TORONTO – Liam Fraser faces the toughest and most daunting assignment of his young career: He has to fill in for Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley.
With Bradley away on international duty, it’ll be up to Fraser, a 21-year-old native of Toronto who only made his MLS debut last year, to hold down the fort in central midfield for TFC in the coming weeks.
If the U.S. national team happens to go all the way to the CONCACAF Gold Cup final on July 7 in Chicago, Bradley will miss five MLS games during a crucial part of TFC’s schedule. That would swing the door wide open for Fraser, who played only 615 minutes in his debut MLS season in 2019, to make a case to coach Greg Vanney that he deserves more playing time.
A product of the club’s youth academy who cut his teeth at the TFC II farm team before signing with the senior side last year, Fraser has proven to be up for the job thus far. He started the last two games while Bradley was out injured with hamstring issues, and put in his best performance yet for TFC in last week’s 1-1 road draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps, for which he was named to the MLS team of the week.
The real test for Fraser, though, lies ahead. TFC enters Friday’s home contest against Sporting Kansas City mired in a six-match winless run (with four losses), and they have four games this month where they will not only be without Bradley, but also top forward Jozy Altidore, Canadian midfielder Jonathan Osorio, and fullback Ashtone Morgan. With the Reds short-handed due to international absences and injuries to contend with, even more pressure will be on Fraser as he attempts to fill Bradley’s considerable boots.
Fraser is fully cognizant of the huge career break that’s in front of him.
“I’m not trying to get ahead of myself. My teammates have been great and want me to give my best showing I can. I know how big of an opportunity this is for me. I don’t think I’ll be overwhelmed,” Fraser told Sportsnet.
In total, Fraser has made three appearances this season, all of them starts, and has shown progress with each outing. Against the Whitecaps, the young Canadian astutely read the game, was near-perfect in his distribution (completing 91 of 96 passes) and consistently ventured forward in attack.
“With each game, I get a little bit more confident to play the ball forward and to express myself on the pitch. A lot of guys have been very supportive in wanting me to play forward and Greg [Vanney] was onboard with that, too. But each game I’m learning more, and watching more footage of teams, and watching footage of Michael [Bradley] and other midfielders who I feel will help me push my game forward. That was one of the big reasons why I was able to play one of my best games in Vancouver,” Fraser offered.
Still, despite putting in a man-of-the-match effort for Toronto versus the Whitecaps, Fraser remains critical of his performance, feeling he didn’t do enough to influence the outcome.
“That [central midfield] position is so important and the last three games I’ve played, I’ve had two losses and draw. That doesn’t reflect well on me being in the middle and in that spot. The players in that position really make the game, whether you win or lose, and I think I can take my game to another level where I can give my team an even better chance of winning. I have that next level in me. Once I put in a quality performance when we do win, then I’ll be happy,” Fraser asserted.
While Fraser might be overly critical, Vanney sings the midfielder’s praises. Vanney expects him to step up in a big way and show a bit of leadership during an important stretch of the schedule for the Reds.
“He is showing real progress as a player. The one thing you can always say about Liam is he shows up every single day to play at maximum speed and maximum intensity,” Vanney said.
“He’s worked as hard as anyone I know for his chance. … He’s shown the qualities he has [over the last two matches] and here’s what is going to be stretch of games for him to really find that rhythm of playing and fitting into the team. How he’ll take on these games and learn from them is going to be an important moment for him.”
One of the things that’s impressed Vanney most about Fraser is how he makes himself available for passes. The coach is also pleased with what he does with the ball after receiving it.
“What we all see in terms of what he produces on the ball is excellent. He organizes himself early so that when he gets balls he can play fast when he needs to. He’s got good size [and he has the] ability to protect the ball and spin away… He’s got good vision and a sense of the game on the attacking side,” Vanney offered.
The greatest growth opportunity for Fraser is on the defensive side, and trying to read the game and get into good positions early so he can get things organized ahead of plays, especially when his side is in possession and the game is ahead of him.
“He’s not the fastest guy in the midfield, so the more he can be ahead of the game, and see and anticipate, and get people around him, then the more successful he’s going to be. When the spaces are tight and he can be physically present in the challenge – he’s hard and he’s a good tackler – he can really do some of the physical work that can [lead to success] as a defensive midfielder: breaking up plays and finding moments to foul,” Vanney explained.
“For him it’s just trying to continue to reduce that space and stay a little bit ahead of the action so that he’s not in recovery mode. If he’s chasing the game, it’s going to be a little bit more difficult for him than if he’s ahead of the game. Some of that is experience and learning, but he has all of the capacity to do that.”
While Vanney has played a role in Fraser’s development the last two years, Bradley has also shown a keen interest in the Canadian by taking him under his wing. It’s a relationship that began when Fraser was working his way up the ladder within the organization. The captain’s influence on his young teammate has been immense.
“During my time with TFC II, we had a connection. I remember in the off-season, he’d come in to train and I did too, and I was always wanting to pick his brain. He was super open to me wanting to do that and has been there for me the whole time since then. Just learning from him and trying to take in everything he’s trying to give me – from a tactical and technical perspective – and even off the pitch in terms of how to handle myself,” Fraser said.
“He’s one of the most professional guys in MLS, and I’ve never met a guy who watches as much football and talks as much football as Michael. Seeing how important he is to watch football from different leagues and knowing how important it is to learn from different players, he’s really opened that up for me. He’s really pushed me to be the best footballer I can, the best human being I can be, and to represent this club the best way I can.”
Fraser was in consideration for the Canadian side that will compete at the Gold Cup. But in the end, Vanney discussed the matter with national team coach John Herdman, and they decided it was best if he stayed home with TFC. Chances are that he wouldn’t have seen much action at the Gold Cup, and the Reds desperately needed him during a challenging portion of the MLS schedule, so both coaches decided it would be better for his development if he remained with the Reds.
Fraser would have loved to have had the chance to earn his first cap for Canada, but he also understands why he was left off the Gold Cup roster.
“It’s the best scenario. Having consistent playing time, especially at my age in the circumstances that I’m in, it’s most beneficial for my career and my future that I stay. Greg has been very supportive in wanting me to take ownership of that [central midfield] position for the time being. We all knew this was the right decision, so when I spoke to Greg and John, we were all on the same page as to what the end goal was,” Fraser said.