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The WTR Top 20, No. 9: Marky Delgado reinvented himself in 2017

The young midfielder was a revelation for Toronto FC.

MLS: MLS CUP-Seattle Sounders vs Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It may be too dramatic a comparison, but Marky Delgado’s 2017 season was a bit like the movie Dodgeball.

For those whose sense of the cinematic arts is slightly more refined than mine, allow me to summarize: the protagonists need to find their inner game in order to save their beloved gym. They are definitely not the biggest, strongest or fastest competitors on the court. But, in true Hollywood fashion, they go on a journey of self-discovery —shedding their old (pirate) clothes and achieving what they always wanted, but never really thought possible.

See the parallel?

The young, slight Marco Antonio “Marky” Delgado completely reinvented himself this past season. In so doing, he not only earned a starting spot on the best team in MLS history, but he also earned his first ever call-up to the U.S. Men’s National Team — not bad for an underdog who entered the season sixth (at best) on Toronto FC’s midfield depth chart.

But, what exactly did he do to effect this change? Put quite simply, it was a change in his mindset that led to his transformation on the pitch. He stopped trying to impress by doing too much, entering a Zen-like state that even Patches O’Houlihan would have been proud of: Delgado did more by doing less.

In an August interview with WTR’s own Oliver Platt, Marky elaborated on his new philosophy.

“(I’m) just that man to play it to the next person, really,” he said, “just to bounce off, you know.”

Just to bounce off? Well, then bounce away!

MLS: MLS CUP-Seattle Sounders vs Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

In 2017 the ball “bounced off” Delgado 1,461 times, with a success rate of 84.3%. His average passes per game were bettered only by Michael Bradley and Victor Vazquez, and his accuracy was right in line with that of the “former Barcelona man”.

Granted, his passes were not as creative or risky as VV’s, but that wasn’t his role. Delgado’s role was to be the bumper in Greg Vanney’s game of pinball, and get the ball to players like Vazquez. He did just that. So much so that MLS’s secondary-assist stat allowed him to amass the largest single-season assist total in his career (5). If you are into comparisons, that’s more assists than players like Tyler Adams, Alexander Ring, Luis Solignac and Alejandro Bedoya — all of whom, save Adams, played more minutes than Delgado.

On the defensive side of the ball, Delgado also excelled by eliminating the unnecessary. His 2.5 tackles per game led the entire team. His 1.6 interceptions per match were third to Michael Bradley and Drew Moor and his 0.4 blocks per game were the highest of any TFC midfielder.

This double-sided threat definitely wasn’t the same player that we saw two seasons ago. In 2016, Delgado often dallied too long with the ball. He also dallied too long off the ball. This created problems for him. Rather than make a quick, instinctual play, he often overthought his movements. Many times, this led to poor decisions at inopportune times.

Consequently, his coach’s confidence in him, when it mattered most, was quite low. During the 2016 playoffs, Delgado saw only two minutes of action, and he wasn’t even on the bench for that year’s MLS Cup Final.

Obviously, 2017 was the complete opposite. Delgado played in every playoff match, starting all but one. In the final, he played 89 minutes. He was subbed off only to allow Benoit Cheyrou the opportunity to retire in style.

MLS: Toronto FC at Chicago Fire Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

When asked in October by The Sun’s Kurtis Larson what makes Delgado different than other young players, coach Vanney offered that, “a lot of young players think they have to be great at everything, or they have to be great at what people ooh and aah at. They fail to recognize the game is simple for the vast majority of players.”

Obviously, Delgado has recognized that.

My favourite quote from Dodgeball comes from Cotton McKnight, the fictional sportscaster from The Ocho. In describing the tournament’s key moment, McKnight says: “It’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, the awkwardly feminine from the possibly Canadian.” (Come on, it’s a Vince Vaughn/Ben Stiller movie… laugh a little…)

The sentiment behind this quote is the challenge that Delgado faced at the start of 2017. No one handed him his starting role. He separated himself from the pack — a pack that included (and still includes) Canadians Jonathan Osorio and Jay Chapman.

This challenge may resurface in 2018, especially if another high-calibre central midfielder is inked before the games start for real. But, the difference is that this time around, Delgado has an edge. His increased confidence and improved play on both sides of the ball are definite advantages.

His other advantage is that he is a student of the game, and he recognizes learning opportunities when they are presented. Speaking with MLS’s Scott French earlier this month, Delgado said, “I have Michael and Victor Vazquez and they’ve… really taught me a lot. I take as much information as I can from them.”

That includes chatting with Vazquez about little things, like some of the nuances that make Delgado’s favourite player, Andres Iniesta, such a strong midfielder.

Between his instructional sessions with some of the best players in MLS, his recent training with the U.S. National Team, and his experiences dealing with pressure-packed situations, Marky should show even more improvement in 2018. He may even be the chosen one to relieve Bradley on occasion. Right now, there is no one better on TFC’s roster. If that were to come to fruition, it would be yet another high point in Delgado’s football journey - a journey that certainly rivals the one in his favourite movie.

Incidentally, by his own admission, ‘Dodgeball’ really does rank at the top of Delgado’s preferred movie list.