Ashtone Morgan is something new, and for teams used to preparing for a certain type of Major League Soccer fullback, that’s going to present new problems.
Because while the world has sprinted forward with asking their wide defenders to be able to test the opposition in their defending-third, MLS has played it safe. It’s approach to the position has been more in line with what you might see from the lower half of the Premier League down through the rest of the English League: Fullbacks are defensive first players, and if (as a player) you adhere to that, you’re going to be rewarded.
To this point, Morgan has not been defensive first, though it’s still early days. The 21-year-old Canada international has only made 11 starts in MLS, but it’s easy to see why he’s already broken into his senior national team. He has the pace, athleticism and speed to play left back and handle himself against whomever league throws at him, yet he also has a positional awareness that makes him a better fit for Toronto’s system than anybody TFC used at the beginning of 2011. In short: He is comfortable camping out – and contributing – in the final third.
It’s not the type of MLS fullback that’s usually lauded. FC Dallas’s Jair Benítez has been under-appreciated, and while a player like LA Galaxy’s Todd Dunivant can support going forward, the reason he’s considered MLS’s best fullback is because he’s a lock-down left back. His virtues on the wrong side of the center line are practically inconsequential. Unfortunately, as far as critics are concerned, so are Benítez’s.
It’s a relatively static view compared to the direction world soccer’s taken. From Barcelona to Real Madrid, Spain to Uruguay, there’s almost always a wide threat from the back who can get forward, whether that be Daniel Alves, Marcelo, or Maxi Periera. While there are exceptions (the current Milan comes to mind, though they tried to change that with the ill-fated Tayo Taiwo experiment), being able to get width in attack from your defenders has turned into a convention in the modern game.
Aron Winter’s system reflects this. Ideally in his 4-3-3, the deepest midfielder is more defender than midfielder. It leaves three back when the fullbacks are released, and while right back Richard Eckersley isn’t exactly the kind of player to take advantage of this liberation, Morgan is. Or, at least, he can be.
It’s something that could come into play tonight (against Santos Laguna), or any night. Down one late, when the defense narrows and starts focusing on the extra attackers you’ve thrown on, you don’t need another Todd Dunivant. When Joao Plata or Ryan Johnson draws the right back wide, and the deep midfielders have dropped to mark your attackers, who do you want running into that space? Somebody like Morgan.
If Ashtone Morgan can be that guy, we could start to see more players like him. Whereas at one time we had Jonathan Bornstein and Heath Pearce at the league’s left back position, now the field looks a bit conservative. True, Vancouver has Lee Young-Pyo, and the conversion of players like Corey Ashe and Lovell Palmer to wide positions hints the evolution is coming, but nobody is really utilizing the position the same way Winter is with Morgan. Instead of finding a balance, MLS still seems very much defense first.
If the direction the world’s game has taken can’t convince people to change, maybe Morgan can.
As for tonight, Morgan was one of a number of players interviewed in Torreón about TFC’s chances. Here’s what he had to say, specifically addressing whether he felt Santos had anything special up their sleeves for him:
And here’s coach Aron Winter on snacks, naps, and legends: