Make an impression when given opportunity. The advice rings true in any walk of life. But the message has always been driven home at Toronto FC. A next man up mentality has been needed in recent years, when injury and fixture congestion has had profound effects on coach Greg Vanney's squad selections. This start of this season has been no different. And some have already stepped up to be taken notice, making a positive impression on the coaching staff.
Toronto FC have desperately need some pace in attack and may have found an option internally. Richie Laryea put forward a Man of the Match performance in Sunday night's 2-1 loss against the San Jose Earthquakes. On an otherwise frustrating night, Laryea was outstanding, scoring his first goal in Major League Soccer.
The very good performance came predominantly in another role. With midfielders Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, and the more attack-minded Alejandro Pozuelo out of the team, Laryea was positioned wide right. The 24 year old started and played at right-back in his three starts and games played on the season. The attacking role suited Laryea as he not only scored but created multiple scoring chances. Laryea pulled one shot just past the far past, coming close, before scoring. And probably should have earned a penalty as well. He ran at and around a good defender in Nick Lima, taking difficult routes along the touchline in doing so. It was the type of performance which should turns heads for a team needed a spark in attack.
Vanney tells me he's impressed with Laryea's ability to attack in 1v1 situations. Vanney never saw Laryea as a natural wide player, but his speed and creativity makes him a player that can transition into a higher role as a winger. The staff wanted to see how Laryea would fair in a right sided attacking position, and came away with something to think about. His ability to get wide and command the position created much needed room on the inside. In fact, Toronto FC doesn't really have another player in the squad quite like Laryea, able to get forward and play an attacking wing position. Nick DeLeon is the closest thing, but he's more of an inverted winger who plays inside-out. Continuing to use Laryea in a higher position tip the field will force the opposition to respect the full width of the field, ideally giving more room for Jozy Altidore and Pozuelo to take advantage.
The coaching staff praises Laryea's eagerness. They report he's been very good in training, and over weeks has shown a better level of consistency. A lack of consistency was a knock on the player while at Orlando City. Laryea is still going through the learning process of playing in the team, as well as converting to a more full-time right-back. Laryea played more of an inside midfielder at Orlando, playing in more of a number 8 role. When investigating whether to bring the player in, the former Orlando coaching staff suggested they thought Laryea could be a solid right-back in MLS. Toronto FC agreed, and started the transition for the player. Laryea spent pre-season with Toronto FC, but didn't officially sign with the club until March 21. He made his first start on April 4 and impressed in a 2-2 draw with Chicago. He has come in and out of the team since, but really stood out Sunday in a more advanced role.
The word that was used to me was 'trust' and how Laryea has started to get it from the coaching staff. That bodes well. The struggles of the last couple weeks for the team have them searching for solutions, and thinking outside the box is required in times of need. That makes moving Laryea further up the field an intriguing option. The game of soccer has sped up in recent years, and continues to get faster and faster. You need pace in attack; especially the way Toronto FC wants to play. Vanney continues to talk about execution, which ends up being that much more important without natural playmakers. Attackers who play more direct, have the bravery to take on players 1v1, and individuals with speed to get in behind the backline to create havoc are worth their weight in gold. Can Laryea be a short or long-term option in such a role? If he plays the way he did Sunday, he may be the best option for the time being.
THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
The decision where to play Laryea isn't a straight-forward one. Auro Jr. injured his knee/hamstring in the second half Sunday, forcing Laryea to a defensive position. Notably, it took away from Laryea ability to get forward and hurt the team in attack. With Auro set to spend a spell on the sidelines, it leaves a decision to be made on how to fill the role. One option is turning back to a 3-5-2, allowing the wing-backs to provide the width. Or if they continue to play in a 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1, who to play at right-back is a difficult decision.
If the coaching staff really wants to think outside the box, perhaps it's time to consider Laurent Ciman for the position. The 33-year was a significant off-season addition, signed by Toronto FC using the top spot in the allocation order. The one-time MLS Defender of the Year has struggle to adapt in his early days in Toronto, finding himself a secondary option at the position. Few defenders are as good on the ball as Ciman, but the player understands he needs to be more reliable defensively. Ciman has six starts on the season, but has been an unused substitute the last three games.
Ciman is too talented, so the temptation could be to find a way to get him back into the team. He's a natural fit playing on the right side of a back three. But what about a completely different role for Ciman? Would it be a consideration to play Ciman at right-back for the team being to see how he does? It doesn't seem like the worst idea. Ciman played at right-back for Belgium as recent as 2016. His on ball work could be an asset at the position, although may lack some legs going forward in attack. But if someone like Laryea plays in front, being a player who can make up a step defensively, perhaps that kind of partnership is a fit. Admittedly, Ciman isn't in the mold of a natural right-back at this stage of his career. But he certainly has the experience to provide quality. And taking him out of the centre-back role may take away some responsibility. Playing centre-back for Toronto requires a vocal leader and organizer that he may not be at this stage. So another role could potentially get another top player on the field and allow him to be an asset as distributor, while keeping a player like Laryea as more of an asset in attack. Just a thought.
AROUND THE WHEELER
- Ayo Akinola was training on the side Tuesday, making his way back from an ankle injury. The striker was sent home in the build up to the U20 World Cup with an ankle injury. The injury was never thought to be serious, but the need for a fully healthy squad was the priority for the Americans entering the tournament, thus the risk Akinola wouldn't be fit wasn't one worth taking. The injury still isn't considered serious and the player shouldn't be out long-term. Akinola was named to the MLS Team of the Week for week three. The 20-year old has impressed with a goal and a assist in two starts on the season, and certainly has been missed over recent weeks.
- With the recent injuries to Bradley (hamstring) and Osorio (groin), it's worth wondering what the status for each will be heading into the Gold Cup. The tournament kicks off June 15th, and you have to wonder if one or both may be too much of a risk for the United States or Canada to carry in a short tournament. Bradley and Osorio both would be virtual locks to participate if fit. Time will tell, but certainly something to monitor. Jay Chapman and Liam Fraser were both ruled out of the Canada squad, with Vanney and Canada both believing the pair would be better off and more influential staying in Toronto.
- Goalkeeper Quentin Westberg has started the last four games for Toronto FC. It hasn't been said out loud, but it looks like the number one job is his. Whether it be Westberg or Alex Bono, the defensive struggles of the group have had little to do with goalkeeping. Bono is still very well regarded and did little to lose the job. Westberg's experience and positive play with the ball at his feet has given him the early advantage.
- If he plays in Vancouver Friday night, it will be defender Drew Moor's 400th combined regular season and playoff game in MLS. It's a significant achievement for the 14-year veteran. Moor has played 32,412 minutes of MLS action, putting him in seventh in MLS history for minutes played. He passed Bobby Boswell on the list earlier this season. Next up on the minutes list, Steve Ralston with 33,143.
- Friday's opponent in the Vancouver Whitecaps have turned things around after some early season woes. The Caps have only lost once in their last seven games. Injuries are playing a role for Vancouver as well, with former Red, defender Doniel Henry (hamstring) out and impressive left-back Ali Adnan left last week's win over FC Dallas with an apparent groin injury after opening his scoring account on the season. Toronto lost the lone league game to Vancouver last season, 2-1 at BMO, but picked up a win and a draw on the last two visits to BC Place.