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The WTR Top 20, No. 19: Jay Chapman’s drop in playing time not his fault

The talented midfielder was well down the depth chart in 2017.

The TFC took on Vancouver at BMO field Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Last year, Jay Chapman ranked 16th on our WTR Top 20 list. This year, he slots in at the 19th spot. That drop is not indicative of a decrease in his abilities. Rather, it is due to a significant decrease in his playing time.

Chapman, or “Chappers” as he his affectionately known, played a paltry 385 MLS minutes this past season. That’s a 50 percent decrease from two seasons ago (2016). Only Ashtone Morgan, Oyvind Alseth, Tsubasa Endoh, Ben Spencer and Jordan Hamilton played less with the first team than he did. But, each of these individuals played far more with TFC II than Chappers. In fact, of this group, Chapman recorded the fewest professional game minutes in 2017.

That pretty much sums up the riddle of Jay Chapman: too good for the USL, but not good enough to crack TFC’s lineup.

MLS/USL playing time

Player 2017 TFC minutes (MLS) 2017 TFC II minutes (USL) Total professional minutes
Player 2017 TFC minutes (MLS) 2017 TFC II minutes (USL) Total professional minutes
Oyvind Alseth 269 1,244 1,513
Tsubasa Endoh 269 1,157 1,426
Ben Spencer 179 1,075 1,254
Jordan Hamilton 142 733 875
Ashtone Morgan 283 554 837
Jay Chapman 385 270 655

On Toronto FC’s midfield depth chart, Chapman ranks eighth. Assuming a five-man midfield, he falls behind Victor Vazquez, Michael Bradley, Justin Morrow, Marky Delgado, Steven Beitashour, Nicolas Hasler and Jonathan Osorio. That’s not a bad thing, though. These are all good players. Barring injuries to those ahead of him, Jay’s role will be the same in 2018 as it was in 2017: providing Greg Vanney with a legitimate midfield option off the bench.

But where should he play? Can he be groomed to play as a backup to the No. 8 (currently, Delgado is the leading man in that role)? Can he be the backup to Osorio whenever TFC employs the diamond formation? At an absolute stretch, can he be taught how to be a pseudo-understudy to Michael Bradley? What about all of the above?

Playing one role last season — an attacking midfielder on the right side — contributed to his reduced playing time. Like a star utility infielder in baseball, perhaps Chapman’s value is directly tied to his versatility. The advantage of having a depth player like Chappers is that he should be able to learn and adapt — he is young, he is relatively fast and, most importantly, he is teachable.

Torornto v Sunderland Pre Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Few may remember Jay’s NCAA career. Over his three years at Michigan State, Chapman showed continuous learning and continuous improvement. From Third-team Freshman in 2012, to First-team All-Big Ten in 2013, to MAC Hermann Trophy Finalist in 2014, Chapman matured and excelled with increased playing time and increased responsibilities.

He showed that same pattern of improvement between 2015 and 2016, his first two years in MLS. In 2017, he achieved several major milestones: his first cap with the Canadian Men’s National Team; his first international goal for Canada’s senior squad; and his first MLS goal (scored twice). But, aside from these ‘firsts,’ 2017 was a major set-back in Chapman’s development.

As mentioned, he only played a handful of games, and was quite average in most of those appearances. The low point of his year came at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa during the first leg of the Canadian Championship semi-final. With no immediate pressure, he played an unbelievably ridiculous back pass that resulted in the Fury scoring the game-winning goal.

Despite the requirement to field Canadian players, Chappers never saw another game in the Canadian Championship. In fact, he wasn’t even on the bench for the final against Montreal (both legs). As has been his history, though, he learned from that dreadful error.

During the summer, especially over the Gold Cup stretch, Chapman was a key contributor. He played in seven of eight matches, from the beginning of June to the end of July. As a testament to his learning, he was chosen to replace an injured Sebastian Giovinco in a pivotal game at Yankee Stadium. Playing against a full-strength New York City FC outfit, with first place in the standings very much in doubt, Chapman provided a bit of energy and stability to a depleted Toronto FC team.

In the 49th minute he made a nice one-touch pass to Benoit Cheyrou, who then crossed it into the box. Chapman had the presence of mind to crash the net with Spencer, only to see his goal overturned by a controversial off-side call. True to form, Chapman built upon that experience and, three days later, played 73 strong minutes against Colorado — a game that saw him score the lone Toronto goal in a disappointing team performance.

SOCCER: JUL 05 MLS - Toronto FC at Orlando City SC Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After that, though, Chapman’s playing time all but dried up. Chapman only played 37 minutes over the remaining 13 games of the regular season. Clearly, Toronto’s need for another backup, attacking midfielder had disappeared. Contrast that with Armando Cooper’s 136 minutes and Osorio’s 559 minutes over that same timespan, and it’s clear where some of Chapman’s playing time went.

This year, with the possibility of 52 competitive matches (the Champions League, the Canadian Championship, MLS regular season and playoffs), there should be plenty of playing time to go around. To ensure that he gets a large chunk of these minutes, Chapman needs to stretch and polish his game to the point where he makes it all but impossible to exclude him from the lineup.

If he can successfully play multiple midfield positions he will greatly increase his chances of being subbed in, regardless of the formation being used. The argument is circular, though. In order for Chapman to improve at multiple positions, he needs to play more minutes. But, in order to play more minutes, he may have to prove that he can play multiple positions.

The only way through this loop is to show Greg Vanney something special in training, day in and day out. Then, when rewarded with opportunities to play, he must capitalize. This means replicating his training-ground successes without committing critical errors. This is the ask of all good players, but it creates a great deal of pressure especially for those on the precipice of the first-team. Naturally, this pressure is amplified when the first-team in question is the best team in MLS history. But, if he can do it, then 2018 will be the turning point in Jay Chapman’s career.