If Toronto FC expect to challenge for a playoff spot this season, then designated player Julian de Guzman will have to make an impact. So far he has received a tepid reception by TFC fans.
Joining the team during the final phase of the 2009 season, de Guzman looked a little off the pace, especially considering TFC director of soccer Mo Johnston laid out millions to acquire the Toronto-born talent.
While reasons for his lacklustre displays can be pinned on his inactivity for most of the 2009 Major League Soccer season - a layoff caused, in part, by the wrangling with his former European club, Deportivo La Coruna in Spain - there can be no such excuse this season.
Knowing the importance each MLS team places on its designated player, the pressure on the silky midfield player will now be significant. Whether he can meet the challenge will hinge on two key factors.
First, the role he is given on the field by TFC coach Predrag Radosavljevic, who's commonly known as Preki. And second, de Guzman's own mentality, which has to be confident and tough in order to deal with the pressure from the high hopes of many.
If Preki has not figured it out yet, he'll soon realize that de Guzman would be most influential for the team if he were used as an attacking midfield playmaker, ideally in behind two forwards, as opposed to a defensive stalwart. Although he played a defensive midfield position during his time in Spain, that was more because Deportivo had better options in the attacking role than de Guzman.
He therefore had to adapt his game. It is a credit to de Guzman's all-round ability and soccer savvy that he was able to do so well in a less-than-ideal role for his skill set.
However, for TFC to tick as a team this season, they will need the influence of a clever, skillful attacking playmaker - and no one else can fit the role quite like de Guzman. The questions are, will Preki be fluid enough in his philosophy to accommodate de Guzman's strengths? A change of formation would need to be made to allow this to happen.
And will de Guzman once again be able to adapt? Even though he may be a bit out of sync as an attacking playmaker, as long as he is trained to move forward, and not always sideways and back, then there is no reason to believe he cannot. One thing is very clear: TFC need a forward-thinking midfielder to consistently create chances and score goals.
At the moment, de Guzman is the product of the environment and defensive role he played over the past five years. The role reversal now needs to take place through good tactical preparation and a patient approach by Preki.
The benefits will pay off, since the coach is dealing with a player with a suitcase full of talent. The alternative of leaving him in a two-man centre midfield will, over time, diffuse his potential impact as he will likely get overmatched too often, such is the athleticism and pace of his MLS counterparts. Plus, expending the energy of TFC's supposed best player on too much grunt work seems to defeat the purpose of signing a designated player in the first place.
It will be a big test for first-year coach Preki. Getting the best out of de Guzman will take good management, smart coaching, and clever psychology.
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