Saturday afternoon was the most uncomfortable Toronto FC have looked in a long time. It was understandable, really. The team Toronto fielded against the Colorado Rapids was a hodgepodge group of players who have rarely taken the pitch together outside of training.
Drew Moor, a former Rapid himself, was the only regular starter in the lineup. The rest were mostly substitutes or even reserve players. Ryan Telfer and Liam Fraser were making their first-ever starts in the 2-0 loss.
This led to plenty of stray passes, missed assignments and a general unease that made watching the match a little bit painful at times. It was also absolutely the right decision with the biggest game in club history set to be played on Tuesday.
But there was one Toronto FC player who, for the first time, looked completely at home. Ager Aketxe helped to make the game look a whole lot closer than it was, and it bodes well for his future with the team.
Of Toronto’s three big acquisitions, Aketxe has taken the longest to acclimatize, which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Whereas fellow newcomers Gregory van der Wiel and Auro definitely deserve the minutes they have been given, they also slid into vacant positions. He was also acquired later than both and therefore missed out on preseason.
Things just haven’t quite clicked yet for Aketxe. On a Toronto team that values quick ball movement, something that comes with familiarity of teammates as much as anything, Aketxe has struggled to connect.
Surprisingly, the most in-sync Aketxe has looked so far was on Saturday, when the rest of the team bordered on chaos at times. A quick glance at his passing chart, and 89.3 pass success percentage, shows a player who was incredibly clean in possession in his own half, helping Toronto retain the ball for extended periods throughout the match.
The chart shows passes (squares) and shots (circles) that Aketxe attempted over 90 minutes on Saturday. You will note that a lot of what he attempted in the final third was unsuccessful.
But more than anything this was indicative of a player trying a whole bunch of different shots and passes to try to will his side forward. A lot of these red lines were as much or more the fault of the player Aketxe was trying to link up with as it was the passer.
Ultimately, almost every scoring chance that Toronto had on Saturday involved Aketxe in some way. Here is a glimpse of his playmaking ability on a late chance where he finally connected with Tosaint Ricketts after several times the two had crossed signals.
Aketxe did a great job, especially in the second half, of collecting the ball from deep positions and then driving it forward so that Toronto could create attacks. This was the best chance he created during the match, but in all, he had four key passes over the 90 minutes. That’s tied for the most any Toronto FC player has created in a single match this season.
Toronto, however, does have plenty of other good passers. What makes Aketxe different from Victor Vazquez and any other Toronto attacking midfield option is his ability to create shots for himself when passing options aren’t available.
Aketxe took seven shots on Saturday, and while just one found the target that willingness to pull the trigger could be a big asset for Toronto. Also keep in mind that Aketxe initially created this chance by playing a sublime long ball from the defensive half to Ben Spencer, and then ran all the way up the field to get into a shooting position.
If there’s one main thing that stands out about Aketxe so far, it’s that once he gets himself into those shooting opportunities he has a cannon for a left foot. Not only that, but he isn’t afraid to let shots fly.
A real threat from outside the box is something the Toronto FC midfield has been missing for a long time. It has allowed teams to sit deeper on Toronto and clog up the box, knowing it doesn’t need to pressure up high as much.
Last season, Victor Vazquez led all Toronto midfielders with 0.7 shots per game from outside the box according to Whoscored. This season, Ager Aketxe has averaged 2.3. He’s unlikely to continue taking that many, but as long as he keeps shooting from outside the box he makes himself another unique weapon to add to Toronto’s arsenal.
None of these shots has found the back of the net yet, but they are getting close. He has already hit the crossbar on a few occasions and stung the palms of Tim Howard on Saturday with another long-ranger.
Even if they aren’t going in, the rebounds opportunities from these difficult to control shots have already been clear. Tosaint Ricketts scored a goal off one against Real Salt Lake and might have had another if he and Chapman hadn’t crossed wires on the shot above.
The one side of Aketxe’s game that has been called out on a few occasions so far is his defence. But it’s not like Victor Vazquez does a whole bunch without the ball either, so as long as Aketxe helps the Reds maintain the ball for long periods it isn’t a big issue.
Ultimately, Saturday showed the first extended glimpse at the reason why Toronto FC was so excited to have acquired the Spaniard. He brings something new to the table, and if he can start to make that fit better with his teammates he is going to make Toronto a better team.