TORONTO – Next man up.
That is the mentality with which Toronto FC approach each and every set back. General Manager Ali Curtis said so himself shortly after announcing that Michael Bradley would miss the opening months of the season having undergone successful ankle surgery on Tuesday.
Filling the captain’s boots is never easy, but his deputy, 21-year-old Liam Fraser, is eager for the challenge.
“Obviously it's disappointing for Michael; for the team. All of us are behind him for a quick recovery, he plays such a big part in this club,” said Fraser on Tuesday. “For myself, it's an opportunity to show that I'm ready for this level on a consistent basis.”
“If Greg [Vanney] gives me the opportunity,” he added. “Nothing is set in stone yet, nothing is locked, so I'm going to work really hard during the preseason to get that opportunity and when it comes I know I'll be able to do the job.”
Having signed a homegrown contract at the start of the 2018 season, Fraser has studied diligently in Bradley’s footsteps over the past two years, soaking up the lessons while making 19 appearances including an impressive run of seven-straight matches last season in the captain’s absence that, along with his dominant substitute’s appearance for Canada against the USA at BMO Field last September, he was up to the challenge.
“I need games to develop,” stressed Fraser. “Minutes, opportunities, and experiences to better me as a footballer and as a person. This year is going to be an important one for me, learning and developing as a player.”
He will not be daunted should the responsibility indeed fall on his shoulders.
“It's all mental for me,” said Fraser, brushing off talk of nerves. “Knowing that I have the ability to play at that level, that’s a big thing. To show that, and do it on a consistent basis, not just a game here, a game there.”
“Last year made me know the feeling and [left me] wanting a lot more,” he continued, having come into preseason off the back of a strong camp with the Canadian National Team in California, appearing in all three matches. “This year getting off to a quick start with the national team, getting a few games under my belt, really got me up to the speed of where I need to be and got me a bit ahead of the game here.”
“Happy about that, but I'm excited and anxious to get into this opportunity,” he added. “The whole team is behind me.”
Fraser is not the only candidate for minutes in the middle of the park.
Noble Okello, another homegrown who signed a first-team contract at the start of 2019, will be eager to factor in as well, while Marky Delgado, Jonathan Osorio, Nick DeLeon, and Alejandro Pozuelo will all be battling for places and minutes in a deep midfield.
But he is the most obvious one-for-one Bradley replacement.
“I'm not putting them under pressure right now, I don’t want to do that to them,” said Jozy Altidore with a big smile. “But obviously Liam's a guy that's been biding his time for a long time.”
“And if it's Liam, I think he’s ready,” Altidore continued. “He's a great player, comes in every day ready to work. I watched him with Canada [against the US], thought he was the best player on the field, for Canada. It's a great moment for him and I think he’s going to take it with both hands. He's a very good pro, a very good player and he'll use this time to grow now.”
That is exactly what his coach wants to see.
“He needs to continue to grow as a mature player,” said Greg Vanney. “Everyone sees his qualities on the ball, his ability to hit passes at various ranges all over the field, to be able to get on the turn, play things quickly between lines and get a team moving forward.”
“He needs to continue to grow on the defensive side: reading, making sure he stays engaged and is organizing players around him,” detailed Vanney. “A lot of teams that we play we end up having a fair amount of possession, but then we've got to manage the transition game and it's important that players are prepared and organized. That's a high level of engagement, communication, leadership that has to come out of that position.”
“Liam's excited to take on those responsibilities,” he added. “I think he's ready. It's time for him to get more game minutes and the best place for him to learn is to be out on the field. Each year he's increased the amount of minutes he's had and now he's going to have a stretch – or he has the opportunity – to hold the position down and help the team get some early results.”
One of Bradley’s many assets in that deep-lying midfield general role is the intensity he brings to every minute, his impact on every play and every blade of grass.
Fraser intends on not letting that level drop one bit.
“Yeah, I like to think so anyway,” smiled Fraser, asked if he could match. “I have a point to prove. [This] is a big opportunity and not something I'm going to take for granted.”
“Being a kid from Toronto, playing for your hometown and, what I think is, the most important position in football, knowing that – I don't want to say pressure because I won't feel pressure – is good and excites me; that's what kind of gets me up in the morning, [makes] me want to work harder,” he grinned. “If the opportunity comes – when it comes – I'll be ready and willing to do whatever it takes for us to win.”