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Gregory van der Wiel’s ability on full display against Club América

The Dutchman was a rock all night.

A lot of Toronto FC players are worthy of praise from last night’s 3-1 win over Club América. Sebastian Giovinco was magnificent as usual, Jozy Altidore was back to his clutch self, and Ashtone Morgan was the hometown hero TFC needed. Enough has been written (and will be written) about those three that I need not dwell on them here.

No, I want to devote my post-game column to the defensive masterclass that was Gregory van der Wiel’s second straight appearance at centre-back for the Reds. Several people have already said that it was his best game since arriving in Toronto:

I’m absolutely inclined to agree. The man made up for Drew Moor’s lapses last night, and then some. Moor’s inclusion in the side is often chalked up to leadership and organization. Well, van der Wiel seemed to be the one calling the shots in the backline against Club América.

For an example, look no further than this sequence in the 63rd minute.

Right at the beginning, van der Wiel spots Cecilio Domínguez looking for space. He turns his back to goal, and I’m pretty sure he points at Domínguez, likely alerting Auro that he needs to keep an eye on him. When van der Wiel comes back into frame, he looks like he’s telling Moor to keep in front of Oribe Peralta, while the Dutchman covers any turn backwards the striker could make.

Simultaneously, van der Wiel’s also close enough to André Uribe to close him down if it looks like the ball’s coming his way. The line flattens out, and van der Wiel is right in between Peralta and Uribe, probably in a better position to defend than either Moor or Auro. When the cross comes, van der Wiel picks it out immediately and heads it away.

The stat line from van der Wiel’s night is pretty spectacular. He had a 92.9% pass accuracy, which was better than anyone else in the game (except for Tosaint Ricketts, who played eight minutes and made one pass). He made three recoveries, two interceptions, and FIVE clearances.

It’s also impressive that, as a defender, he didn’t commit a single foul. In fact, he actually had a positive foul differential, winning one in the 26th minute.

A look at his events map shows how much he dominated pretty much anywhere right of the penalty spot.

Interesting that so much of his defensive work came up there on the right flank; he was certainly drifting over that way quite a bit to allow Auro to get higher and use his more attacking mindset (and feed Morgan for a goal). The fact that van der Wiel can provide such stable, reliable defensive cover is a huge boon to Auro’s play, since he doesn’t need to worry about his own defensive responsibilities quite as much.

I want to point out another couple of clips I liked from van der Wiel’s game last night. The first is just a textbook example of his athleticism and awareness on the pitch:

Some sloppy play leads to a TFC giveaway in their own half, and they’re very much in danger of being exposed early on here. Van der Wiel realizes the ball’s coming to Domínguez pretty quickly here, and begins tracking him.

Obviously he has to be careful, knowing that this referee gave TFC a fairly disputable penalty just a few minutes before; there could be a makeup call on the horizon. Van der Wiel thus waits for Domínguez to take a heavy touch on the wet ball, beats him to it, and knocks it out the side for a throw-in. He checks the América attacker with a strong shoulder, but it’s clean contact.

Rock-solid defending if you ask me, even if Domínguez’s touch could’ve been better. He still managed to spot the danger, and was calm enough to commit fully to his man and get the ball away confidently.

Alright, one more clip. It’s a long one, because van der Wiel makes a couple confident plays within a minute of play.

On the first play, Domínguez remains firmly in van der Wiel’s pocket, no matter what he does. Once again, it’s the Dutchman’s athleticism and composure that allows him to catch up to Domínguez and execute a clean tackle to halt América’s buildup in its tracks.

The second play required quite a bit of trust in Auro for van der Wiel to leave his man hanging out on the flank. He floats inside a bit, counting on the Brazilian to be in position. When Drew Moor, Marky Delgado, and Auro get sucked in together, van der Wiel drops out and makes sure Domínguez is, again, covered, and it’s he who gets his foot on the ball.

Those are what I saw as the highlights from van der Wiel’s performance, although much of his true value in that game may not come through in replays. The greatest testament to his performance is the chances that América didn’t get. In his post-game presser, Greg Vanney asked the media for help in thinking of more than one or two real chances the Liga MX side had.

Van der Wiel was pretty much always in position, and was able to utterly stifle his assigned man all night. Domínguez was pretty much entirely ineffective all night, forced repeatedly to send impotent crosses into the box. His greatest impact on the scoresheet was his two offsides.

More and more, I think the best way for TFC to line up involves van der Wiel playing the responsible, defensive role behind Auro on the wing, whether it’s in a flat 4-4-2 or in a 3-5-2 with a lot of backline width.

All in all, hell of a game from the Dutchman on Tuesday. He’s looked progressively better every game he’s played in a red shirt, and at this point is becoming undroppable as far as I’m concerned. What do you think?