TORONTO – Sometimes Nico Hasler stands out on the pitch, his silky, smooth skills on the ball impossible to miss.
In the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final, the Toronto FC midfielder showed off some fancy footwork inside the penalty area to keep the play alive while being surrounded by a horde of Chivas defenders.
Halser was “Messi-esque” in the way he deftly dribbled his way out of trouble in a very tight space, eventually working his way to the end-line where he centred a pass for Jozy Altidore who slid it past the Chivas goalkeeper.
Most times Hasler goes unnoticed, flying under the radar, routinely overshadowed by more creative teammates Victor Vazquez, Jonathan Osorio and Sebastian Giovinco.
But don’t let his understated playing style fool you. The Lichtenstein international has become a valuable member of TFC since joining the MLS club as a free agent last season, winning praise for his efficiency in possession, his versatility and his consistency.
With the Reds dealing with a rash of injuries early on in the 2018 MLS campaign, coach Greg Vanney has repeatedly turned to Hasler, asking him to play a number of different positions. Hasler has answered the call, appearing in all seven of TFC’s matches (five as a starter), registering one assist and six shots.
Toronto is still plagued by injury issues, which means Vanney will continue to call upon Hasler, including Wednesday night’s home game against the Seattle Sounders.
“Nico is a versatile guy. We’ve used him in a few different roles. He can play in central midfield, he can play at right back, wingback, winger,” Vanney explained.
“For us, especially with this group of players who are a lot of central midfield type of players, he is comfortable getting out wide, and getting on the sidelines from time to time, so we don’t always have to get [attacking width] from our fullbacks.”
Vanney describes the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Hasler as a “work horse,” someone who “keeps the game flowing,” and shows a willingness and commitment to play both on the attacking and defending side of the ball.
“I try to play fast, I try to play the one-two [pass], to play to my strengths,” Hasler said with a touch of modesty.
Like fellow midfielder Marky Delgado, Hasler has been charged by Vanney to keep the ball moving, to play it quickly to Vazquez et al so they can have more time on the ball in order to wield their special brand of attacking magic.
“He’s a straight-forward player. There’s not a lot of [eye-catching] moments, but he does a lot of simple things really clean. Within our group, where we have a lot of guys between Osorio and Victor and Seba and Ager [Aketxe], who sometimes take liberties to make different plays, Hasler keeps the game efficient and quick. You gotta have a player like that and he adds that in our group,” Vanney said.
Hasler’s selflessness in not lingering in possession and moving the ball on to the next man has not gone unnoticed by his teammates, especially Vazquez.
“We have a lot of players who want the ball at their feet, like Seba, like Ager, like Oso, and I. Also Jozy, when he is playing. So, we need these kinds of players [like Hasler]. He’s doing well. He can be important for us,” Vazquez said.
It was Vazquez who was the recipient of a killer pass from Hasler in last week’s 3-0 home win over the Philadelphia Union, the Lichtenstein star breaking into the penalty area before cutting the ball back for the Spaniard who side-footed it home inside the far post to open the scoring in the 29th minute.
“I saw Seba getting the ball and I was wide open,” Hasler recalled of the play. “Victor tells me a lot in training, ‘Look back when you play the ball.’ He’s always there. [I’m] happy he was there then and he could score.”
Vazquez laughed when he was informed of Hasler’s comments, making the point that he should look back and try to pick out any of his teammates, not just him.
“I was saying that sometimes when he goes to the line and he tries to cross, sometimes also look behind. All the defenders are looking more to the goal, to the [goalkeeper]. Seba and Jozy are making good runs they [need] these passes. Today it worked.”