Is it possible that one of the most important deals in Toronto FC’s off-season makeover for the ages was one that the team’s braintrust didn’t make?
Yes, Toronto fell to its second defeat of the young Major League Soccer season on Saturday with a disappointing 1-0 reverse against the Colorado Rapids, but the play of 23-year-old midfielder Kyle Bekker, the third overall pick in last year’s MLS SuperDraft, was one of the few bright spots on a dour, overcast day at BMO Field.
Having been beset by trade offers for the young Canadian international for much of his rookie season – when he started just three games in a six-win campaign – and continuing over the winter, TFC’s steadfast decision to hold on to the Oakville, Ont., native is looking a shrewd one. Bekker followed up a commanding performance in Columbus playing alongside midfield maestro Michael Bradley with a solid outing in the American’s injury-enforced absence against Colorado.
On a different day, Bekker’s two second-half free kicks may have found the back of the net instead of the woodwork and rescued a point or three for an injury-ravaged TFC lineup, but his display as the team’s fulcrum – Bradley’s usual preserve – will have gone some way to alleviate concerns over just how this team will operate when the U.S. international is in Brazil at the World Cup for the latter part of May and well into June.
Head coach Ryan Nelsen was certainly in no doubt as to Bekker’s influence on the game on Saturday, describing his day at the office as “absolutely brilliant.” Though the two haven’t always seen eye to eye on Bekker’s development as professional soccer player, the pair share the same learning curve after simultaneously starting out in their respective jobs with TFC just last year.
Bekker is no stranger to adversity though, and he must wonder how different his life could have been but for the inability to secure work permits that ended his involvement firstly with the Ajax academy in the Netherlands and then English club Crystal Palace, who wanted to sign the Canadian in 2012. And while his transition to international soccer with the Canadian men’s national team was relatively seamless in comparison – he already has 11 caps to his name – only now is Bekker finding his feet in MLS soccer the way many predicted when he was first drawing attention to himself as a prospect at the Sigma FC academy in Mississauga, and then Boston College.
Bobby Smyrniotis, the technical director at Sigma, started coaching Bekker when he was 14 or 15, and though he says the youngster’s always been “a go-to guy,” Smyrniotis says it’s the development of the other areas of his game that have finally allowed him to find his groove as a professional.
“He was a guy who traditionally played in a more attacking, creative role, but we also knew that going into a pro career you may have to drop back where you can get on the ball a little more, but to do that you have to get better defensively,” he explained. “That’s something that Nelsen has reiterated to him and something he’s worked on.”
For his part, Bekker is glad to get his rookie season out of the way, and is happy to have players such as Bradley alongside him to learn from. Having played with Dutch international Daley Blind, the son of former Ajax captain Danny Blind, during his spell in the Netherlands, he knows the advantage of playing with quality players day in and day out, but he also knows how he can best help the team.
“For me it’s just being the kind of player I am. I like passing and technical [soccer] so I want to get on the ball,” he said. “I don’t think that changes ever, it’s just little things like work rate and movement off the ball that always makes the difference.”
And while outsiders seem fixated on the idea that it’s either Bekker or fellow sophomore Jonathan Osorio vying for the coveted second spot alongside Bradley in centre midfield, Bekker, who spent part of the off-season at German club Werder Bremen with Osorio, plays down the rivalry with the 21-year-old Toronto native, who is currently out injured with a hamstring strain. In fact, Bekker can envision a time when all three are unleashed at the same time.
“I would love that, it would be unbelievable,” he says. “I think we have a great relationship, me and Jonathan. I think he’s an unbelievable player.”