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Injury crisis has helped Toronto FC learn more about itself

There has been a silver lining to all this recent suffering.

Soccer: Concacaf Champions League-Toronto FC at Guadalajara Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

With injury comes opportunity, and there has been a whole lot of both for Toronto FC over the past couple of weeks. A combination of travel, altitude, tough opponents, uneven surfaces and just sheer bad luck has Toronto FC looking like they just came back from playing a half against the Monstars from Space Jam.

There are no two ways about it, this has hurt a lot more than it has helped. It’s arguable that injuries lost Toronto FC the CONCACAF Champions League, and they are certainly part of why they sit so low in the MLS standings at the moment.

The club itself won’t fully look at it that way, of course, nor should they. But it's awfully hard to think that with a fully fit Victor Vazquez, Justin Morrow, Chris Mavinga and Drew Moor, or even any two of four, a couple of results don’t go the other way.

However, if there is any silver lining in the fact that Toronto has been forced to limp through the past couple of months, it has been that aforementioned opportunity. With roster mainstays on the sidelines, Greg Vanney has had a chance to try out some different combinations, some of which can really benefit Toronto FC in the future.

MLS: Columbus Crew at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Van der Wiel could, and probably should, stick at centre-back

This is probably the most important discovery that has been directly created by the recent rash of injuries. If Toronto FC hadn’t lost every single one of its centrebacks to injury, would Vanney ever have thought to push Gregory van der Wiel centrally?

With a couple of players set to return soon, van der Wiel could end up back in the position he was initially brought in to fill. But with how comfortable the Dutchman has looked in the middle, perhaps that is where he should stay.

For one, when van der Wiel plays centre-back there is perhaps no safer place for the ball to be than on his foot. Since the position swap, he has had 90.13% passing accuracy, up from 84.2% as a fullback. Having both sides of the field to pick a pass has clearly helped.

He also almost never loses the ball, he has only been dispossessed once this season in MLS play and has never made an undisciplined touch according to Whoscored. He is also fantastic positionally and has complemented just about everyone he has played alongside at centre-back.

“A lot of credit should go to the back group, Michael [Bradley] and [Gregory van der Wiel],” said Greg Vanney after Toronto’s 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Union. He added, “The back four have done a fantastic job of condensing space, and choosing the right moments of when to step up and when to drop back”.

What’s more, van der Wiel playing centre-back means Auro keeps his spot on the right flank. The Brazilian has been one of the most consistently positive performers for Toronto this year and brings more of an attacking flair in the role than van der Wiel does.

MLS: Concacaf Champions League-Toronto FC at Colorado Rapids Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Delgado has looked capable as a holding midfielder

It remains true that there is nobody as irreplaceable in the Toronto FC lineup as Michael Bradley, the good news being that he is always healthy. But recent circumstances have seen him forced into a centre-back role and left Marky Delgado to step into his vacant midfield spot.

He hasn’t lived up to Bradley’s standards — there isn’t a player in this league who can — but Delgado has looked capable. That’s good news for Toronto, as the only player who plays Bradley’s natural position is Liam Fraser, who hasn’t quite looked ready to handle the big time just yet.

In two games as a holding midfielder in MLS action, Delgado has made 10 tackles, six interceptions and four clearances. Between those two games, he has also won six aerial battles, having won none in any previous league appearances this year.

Delgado was especially good on Friday when he had Ager Aketxe beside him. The Spaniard showed not only that he can defend, but he can do it quite well. It’s good to know that if Bradley misses time, or has to play a different role, Toronto has a reasonably good backup plan.

Here is a look at Delgado’s defensive play against the Philadelphia Union. Green is tackles won, yellow is recoveries, blue is interceptions and purple is clearances.

Depth players have stepped up

Not everyone called upon has answered for Toronto FC. If that was the case TFC would have another trophy in their hands and would be a lot closer to the playoffs. But a few standout performers have raised their games during this injury crisis.

The most recent has been Nicolas Hasler. The 27-year-old from Liechtenstein was signed as a right-back last season but moved into the midfield this year where he is more comfortable. Starting in the last three games for Toronto, he has been excellent.

“[I’m] feeling comfortable, although not everything worked out well for me, but I made an assist and I’ve played the last few games in this position and I need these games to feel more comfortable,” said Hasler after helping Toronto to a 3-0 win on Friday. “As I said in the beginning I’m versatile and I play a lot of different positions so there’s no problem.”

It bears repeating that Ashtone Morgan is the other player who has stepped up big for Toronto FC during this current run. The club’s longest-serving player has been excellent in relief of the injured Justin Morrow and reminded everyone that he is an MLS-calibre fullback.

MLS: Columbus Crew at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto might have found a late-game attacking formation

Switching to “all-out attack” in the FIFA video game series is almost always a recipe for further disaster. But for Toronto FC, should they find themselves in a position where they need a goal late in a match it might just work.

Because, well, in some ways that’s the formation they have been playing with for the past three games. Toronto didn’t lose any of those games despite not starting a single natural centre-back.

While it has been a unique situation, it certainly hasn’t been a positive one as the late game collapse against the Chicago Fire proved. But there might still be a use for this formation: late in games when Toronto needs a goal.

When this happens, Toronto can be confident taking off centre-backs for attackers and then shifting Bradley back to replace them. Bradley has shown he can still assist the attack from the back with his ability to play line-splitting passes. It’s not a formation Toronto would like to have to use, but it is another card up Greg Vanney’s sleeve.