TORONTO – There's been a new flag in the mix at the south end of BMO Field for a couple of weeks now.
But Nicolas Hasler, the newest member of Toronto FC for whom the crowned red-and-blue banner of Liechtenstein flies, would have to wait until Saturday night to make his debut in the 1-1 draw at D.C. United.
Signed on July 13, Hasler took up the right wing-back position for the club's final-ever regular season visit to the venerable RFK Stadium in the American capital, playing 80 minutes before making way for Jonathan Osorio as TFC pushed in search of a winner.
“I was happy that I could make my first MLS game,” said Hasler on Tuesday after training. “But like the whole team I was disappointed about the result. We can do better.”
Perhaps D.C.'s retiring ground, with its resident raccoons, archaic infrastructure, and sagging stands, may not have been the best introduction to the league, but Hasler enjoyed it all the same.
“The players told me it was an old stadium, maybe not the best one, but for me it was a still big,” smiled Hasler. “I liked the atmosphere. The crowd was really good; the fireworks at the beginning.”
“The game really fast,” continued Hasler. “It's a tough league, you have to be prepared every game; go 100%. Otherwise there are games like this where you have to fight to get one point.”
Nearly a month passed between his signing and debut, something Greg Vanney put down to 'familiarizing himself with TFC's style.'
“It's not an easy system,” explained Vanney once more on Tuesday. “The role of the wing-back, the decisions that have to be made, it's something that takes repetition.”
“[Hasler] did a solid job,” continued Vanney. “Early on he was trying to get the feel of the defensive side and the relationship between Eriq [Zavaleta], Marky [Delgado], and himself, get that worked out.”
“He had some good moments, some aggressive moments: where he took one off his chest, went right by a guy and had a shot; he had a couple other good balls that he played in first-time,” detailed Vanney. “[The focus now is] him connecting with guys around him, setting of some of the timing. A solid first outing, with some room to grow with the team.”
Despite spending those weeks in training, Hasler agreed there is no substitute for games when it comes to building match fitness – his last action came on June 11 when Liechtenstein faced Italy in qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, just shy of two months ago.
“It's different, comparing training with games. In training you have rest times, not the same in games,” explained Hasler. “You have to be, not only physically, but also in the head fit: to see situations, to be clear in your head. That's a big difference.”
Given the way the match played out – D.C. scoring early, going down a man before half-time, and bunkering – it may not have been the best test of the range of tasks the position requires, both defensively and offensively, explained Vanney: “When the opposition is defending deep with numbers there is not a lot of space for the wing-backs to build momentum. He didn't have to defend a whole lot in the second half, he was allowed to sit in attacking position, but there wasn't a lot of room to break the back-line or create crossing moments.”
But still, having gotten his taste, Hasler is eager to get back out there and go again. TFC faces the Portland Timbers on Saturday at BMO Field, where the Liechtensteiner could make his home debut.
And he has already shown that he offers something different, providing more of an attack-minded output from that side – Vanney likes having options, or 'different looks,' as he is fond of saying.
That 'good', 'aggressive' moment Vanney mentioned came in the 39th minute when Hasler surged into the area, taking a neat touch from a cross-field Victor Vazquez ball, slipping past Taylor Kemp, before blasting a right-footer towards goal that sailed high.
“I wanted to score the first goal in my first game,” said Hasler with a wry smile, disappointed he didn't connect as cleanly as he'd hoped. “I have to focus more on the ball and make it better. I have to improve. There will be more chances to score.”