Wheeler's Insider | Who will step up in Altidore's absence?

Toronto FC will be living life without Jozy Altidore for the next few weeks.  Toronto FC’s top goal scorer will miss the next 2-3 weeks with a slight hamstring strain.  The good news: the MRI came back looking good, not showing any significant damage.  The bad news: Altidore will definitely miss Saturday’s match at BMO Field (3pm ET) against Portland Timbers and next weekend’s trip to Orlando City.  Mid-week matches load up for Toronto FC to kick off the month of May, with a mid-week trip to Atlanta after that.  So it’s not out of the question for Altidore to miss 4-5 games with this injury. 

Head Coach Greg Vanney is hopeful Altidore responds to treatment and returns on the earlier side of the timeline.  But it’s hard to advocate bringing Altidore back early, by any standards.  Altidore didn’t have a true pre-season, returning from off-season surgery, and was being eased back to full-fitness.  And hamstrings can be a tricky injury to deal with.  When not dealt with properly, they can turn into a frustrating, recurring issue.

When healthy, Altidore is basically unstoppable in Major League Soccer. Five goals in five games to start the season only tells part of the story.  His connection with Alejandro Pozuelo has come naturally, with Pozuelo hooking up with Jozy for his last four goals.  Altidore’s movement on and off the ball has been impressive, with the 29 year old standing as the clear focal point for Toronto FC.  He has been one of, if not the most dominant strikers in MLS with the caveat, when he is fit.  Injuries have been a concern and Altidore needs to be handled with care.  It’s no coincidence Toronto FC’s treble winning season came when Altidore was able to stay on the field, starting 25 regular season games in 2017.  Other seasons have been stop-start, including a frustrating 2018 campaign where Altidore was limited to just 13 games and 877 minutes on the field due to a broken bone in his foot. When Jozy is out, TFC are just not the same.

Altidore’s absence leaves big boots to fill, but it provides opportunity to the other attacking options in the team to get a run out to showcase that they are legitimate options to replace Altidore.  Vanney reiterates that the team is still in the market for another attacking player, but stresses it is time for the other three strikers in the team to step up.  Portland did very much the same last year after top scorer Fanendo Adi was traded to FC Cincinnati.  Jeremy Ebobisse was asked to play a more prominent role and the youngster flourished.  The 22 year old scored some big goals for Portland during their run to the MLS Cup final, and has continued to be productive this season scoring three goals so far. 

Vanney has three clear options at the position he can roll out on the weekend and upcoming games, whether be as a lone striker or in tandem up top.  Who will play and when largely depends on how Toronto FC want to approach the game, and based on opponent.  Here are the options at Vanney’s disposal:

Jordan Hamilton - The 23 year old Canadian is clearly the in-form option at this time.  Saturday seems an ideal spot for Hamilton to build off his two-goal, match-winning performance last week against Minnesota.  Hamilton played the role of super sub, coming on in the 73rd minute with the team down two, before scoring his brace in a matter of six minutes, helping give Toronto FC the full three points.  Hamilton  has three goals on the season in limited opportunity.  He opened his account back on March 17, but was excluded from the 18 for the next match.  It was part of Vanney’s plan for Hamilton to play 90 minutes with TFCII instead.  There is plenty to like about Hamilton; the speed, his knack for finding space and the natural talent are plain to see.  It’s all the moments in between that need a little more consistency.  Jay-Hams is a runner, understands the team approach, and has grown as part of the fabric of the club.

Ayo Akinola - Another youngster that has impressed in limited time on the season.  The 19-year old wasn’t in the team last week, having just returned from playing with the U-19’s in the Generation Adidas Cup.  Those around the club have raved about his early season performances, with his hold-up play greatly improved.  Akinola is a hybrid, having the speed like Hamilton but also a physical presence.  Like any young player, the challenge is becoming reliable game in, game out.  Akinola started alongside Hamilton in the 3-2 win over New England, but that wasn’t the plan in the build-up.  Vanney tells me the coaching staff only decided to start both in tandem the day before the match to help deal with difficult conditions at BMO.  It worked, with both players shining.  However, starting two young players up top together comes with risk.  They are the players relied upon to lead the line defensively, and that brings extra responsibility to players lacking experience.

Terrence Boyd - The former US international has been on the outside looking-in since the CONCACAF Champions League.  This could be a good spot to get the newcomer going.  The 28 year old has just made three appearances for 21 minutes.  He adds the size and physicality that would seem to compliment the creative play around him.  While Hamilton and Akinola bring more pace, Boyd brings the post-up game, more resembling the presence of an Altidore up front.  He’s a big target and his experience is an asset with some big games ahead.  It’s unquestionably taken Boyd time to settle.  His link-up play, time on the ball and working within a new team has been a work in progress.  But the staff admits his fitness and mobility are improving in training.  Small sided games probably don’t do the player any justice, with a bigger field and more expensive games standing to benefit the attacker.

For Boyd and the young Canadians, the time is now to prove the team doesn’t need to rush to go outside the club to reinforce the position.  Eighteen goals in six games is an incredible goal scoring return for TFC so far.  And no matter who starts up front, those players will have plenty of chances as the de-facto focal point.  They need to bring fluidity in and around goal and take the chances when presented.  It’s a big opportunity and will be intriguing to see who goes out to seize the moment.

Reds Hot Start

Toronto FC is off to the best six-game start in club history, and it’s not even close.  The 4-1-1 record, points accumulated and goal scoring prowess is on a level never experienced before at TFC.  Yet it seems the early season success is an under-told story for whatever reason.  Perhaps it's residue from a frustrating 2018 or the failed Champions League campaign.  Or anticipation of further signings.  Or a busy Toronto sports schedule.  Or the understanding there is clear work needed to be done before getting back on top of MLS.  But let’s be clear; this TFC start is unmatched in the 13-year history and is worth acknowledging.

Just how good has this Toronto FC start been in comparison to season’s past?  Here are the top five six-game starts to a season in Toronto FC history:             

Year     Record   Points             Goals For                                     Goals Against

2019      4-1-1      13                        18                                                      11

2008      3-1-2      10                         8                                                        9

2014:     3-0-3      9                           6                                                        7

2016      2-2-2      8                           6                                                        5

2009      2-2-2      8                           8                                                        9

A few things stand out. The first, the treble winning 2017 doesn’t even make the top five list.  TFC went 1-1-4 for seven points out of the gate in the record-setting season, with just seven goals for and six against.  Also of note, the 18 goals scored this season are eight more than TFC has ever scored at this stage of any season.  Ten goals were scored in 2015, but nothing else even hits double-digits.  As far as goals conceded, clearly the 11 given away this season is more than TFC would like.  But TFC conceded more than 11 through six games three other times, including the 13 conceded at this stage in 2018.  And perhaps the most incredible number, Toronto FC had never been more than a +1 in goal differential at this stage ever before.  The +7 is a big number, especially considering the group was a -7 at this point last season.

Around the Wheeler

  • Alejandro Pozuelo deservedly took home Week 8 MLS Player of the Week honours, becoming the 10th TFC player to win the award.  Jordan Hamilton was named to the MLS Team of the Week for the first time after scoring his first ever MLS brace in the 4-3 victory.
  • Pozuelo has nine points (four goals, five assists) through just four games played.  The point total puts Pozuelo in second place in MLS overall points.  Only LAFC’s Carlos Vela has more with 15 (10 goals, five assists), but has played over double the minutes as Pozuelo (799 v. 349 minutes played).
  • We all fondly remember Sebastian Giovinco’s first season in MLS, setting a new record for combined goals and assists for a season (22g, 16a).  But looking back, Giovinco didn’t come close to the goals and assists pace that Pozuelo is setting out of the gate.  It took Giovinco 10 games to reach the nine-point total Pozuelo has hit through just four.  Giovinco’s first brace came in his fifth game; Pozuelo has already accomplished that feat twice.  It also took seven games for Giovinco to score four goals, and 11 games to pick up two assists in the same game.  And Giovinco did all of that in arguably the best single-season by a player in MLS history.  It’s just four games in, but what Pozuelo is doing is something special.
  • Three Toronto FC players now have the honour of scoring two goals in two minutes.  And two of the three accomplished the feat last Friday night.  Altidore was the first, scoring in the 83rd and 85th minute against Orlando City on August 22, 2015 in a 5-0 win.  The goals came 1 minute, 53 seconds apart.  Pozuelo set a new Toronto FC record for quickest goals by a player in succession, scoring in the 28th and 30th minute Friday, just 1 minute, 50 seconds apart, beating Altidore’s mark by just three seconds.  Hamilton’s second half brace flirted with the previous marks, with his goals in the 77th and 79th minute coming 2 minutes, 12 seconds apart.
  • Jonathan Osorio is quietly having a very good season, playing provider for Toronto FC’s free flowing attack.  His four assists on the season puts him fifth in that category across MLS.  Osorio’s career high for assists is seven.  HIs pass to Hamilton for the equalizer Friday was something special.  Keep an eye on these numbers as the season rolls on.
  • As expected, centre-back Drew Moor is expected to return to the XI Saturday.  TFC has conceded six goals in the two games he has missed with a slight groin issue.
  • The Portland Timbers come to Toronto after picking up their first win of the season last time out; a 3-1 win over Columbus.  Vanney doesn’t think Portland’s 1-5-1 record (11th place in Western Conference) do the team justice.  The Timbers have only scored nine goals in seven games, with Vanney believing Portland is far more dangerous than the production indicates.  They are still lead by 2017 MLS MVP Diego Valeri.  The 32-year old has a goal and four assists on the season.
  • Congrats to all Toronto FC Academy players, families, coaches, and staff for various individual and team success at the Dallas Cup and Generation Adidas Cup tournaments.  A special shout-out to the U-12’s and U-16’s who took top honours at the Dallas Cup.  Vanney made the trip to Dallas to see various Academy teams play last weekend, and came away with great pride that onlookers notice a consistent style of play and execution of philosophy, consistent through the teams of all age groups.  The commitment and sweat equity put into the Academy is admirable and continues to build a bright future for the players and the future of the club.