TORONTO – Chris Mavinga didn’t exactly wrap himself in glory this past weekend.
After being limited to a pair of substitute appearances totalling 14 minutes through Toronto FC’s first four matches of the MLS campaign, Mavinga finally made his first start for the Reds in last Saturday’s 2-2 draw at home against Atlanta United FC.
Mavinga, 25, was the first major off-season signing by TFC this winter, so this would be a good test to see what the French-born Congolese international defender could offer, especially after Toronto used the same three-man back line that kept a trio of clean sheets up to that point.
Maybe the occasion was too much for him, or maybe he was a bit rusty. Whatever the reason, Mavinga, who replaced Nick Hagglund as a starter against Atlanta, looked far from his best, as he was caught flat-footed on both goals by the expansion franchise.
On Atlanta’s opener, Miguel Almiron played a long pass to Hector Villalba in behind TFC’s defence, leaving Mavinga to chase in hurried pursuit. Villalba was too quick and he smashed a shot past TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono. The next goal early in the second half was especially embarrassing – Atlanta centre back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez played a 60-yard pass in behind Mavinga, again leaving him chasing Villalba, who slid the ball through Bono’s legs.
Coach Greg Vanney had seen enough and three minutes later he subbed out Mavinga, replacing him with Hagglund.
“I thought on the two plays, [he was] way too slow to read the action and see what was going on,” Vanney said after the game. “No matter how fast you are as a human being, if you don’t pick up on the plays early enough you’re not going to make up the ground. For me, as of tonight, he wasn’t ready for the speed of the action in the transition.”
It was pointed criticism from the usually diplomatic Vanney, who spoke to Mavinga one-on-one afterwards and revealed that the defender agreed with his judgement.
“In my discussion with him after the game, his comment [to me] was he was naïve, and he was naïve. Specifically, on the second goal, but on a couple of plays he took for granted the space behind him, and wasn’t as diligent about his drops and his reads, and being quicker to react and keeping things in front of him. He was naïve, and he said it himself, and it was an appropriate assessment,” Vanney said at practice this week.
He later added: “It was a gift. It was a 60-yard breakaway which is not acceptable at the professional level.”
But TFC’s coach also noted that one bad game hasn’t landed Mavinga in his dog house.
“He’ll be fine. What it is, it serves for him as a little bit of a wakeup call to lock in, and every day in training to focus on those things, and to continue to get sharper. It’s not about getting better – it’s about getting sharper and not having mental lapses,” Vanney explained.
Reading between the lines, though, it seems Mavinga does have some work to do to earn regular playing time as a starter if he’s going to displace one of Hagglund, Drew Moor or Eriq Zavaleta in the Reds’ established three-man back line.
“He’s a good player and we have to continue to progress him. I never think that one game with a couple of situations that weren’t dealt with appropriately defines a person. He’ll find his way back in, but he needs to do some work in training and prove some reliability in key moments,” Vanney stated.
After the game, Moor tried to deflect criticism away from Mavinga.
“It’s not just Chris Mavinga – it’s myself, it’s Eriq Zavaleta,” Moor told reporters. “It’s not getting enough pressure on the ball. I thought he was very bright at moments. I thought he was good on the ball. But I take just as much blame as he does on both goals.”
In light of Moor’s comments, the TFC coach’s honest assessment of Mavinga left many pundits and fans wondering whether he was right to call out the defender in such a frank and public fashion.
That’s business, Vanney said. Nothing personal.
“He’s a very good player, but he had mental lapses, for sure on the second [goal]. On the first one, we put him a tough situation, to be fair,” Vanney stated.
“It is what it is. We’re professionals and sometimes we have to take responsibilities for moments, and I thought the second goal was a moment that Chris needed to be sharper. He could have protected us in that moment. It doesn’t change my feeling of Chris, it doesn’t change his stature in the team. It just means he has to be sharper in those moments. That was that.”