TFC’s draft pick models himself after Matt Besler


Notre Dame defender Brandon Aubrey poses after being selected 21th overall by the Toronto FC at the MLS SuperDraft in Los Angeles on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017. (Neil Davidson/CP)

As far as players to pattern yourself after, Brandon Aubrey could have done a lot worse than pick Matt Besler.

When Aubrey made the switch from striker to centre back during his first NCAA season at Notre Dame, he started studying Besler, a standout with Sporting Kansas City and one of the best defenders in Major League Soccer.

As it so happens, it was with the Fighting Irish that Besler cut his teeth in the college game before being selected eighth overall in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. Being picked in the first round is something else Aubrey has in common with Besler—Aubrey ended up as Toronto FC’s top selection at Friday’s draft in Los Angeles, going 21st overall.

Originally from Dallas, Aubrey, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 192 pounds, played as a central midfielder at his youth club in Texas before moving up top when he first went to Notre Dame. But he didn’t last very long as a striker, as by the spring of his freshman year he was slotted into defence.

For inspiration, he examined Besler’s game to help him make the transition—Besler was named MLS defender of the year in 2012, the season before Aubrey debuted for the Fighting Irish.

“When I heard I was transitioning to centre back, I looked at Matt Besler, to watch his playing style because he was the most successful centre back at the time,” Aubrey said.

The move to central defence paid off for Aubrey, as he appeared in 76 total games (63 as a starter) in his four seasons at Notre Dame.

“That’s where I feel most natural. That’s where I’ve played ever since,” Aubrey said.

Curiously, it was after he became a defender that he started scoring goals. After failing to find the back of the net in his freshman campaign, Aubrey scored three goals in each of his next two seasons. In 2016, his senior year, he scored nine times.

Aubrey credits his brief time as a striker for his solid offensive output over his last three years at Notre Dame.

“It taught me a few things about instincts in the box, being in the right place at the right time… reading the flight of the ball, and getting up to put a header on target,” Aubrey explained.

Aubrey described himself as “more of a cerebral player” and “a clean passer of the ball.”

“(I’m) not the most athletic, but I position myself properly, and I like to think I read the game very well. Also, (I’m) a good threat for set pieces and balls in the air,” Aubrey explained.

Toronto general manager Tim Bezbatchenko considers Aubrey a “highly-touted” prospect who can pass out of the back and score goals.

The Texas native, who admitted he’s never even been to Canada, revealed he didn’t have any conversations with TFC in the build-up to Friday’s draft day. Even though the Reds scouted Aubrey throughout the 2016 NCCA season, Bezbatchenko didn’t think the Notre Dame product would still be available at No. 21.

“We were a little bit surprised. Some say he didn’t have the best (MLS combine) but the way we look at it, the combine is just one or two games. … He was one of the top centre backs in the country, so when we saw he was still available, it was a good for us,” Bezbatchenko said.

Bezbatchenko later added: “He was near the top of our list.”

It was hardly a surprise that TFC went after the best available defender remaining in the draft. After losing Mark Bloom and Josh Williams in the off-season, Toronto needed to add some depth to the back line, and Bezbatchenko feels Aubrey can compete for a spot on the first team this season—although, he didn’t rule out sending the young defender to their farm team, TFC 2, in the second-tier USL.

“We feel he can play in MLS sooner rather than later,” Bezbatchenko admitted.

Cracking TFC’s starting lineup could prove to be a stiff challenge, though. We are, after all, talking about the reigning Eastern Conference champions, and a team that played most of last season with a three-man defence quarterbacked by MLS veteran Drew Moor.

“I’m ecstatic. I know Toronto is a great club; it’s a great place to be right now. …. Recent history has shown well for them (reaching MLS Cup) last year; I hope this year we can bring it home,” Aubrey enthused.

“It’s an exciting challenge for me. There’s a lot of talent there for me to learn from. I’m excited for that opportunity as a young player; it’s always nice to have a group of veterans around to teach you things. If I can’t break into the starting lineup, which I think I have the ability to, (then) I’ll just sit back and enjoy learning from (the starters).”

NOTES: Toronto FC will open training camp on Jan. 23. The team will be in town for five or six days before leaving for Irvine, California. They’ll come back to Toronto and then spend the second half of pre-season in Orlando in February… Also at Friday’s draft, TFC traded both of their second-round picks (No. 26 and 27 overall) to the Chicago Fire in exchange for targeted allocation money. Bezbatchenko said that a signing isn’t imminent, and that TFC is simply accumulating TAM for the time being as it gives them salary cap flexibility when they are ready to go after a player.


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