While Toronto FC has spent the year scouring the globe for talent, its surprise player of the season is a local product acquired before the new management regime took over.
Rookie midfielder Jonathan Osorio, identified as a player to watch early in training camp by first-year manager Ryan Nelsen, has shown an opportune scoring touch in grabbing the spotlight.
Osorio, who turned 21 in June, has started eight games and seen action in 10 more with Nelsen playing him both in centre midfield and on the flank.
“He’s one of the absolutely top young talents in this league,” said Toronto president and GM Kevin Payne. “I put him at the same level as (Gyasi) Zardes and the other forward (Jose Villarreal) from Los Angeles that everybody’s making a big deal about.
“I think Johnny’s actually probably got a better all-round game than either one of them.”
Nelsen believes Osorio is a legitimate rookie of the year candidate.
“For a guy who you could kind of say is coming out of nowhere in a way, it’s been an absolutely fantastic year,” said the former New Zealand international. “But what I love about Jon is that he only wants to get better and wants to improve every day.”
On Sunday, Osorio and Toronto FC (3-10-8) play at the New England Revolution (8-7-6).
For Toronto, it’s a chance to build on a rare win. Thanks in part to Osorio, Toronto snapped a six-game winless streak last weekend with a 2-1 victory over the Columbus Crew.
Osorio scored in the 87th minute to pull Toronto into a 1-1 tie that set the stage for Andrew Wiedeman’s 94th-minute winner in a torrential downpour at BMO Field.
New England, meanwhile, is battling Houston for the final playoff spot in the East. The Revolution return to Gillette Stadium after a three-game road trip that ended with wins over Columbus and D.C. United.
Osorio could see action alongside Matias Laba in central midfield. While he had been shifted to the wing recently, the arrival of Spanish winger Alvaro Rey is likely to return Osorio to the middle.
Osorio’s four goals are second only to Robert Earnshaw’s six on a team where goals have been hard to come by. Toronto has just 19 in 21 games.
Top strikers Danny Koevermans (calf) and Earnshaw (hamstring) have both been sidelined of late.
Osorio says he’s always had “a nose for the (penalty) area.”
“I’m one to always attack the box and I think I do it pretty well. So as long as I keep doing that — that’s where more than 50 per cent of the goals happen in football.”
Osorio’s goals have all come late. And would have meant more had it not been for defensive lapses.
Osorio scored in the 78th minute against Los Angeles (the Galaxy replied in stoppage time for a 2-2 tie), in the 66th minute against Philadelphia (the Union scored in stoppage time for a 1-1 tie) and the 83rd minute against New York (the Red Bulls scored in the 89th minute for a 2-1 win).
“It’s a great story for our other academy kids,” said Payne. “When they see kids actually transition from the academy to the first team and get games and have the opportunities to make impacts, that really helps their confidence. They now believe that ‘Wow if I work hard, there really is a pathway.’
“That kid is very talented. Johnny Osorio. He’s a tough kid ... He looks like a cool, detached sort of player on the field but he actually has a great deal of emotion within him. He plays with a lot of passion.”
Osorio didn’t spent much time with the Toronto academy. He signed in September after impressing with SC Toronto in the Canadian Soccer League.
In February, he was at Toronto FC’s camp in Florida and was included in Nelsen’s his first starting 11, against the Columbus Crew.
“You knew it right there, he had confidence in me to play and to be ready to play at a professional level,” Osorio said.
The young Canadian says he is growing in confidence every week.
“I feel really good out there,” he said. “I’m always hungry to score goals or assists or help the team in any way.”
Said Nelsen: “Nothing fazes him. Not even bad moments in games. He always tries to do things positively. Instead of going into his shell, he tries to keep doing stuff. And I love that because the game and life in general rewards those people.”
Osorio took the long road to his home-town club, spending two years at Club Nacional in Montevideo, Uruguay, thanks to his talent and the connections of coach Jorge Amura at the Clarkson Sheridan Soccer Club in suburban Mississauga.
He spent two years there, starting in the under-19 ranks before making his way into the reserves before deciding to return home at the end of 2011. At Toronto FC, in additions to his on-field talent, his Spanish language skills are proving helpful with Laba and Rey.
Sunday’s game is a rare outing on artificial turf.
“I don’t like it at all,” said Toronto captain Steven Caldwell. “I’m from Britain and we don’t ever ever play on turf.”
The Scottish defender had some sympathy for the Revolution players.
“Those poor guys have to play on it every second week,” he said.
New England defeated visiting Toronto 2-0 in May, ending the Revolution’s five-game winless run against the Canadian side.