Marky Delgado has become an unsung hero for Toronto FC

Toronto FC midfielder Marky Delgado. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

Toronto FC midfielder Marky Delgado learned a tough lesson in the 2016 MLS playoffs.

A knock to the thigh, thanks to a training session tackle by then-teammate Will Johnson, sidelined him for a few days. When he returned to health, the quiet Californian found himself out of the lineup.

Delgado, who had seen action in 28 regular-season games (including 23 starts) that season, played just two minutes of the 2016 post-season. He did not dress for the two-legged Eastern Conference final against Montreal or the MLS Cup final against Seattle.

"(Assistant coach) Dan Calichman said to me while I was on the treatment table ‘You’ve got to learn from this,"’ Delgado recalled. "And I did."

A different Delgado returned to the team for training camp in 2017.

Many of his teammates were driven by the penalty shootout loss in the Cup final. A harder Delgado came back resolved never to lose his job again.

"I didn’t care who I was competing against," he recalled. "Everyone said ‘We have a stacked midfield.’ I didn’t care who was there. In my head I’m winning my position and I’m taking over. That was really my drive.

"Since then I’ve just been getting better, learning more. And having that mentality really helped me."

Delgado appeared in 26 regular-season games (25 starts) in 2017 and played in five playoff games (384 minutes), helping Toronto win the MLS Cup.

Today the 24-year-old Delgado, amazingly in his eighth MLS season, is an unsung hero for TFC. He played in 30 of Toronto’s 34 regular-season games (29 starts) in 2019, spending a career-high 2,554 minutes on the pitch.

In a midfield brimming with talent in the form of captain Michael Bradley, Alejandro Pozuelo, Jonathan Osorio, Nick DeLeon, Nicolas Benezet, Erickson Gallardo, Tsubasa Endoh, Jay Chapman and Liam Fraser, Delgado has become a quiet constant.

He scored the opening goal in Toronto’s 5-1 extra-time win over D.C. United on Saturday and, after working out a slight knock sustained late in the weekend game, is expected to resume his normal midfield role Wednesday against New York City FC at Citi Field in the Eastern Conference semifinal.

Toronto coach Greg Vanney first came across Delgado during their days at Chivas USA. Chivas officials soon realized the young Delgado had all the physical tools required.

"At 16, he was on the (Chivas) under-19 team, training with the first team," recalled Vanney. "He has just an incredible capacity to cover ground. Jim Liston (TFC’s director of sport science) was working with us at Chivas at that time. He said ‘This kid has a world-class engine."’

From 2012 to ’14, Delgado played in 37 games for Chivas with two goals and two assists. When the California club folded, Delgado was the seventh and last player taken in the November 2014 dispersal draft.

Thanks to Vanney, Toronto’s staff has plenty of Chivas ties, so Delgado came north of the border.

At Chivas, Vanney was on Robin Fraser’s coaching staff, with their roles reversing at TFC until Fraser left this summer to take over the Colorado Rapids. Calichman coached the Chivas Academy, as well as Cosmos West (the team Delgado left to join the Chivas academy). Goalkeeper coach Jon Conway had a brief stint as a player with Chivas.

New York City FC, which had the second pick in the dispersal draft, was interested — for a time. Then-coach Jason Kreis reached out by phone.

"I’m not the best-talker, communicator, giving details about myself," Delgado allowed. "I guess he didn’t like what he heard. And he went for another player on the team. Matt Dunn."

Delgado remembers Dunn as a good speaker. "But I knew I was a better player."

Dunn ended up playing 52 minutes for NYCFC, seeing action once as a substitute. Delgado is at 10,800 and counting for Toronto, including both playoff and regular season.

Delgado may be soft-spoken but he has a long memory. He scored his first goal for TFC in July 2015 — in a 4-4 tie at NYCFC some three weeks after Dunn was waived.

Toronto FC’s Marky Delgado, left, and the Vancouver Whitecaps’ Inbeom Hwang collide as they vie for the ball. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

Vanney calls Delgado an unsung hero on his team, a key cog in the TFC machine who keeps the ball moving quickly to the team’s difference-makers like Pozuelo and Jozy Altidore.

"He links things up … He’s a giver and he’s a balancer. He never plays the game for himself. He plays the game really for everybody else," said Vanney. "And if you start from that standpoint, you can always be a player who can help any team."

Vanney says Delgado has grown "immensely" on the tactical side, understanding where he needs to be as his teammates shift around the field.

"If guys are out of position, Marky will slide into that position. He’ll assume that role, whether it be defensive or offensive. And he’s always balancing the team off. That’s an extraordinary strength in of itself. I don’t know if most people pick up on that. But once you understand, really get down deep into how we play and where we want people positioned …. it’s an incredible skill that he has."

The five-foot-nine, 146-pound Delgado showed his smarts on the weekend against D.C. United when he saw Pozuelo’s dipping shot handcuff goalkeeper Bill Hamid in the 14th minute. The save was made, but Delgado filed it away.

When Pozuelo shot again 18 minutes later, Delgado gambled the ball might come loose again and positioned himself accordingly. The rebound came straight to him for a tap-in.

Off the field, Delgado still spends most of his time under the radar. "I don’t speak much," he said simply.

Delgado spent his early years in Pomona, Calif., moving to nearby Glendora at the age of four although he kept playing soccer in Pomona.

Soccer has always been his passion. He grew up watching his two older brothers kick a ball, playing himself or spending time with his father watching Mexican league games on TV.

Marky, whose full name is Marco Antonio Delgado, also has a younger brother and a younger sister.

Both his parents have Mexican heritage and Delgado grew up in a household where both English and Spanish were spoken. Delgado didn’t do much of the talking — "People in Pomona, when I played soccer, they used to say I used to talk with my feet rather than speak, because I just loved to play the sport.

"That’s all I did. When you saw me, I had a ball in my hand or I was kicking the ball … It was like in my DNA."

The family didn’t have much money but his father got him a PlayStation for Christmas so he could play FIFA, "because I bugged him so much."

His real-life playing skills attracted attention.

At 13, he spent time with the U.S. under-15 team. And, still an underage player, he was part of the American U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., in 2010 and ’11.

While in the residency program, after seeing some skilled teammates fail to stick with the Los Angeles Galaxy academy, he decided to go with the Chivas USA academy. He ended up going to the Generation Adidas Cup with the Chivas youngsters.

"I wanted to go to GA Cup with an MLS academy team and see if they would give me a shot," he said.

Robin Fraser had taken over the Chivas first team during the GA Cup and watched the 16-year-old Delgado play. He liked what he saw and gave Delgado his MLS debut off the bench in 2012 in Vancouver.

Delgado would go on to play for four more head coaches in his last two seasons with Chivas. Some liked him more than others.

In 2013, after doing well at right back, he got injured and found himself on the outs when he got back. At times, he was told not to train and banished to the sidelines to sit on an ice-chest.

"That was a hard time for me. I was 17 … It was very depressing because I didn’t understand what was going on," Delgado recalled. "I knew this wasn’t right. But it is what it is. You learned from it and you just get stronger."

He continued to work his way up the U.S. youth ranks, playing at the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand. Delgado has won six caps for the U.S. senior team and, while currently out of the player pool, hopes to win more.

Toronto FC midfielder Marky Delgado (8) protects the ball against Portland Timbers defender Zarek Valentin (16). (Cole Burston/CP)

Delgado met his wife Nicky over Twitter with an assist from former Chivas teammate Juan Agudelo, now with the New England Revolution.

Delgado and Agudelo were in Las Vegas for a pre-season game with Chivas against Colorado when Nicky followed him on Twitter. He got the notification, looked her up — "and I was interested."

They started with messages, then exchanged phone numbers before meeting at a Chivas game. They got married at the end of 2017.

Now in his fifth season with TFC, Toronto is a second home to Delgado and wife, also a Californian of Mexican heritage.

It took a while for the California kid to get used to the weather. A Canada Goose jacket was among his first purchases.

Now he says he speaks like a Canadian. "I’m saying ‘eh’ and I don’t even notice it," he said with a smile.

When he makes fun of Canadian teammates like Chapman, his wife calls him on it, noting he says the same things.

"It’s funny. But I’ve enjoyed my time here," said Delgado.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.