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TFC’s Jonathan Osorio evolving into a new type of player

TORONTO – You’re never too old to learn something new or to change your ways, according to Jonathan Osorio.

So, when Canadian national team coach Octavio Zambrano asked Osorio to tweak the way he played the game, the Toronto FC midfielder embraced the challenge.

Osorio, 25, is one of TFC’s longest-serving players, having debuted for the MLS club in 2013. The quick, and fleet-footed native of Toronto has played 134 regular season games for the Reds, scoring 12 goals and tallying 19 assists.

He’s been deployed in central midfield for the bulk of his tenure, asked to serve as playmaker and an attacker, and someone who can take defenders on in the final third of the pitch. But Zambrano, installed as Canada’s new coach back in March, wants Osorio to add more defensive elements to his playing style so he can become more of a two-way midfielder.

“Right from the beginning, he’s been used as a ‘number 10,’ in a midfield attacking role, a typical ‘number 10’ who can bring teammates into the game, and play that through ball and final pass, and connect the dots,” Zambrano recently told Sportsnet.

“It’s not that he can’t do those things, but I think he needs to be a little bit more physical in midfield. He needs to be able excel not only on the offensive side, but also on the defensive side. He needs to battle more for the ball, be more of a two-way midfielder with responsibilities to get the ball back for the team.”

Zambrano handed Osorio a rare start in last week’s friendly against Jamaica at BMO Field, and the TFC midfielder duly repaid his coach’s faith in him. Canada won 2-0, thanks in large part due to Osorio’s goal (his second in 18 appearances) and to his hard work on the defensive side of the ball.

It’s not easy for any athlete to change the way they do things after so many years, and what Zambrano has asked Osorio to do isn’t insignificant. To his credit, though, the TFC midfielder didn’t resist or put up any barriers.

“It’s a challenge; it’s a challenge for me to improve. As a player, that’s what you want: challenges. I hope the challenges keep coming. Even as I get older, I hope I get challenges in my final years. This is what football is about: it’s about taking on challenges, and overcoming them. That’s how you evolve,” Osorio told Sportsnet.

He later added: “Octavio believes in my quality, and he wants me to be a different player than I saw myself being. To be honest, I also see myself in that role now. Looking at the bigger picture, I feel like I can help both the national team and TFC in this new position. I think I have the tools do to that.”

With the off-season addition of Victor Vazquez, who has quickly established himself as one of the best playmakers in MLS, Osorio has fallen down the depth chart and seen limited starts and playing time at TFC. Zambrano’s view of Osorio becoming more of a two-way midfielder aligns with Toronto coach Greg Vanney’s vision – the two coaches discussed the matter over lunch – and it could lead to more opportunities for the young Canadian in MLS.

“Obviously, when you have a player like Victor, Jon doesn’t need to be the playmaker, he doesn’t need to put the stress on himself to be a goal scorer, or the final passer all the time,” Vanney offered.

“Jon has made real progress, at least since I’ve been here, on the defensive side of understanding his positioning and his awareness. … Now, he can do what he does best, which is help move the ball, help create advantages around the field through his possession, and through his awareness.”

Cracking TFC’s starting line-up will be a challenge for Osorio, and he faces a similar dilemma for his country.

For the first time in a very long time, Canada has quality and depth in midfield, giving Zambrano plenty of options from which to choose. The game against Jamaica was only Osorio’s second under Zambrano, as he made just a single appearance as a substitute during this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.

This, of course, comes after the TFC midfielder was largely overlooked by previous Canadian national team manager Benito Floro. The Jamaica contest was a big opportunity for Osorio to prove to Zambrano what he can do, as well as serve as a reminder for Vanney, who was in attendance.

“It felt good to finally get a chance to start. I feel like with the Canadian national team in recent years, for whatever reasons, I haven’t been given many chances. It’s been a hard year for me for a lot of different reasons that I don’t want to get into, but I was just happy to be out there,” Osorio admitted.