Wheeler's Insider | Mavinga's Maturation, Q's Debut and more

Chris Mavinga has proven himself a top defender in Major League Soccer and a key player to Toronto FC’s success. The 27-year-old was desperately missed last season, with the defender on the injured list for prolonged stretches. Crucial goal saving challenges against Philadelphia and Chicago this season are an indication Mavinga is back to full health. He is displaying athleticism few others have in MLS. A healthy Mavinga goes a long way to stabilizing things at the back and giving TFC a base from which to build. The role he played in the 2017 treble winning side cannot be understated, standing as a key cog in a team conceding just 39 goals in 39 regular season and playoff games.

Mavinga tells me he is back to full fitness, feels good and believes the physical ailments of last season are behind him. Now it’s a matter of the player getting back into rhythm having missed so much time in 2018. Part of that process is forming new on-field relationships, reinventing his role in the team and having his game continue to grow and develop.

The TFC coaching staff always preaches the necessity of defending as a team. And when the team concedes three in the manner they did Saturday in Seattle, the responsibility falls on everyone’s shoulders. Communication breakdowns and positional errors contributed to the three goals conceded in the 3-2 in Seattle on the weekend.  Seattle is a tough place to go, and it was a true challenge for TFC defensively. Mavinga was slotted alongside Laurent Ciman in a back four for the first time on the season with goalkeeper Quentin Westberg making his debut.  Communication seemed to be a factor on all three goals, just as they were in the previous games 2-2 against Chicago.  The first three games of the season featured purposeful, organized and stingy defensive performances. The last two have been frustrating in the manner of how TFC conceded, standing as an area with room for improvement.

Head Coach Greg Vanney had conversations with multiple team members Tuesday as part of a regular review after the first five games of the season. Vanney met with various players on individual and team successes, goals and overall assessment to help the group move forward. Vanney says the first five games have provided a good foundation for information gathering. Each of the last three games has been played in a different way: against a structured NYCFC, a Chicago team that sat back, and a more free-flowing group in Seattle. The message to Mavinga was a simple and predictable one; Vanney wants his prized defender to get more vocal.

Ciman and Mavinga are experienced players with pedigree, but are less vocal on the field than others. So when Drew Moor is left out, the communication suffers. Mavinga admitted that it’s much easier playing with Moor on the field, as the 15-year veteran is constantly barking out orders, organizing and leading from the back. And while he and Ciman aren’t quite as vocal, Mavinga feels confident he and Ciman can strike up a very good partnership.

The two have struck up a good friendship off the field, as Mavinga says Ciman constantly makes him laugh. And he acknowledges having another French speaker in the team makes things that much easier. It’s now about developing on-field chemistry, which Mavinga believes will happen over time.  Ciman is new to the team, with the two only having started twice together on the regular season. And Mavinga is still building his way back after only starting 11 games last season due to injury. With so many quality players around him, he believes it’s a matter of time before things click.

Mavinga admitted that sometimes communicating in English has its challenges. Interpreting on the fly doesn’t come easy. And while players often speak the international language of football, the exercise in practice can have challenges. It’s not just about communication between defenders, but taking initiative to organize from the back.

The message sent by Vanney goes deeper than just communication and goes beyond just Mavinga. It’s one of team defending first. As a former centre-back, Vanney knows the job of the backline is made that much easier with proper organization in front. Vanney stresses defending from the front-back is key for overall team success. Part of the job of centre-backs is to be aware of the danger before it strikes. If and when the team is properly organized, the job of the centre-back can be much more economical. When goals are conceded like they were in Seattle, they are a microcosm to problems that pop up elsewhere on the field.

Mavinga has been the eraser over his TFC career. His exhilarating sliding challenges, ability to make up ground with superior athleticism consistently lead to timely interventions. But as Vanney puts it, while Mavinga is exceptional at putting out fires, it’s now about him being able to prevent fires from starting. Being able to organize from the back is even more important as Mavinga’s incredible last-ditched tackles. He can’t always be the last line of defence, so learning how to properly prevent the fire from starting is the next step in Mavinga’s development.

That work starts in training. Being able to verbalize is crucial, and with Moor needed to be managed over the season, greater responsibility will fall on the shoulders of the Frenchman. Mavinga is up for the challenge and felt good about the conversation had with Vanney. He has all the tools in the box. And better defending in front of him will make his job that much more straight-forward. These are early days. A healthy Mavinga bodes well; a vocal Mavinga can help take the player and the team to another level.

Go West(berg)

Goalkeeper Quentin Westberg getting his first MLS start didn’t come as much of a surprise in Seattle. Vanney has always liked giving his alternate goalkeeper chances to play on West Coast trips, as well as in Cup competition. The former Auxerre man was good in his MLS debut, giving his head coach something to think about.

There wasn’t much Westberg could do on any of the three goals conceded. The goalkeeper did impress with his ability to play out of the back and consistent positioning. Vanney says Westberg may have tried to do a little too much on the ball at times, but he was impressed how the goalkeeper and the players ahead of him adjusted. The team grew in confidence with the distribution of the goalkeeper, providing a platform for future expectations when Westberg is in goal.

The 32-year-old was brought to Toronto for his experience, and his ability to help the team on and off the field. And competition is welcomed at every position on the field. At first glance, Westberg has the make-up of a solid MLS goalkeeper. Alex Bono is the clear incumbent at the position and has been solid to start the season. The first goal Bono conceded against Chicago is one he would want back, but other than that, Bono has been good. The arrival of Westberg also gives Bono a bit more of a push, with the goalkeeper flourishing while in contention with Clint Irwin for the number one job in the past.  

By the sounds of it, both goalkeepers will get starts in the coming weeks. TFC plays seven games in May, which allows for some rotation. As for Friday night at home against Minnesota, Vanney refused to tip his hand as to who would get the start. With the next two games against Western Conference opponents, it’s possible both goaltenders get a look. It’s a win-now mentality this season, and both goalkeepers have true assets. The next five games will be crucial in determining who will stake claim to the starting role. Vanney made it clear on Tuesday after 10 games there has to be some clarity and stability in role definition across the park.  

Around the Wheeler

  • Six degrees of Quentin Westberg and TFC: the goalkeeper has played with multiple former Toronto FC players growing up in the US National team program. The list includes Chad Barrett, Jacob Peterson, Nathan Sturgis, Hunter Freeman, as well as Damien Perquis during his time in France.
  • Westberg is a natural communicator and speaks four different languages; English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. The latter comes from marrying into a Portuguese family.
  • It was interesting to see the goalkeepers working with first team in regular on the ball drills Tuesday. Taking the goalkeepers away from their own individual drills is something the coaching staff is doing from time to time to improve the quality with the ball at their feet.
  • Auro is back in full training. And while last weekend came a bit too early for his return, especially with cross-continent travel, it’s expected the Brazilian be available for Friday night.
  • Expectations have raised for Minnesota United in their third MLS season. Currently sixth in the Western Conference on 10 points (3-1-2), the Loons are led up front by Columbian Darwin Quintero (three goals in five games). The former Club America man leads a talented group that features 2017 MLS Defender of the Year, Ike Opara, a former teammate of Justin Morrow with the San Jose Earthquakes. Minnesota is coming off a thrilling 3-3 draw, opening their new state-of-the-art Allianz Field. This will be the sixth away match already for Minnesota.