The two-game head start

Cris Payne - Toronto FC/mlsfemale
Official Toronto FC Reporter

By Cris Payne // @crissypayne

Friday, March 30: 3-1 Win

“We kind of looked at it as giving the rest of the league a two-game head start.” Jonathan Osorio jokes to Sportsnet after Friday’s game, tongue firmly in cheek (source). With the first points of the season not coming until the third week, it is inadvertently true. For “the deepest [team] in MLS history” (source), the struggle to juggle CONCACAF Champions League and MLS may seem unexpected. Nonetheless, it’s the hand we’ve now dealt ourselves, and despite being a famously deep team which has only gotten deeper, it is not as unexpected as it may appear.

The new season for Toronto FC saw the reigning champions lose a few players (#FreeRaheem [source]) but mainly bolster their squad with some huge international talent including 2010 World Cup finalist Gregory Van Der Wiel as well as young prospects Auro Jr. of Brazil and Euskotar Ager Aketxe. Unlike last year when a largely unchanged side seamlessly absorbed Victor Vazquez into their ranks, these guys need a bit of fine-tuning.

Part of that fine-tuning is finding their place in the squad. Against Real Salt Lake on March 30th, Van Der Wiel featured as a centre back as opposed to his more regular right back position. While he has been a solid addition from his first game, it was in a 3 man backline that he was really made to shine.

Aketxe, meanwhile, has struggled to adjust to the physicality of this league after coming here from La Liga, but with the help of his teammates, he seems to be falling into place. He has hit the post twice already in MLS including the most recent game.

From the south end of the field, the supporters had a good view of Tosaint Ricketts’ hitting home Aketxe’s attempt off the post and a moment not caught on camera. As Ricketts ran to celebrate Aketxe walked slowly, visibly dejected after missing another chance. Osorio and Sebastian Giovinco approached Aketxe to congratulate him on the assist and together they walked to celebrate with the rest. It’s that sort of team display that lends itself to the assertion that the new players will be just fine.

Auro, on the other hand, is a beast of a player and we have quickly learned that you can put him pretty much anywhere on the field and he will thrive…except perhaps in goal; but I won’t completely rule out the 5’6″ roadrunner having the catlike agility to succeed between the sticks. It’s now a matter of finding the position he suits us best in. After you have adjusted for a period of change, Toronto FC has another MLS Cup contending squad. It just wasn’t until Real Salt Lake that we finally started to look like one.

Of course, it’s not only down to the new players that Toronto FC had opened the season with 2 losses. With the Champions League seeming like our focus the league has fallen by the wayside in a fashion we, as fans, hoped it wouldn’t. Our squad depth should be helping us to be successful in simultaneous competitions and coach Greg Vanney has talked about the challenge but also the confidence in finding that balance.

As Vanney pointed out last week after practice: “That’s why I say the performances are as important as anything right now, because you build off performances, you also build off of results, which I think we’ve had good results, but they haven’t necessarily been in the league.” (source)

With the Champions League format being elimination and therefore the more results-based competition, the league has been sacrificed somewhat in that search to find the balance. As the old adage says, slow and steady wins the race, which really only refers to a marathon. In the sprint that is the Champions League, Toronto FC can’t afford to field a team that isn’t ready to give 100%, at least!

In a way, then, Toronto FC has given the rest of the league a 2 game head start; but in most ways, they haven’t. By using the opening games to find where new players fit and how the team will adapt to a new season, they are building on the previous season. The focus on improving performance will eventually start to beget results as it did on Friday.

Despite being slow off the mark, I would advise Toronto FC fans to keep calm and trust in “The Gregfather”. We are well on the path back to winning ways, if you can really even say we left them.

As for the shots heard round the world by way of Zlatan Ibrahimovic taking the league by storm, I think the echo was heard less loudly in Toronto. An apprehensive tension has settled over the city as the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors both prepare to enter their respective playoffs and Toronto FC continues its campaign for the Champions League title on Tuesday. Buckle up Toronto, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

Featured image courtesy: David Chant

Follow and chat with me on twitter: @crissypayne

Check us out on Instagram @mlsfemale

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