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The WTR Top 20, No. 7: Mavinga built quickly on shaky start

TFC’s French defender rapidly became a top centre-back in MLS.

SOCCER: NOV 29 MLS Conference Finals - Columbus Crew at Toronto FC Photograph by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Chris Mavinga signed with Toronto FC about a year ago, and to be honest I knew little about him. But, the list of clubs he played at was impressive. Youth experience at Liverpool and PSG coupled with representing France at the U-21 level suggested he had the potential to thrive in MLS, if given the right opportunity.

It turns out TFC was the perfect landing spot for Mavinga, and Greg Vanney gave him every opportunity in his preferred position at centre-back. And did he ever show his quality. By the end of the season, Mavinga had started 29 games, including every playoff game, and established himself as a starting centre-back no matter which formation TFC went with.

Once he got going, Mavinga was a firecracker on the pitch. It wasn’t uncommon for him to spring an attack with a clever through ball, make the run himself down the left flank, or rush back to make a game-saving tackle. Statistically, he stood out compared to other TFC defenders. His WhoScored rating of 6.90 was third on the team behind Justin Morrow and Drew Moor and was T-17th in MLS among centre-backs (all stats are among defenders with at least 10 games played unless otherwise stated).

Mavinga’s ability to contribute defensively and offensively as a centre-back increasingly stood out as the season progressed. Defensively, he ranked first in percentage of aerials won (71%), and T-1st in interceptions (1.7), second in clearances (4.3) and shots/crosses/passes blocked (1.6), and third in tackles (2.0) per 90 minutes.

Offensively, he was T-2nd in successful dribbles per 90 minutes (0.4), while losing possession at a lower rate than only Moor and Nick Hagglund (two significantly more conservative players). He had the most passes per 90 minutes of any defender and the second highest pass accuracy (83.1%), while producing three times the number of key passes as any centre-back and assisting on two goals. Overall, it was a great season from a statistical perspective.

Columbus Crew SC v Toronto FC - Eastern Conference Finals - Leg 2 Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

However, it did take him a while to get going. He rightfully missed the first game in order to be in France for the birth of his child. He barely played until mid-May, and when he did he didn’t look up to speed. In his first start against Atlanta United, two balls in behind caught him out of position and led to two goals.

He only lasted 51 minutes on the field, and had no tackles, interceptions, or aerials contested. It was as bad of a debut as a defender could have. Vanney put it bluntly when he said that Mavinga “wasn’t ready for the speed” of the game in transition.

By his third start, against Minnesota in mid-May, he had caught up to speed and wouldn’t look back. That’s not to say Mavinga was faultless throughout the year. He made his fair share of risky passes, and because of that gave the ball away occasionally in dangerous positions. But, his athleticism allowed him to more than make up for those plays.

One of his best plays of the season involved him sprinting back to make a game-saving challenge against New York City FC. It also encapsulates Mavinga as a player. Without a doubt it was a risky play, but the timing and precision of his challenge was phenomenal and he pulled it off.

A bonus is that Mavinga seems to genuinely love Toronto. He even wrote a thank you letter to Toronto and TFC fans thanking the city for the support. And despite a millisecond of panic on Twitter, he seems fully committed to Toronto.

Next season, Mavinga will look to build on his strong debut season. Judging by the latter half of the season, it won’t matter if TFC choose to primarily use the 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 (diamond) formations. Mavinga was first choice for both and is firmly positioned alongside Moor in one of the best centre-back pairings in the league. Let’s hope he can replicate, or even improve on his 2017 season.

A truly unique talent at centre-back, especially in MLS, TFC is lucky to have Mavinga for the prime years of his career. As a fan, I can’t wait for the 2018 season and to witness more exciting plays from him.