, to be fair, his ability to bail out other players’ errors - is enough to get him in over Hagglund, who has an excellent understanding with and sense for his defensive partners.
“The next game, it may or may not be the same [three guys],” Vanney said on Sunday. “When it gets down to the playoffs, we’ll have a unit that’s working best together and we’ll know who that is.”
Perhaps time will provide an answer. For now, the head coach’s only real decision to make with regard to his best starting lineup is a luxury and a quandary at the same time.