In Toronto FC’s 2017 home opener against Sporting Kansas City, Jonathan Osorio was far from a hero. He bottled three huge chances, and the Reds emerged with a 0-0 draw from an extremely dull start to their home campaign. That week, fans repeatedly pointed to the Brampton native as one of the club’s weakest links, and someone who needed to be replaced.
Fast forward almost a year later, and public opinion surrounding Osorio couldn’t be more opposite. Ever since he played the game of his life in the 2017 MLS Cup final, he’s been on a tear. Perhaps more than any other TFC player, he’s shown up in a huge when in the most meaningful games.
Wednesday night against Tigres UANL was no different. In fact, his cheeky winning goal is perhaps the heroic moment he’s deserved for a while now, the culmination of all the work he’s put in. With two crucial CONCACAF Champions League goals to his name now this season, Osorio has continued to make himself undroppable.
Against Tigres, Osorio completed 34 passes and had two successful dribbles. He even contributed defensively, recovering the ball six times. The earlier games this season tell the same story; in the loss against the Columbus Crew, he led all TFC starters with an 89.1% pass success rate, and he had one of Toronto’s two shots on target.
What’s changed in Osorio, though? Why is he so much better this year, after being a regular on the bench in 2017?
“It’s a little bit of a Jedi mind trick that I put on him, which is where I told him to drop a little deeper, not worry about scoring goals, and now he’s in front of the net all the time,” joked Greg Vanney-wan Kenobi on Wednesday.
“The other thing Jonathan is doing really well is combining with Seba and playing off of other guys, moving into the next line and finding himself in really good attacking positions where he’s facing forward, facing the goal and he’s getting good looks.”
So, is it a positional thing? I’m not so sure, since Oso is still playing the same nominal roles he played last year — on the side of a diamond, or as one of the attacking midfielders in a 3-5-2.
I also think he’s always had pretty good chemistry with Sebastian Giovinco; they’re both quite technically gifted and creative players, and the two have often worked well together. Still, there’s definitely something to be said for Osorio playing under new marching orders this season.
He seems to be playing with a new lease on life.
“I’ve started to play with more confidence and be more aggressive,” said Osorio after his Tigres heroics. “Last year helped me more mentally than anything. Mentally I’m much stronger than I was before, and that’s a big part of growing as a player.”
After falling out of the starting eleven last year, Osorio seems to have put more into his training. He told reporters that he’s physically stronger than he was a year ago — TFC’s website lists him at 5’9” and about 160 pounds, but honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a little bit taller than that.
Not only does that make him harder to knock off the ball, it also lets him play a lot more confidently.
Ultimately, I think that’s what it boils down to: confidence. Maybe it was that MLS Cup performance that boosted his mindset, or maybe it happened before then. He scored a goal for Canada against Jamaica in September, that probably helped. Whatever happened, Oso looks like a different player now.
“Oso’s mentality continues to make the difference for him and for us,” said his captain, Michael Bradley. “There was a period last year where things weren’t coming easy for him, and it would’ve been easy to feel sorry for himself, to pack it in, and he didn’t. He kept working, he kept making his case every single day in training.”
The way his teammates refer to him speaks volumes about Osorio’s work ethic. Later in that same quote, Bradley called the midfielder one of TFC’s best players so far this season.
Maybe the acquisition of players like Ager Aketxe and Auro, both of whom could conceivably replace him in the lineup, has lit a fire under Osorio. Extra competition is always good; regardless of a player’s price tag, everyone should be fighting to keep their spot in the team.
Oso seems to be taking that to heart, playing so well that he can’t really be left out of the team. He’s becoming more and more like Toronto FC’s very own Ashley Young in that respect: a player who’s been around for ages, and who continues to find ways into the team by outplaying his more expensive competitors.
“Luckily for me I’ve earned my spot and proved to the coach toward the end of last year and beginning of this year that I can help this team,” said Osorio. “I want to be a big part of this team and play as many minutes as I can.”
Obviously Aketxe is going to be a huge part of this team in the future. It’s very early in the season still, and as he becomes acclimated to Toronto he’ll definitely factor into the side. Vanney may need to look at lineup options that include him, Osorio, and Victor Vazquez, although I’m not sure one exists. Perhaps Aketxe moves slightly wider?
Consistent squad rotation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. Players like Osorio and Marky Delgado may continue to platoon like they did last year. I think Osorio has the upper hand at the moment, although Delgado definitely provides much more cover in defence than his teammate.
I’m really not sure what Vanney will do with Osorio. All I know is, right now, he’s TFC’s hottest player, and now rightly holds the place of honour from one of the biggest moments in club history so far.
Where would you play Osorio? How would you fit him into a starting eleven alongside Aketxe, if at all?