By NEIL DAVIDSON
THE CANADIAN PRESS
Friday, March 9, 2018
TORONTO -- On a pitch more suitable to a tractor pull than world-class soccer, midfielder Jonathan Osorio pulled off a move to remember in Toronto FC's 2-1 win over Mexican champion Tigres UANL in the first leg of the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final.
The 89th-minute highlight-reel goal - a delightful back-heel flick in front of BMO Field's passionate south-stand supporters - adds another chapter to a career that has sometimes taken its toll on the talented local.
The 25-year-old Osorio is a study in perseverance. Despite often having to fight for playing time, he leads the MLS franchise in career regular-season appearances with 142.
There have been highs and lows. He managed to combine both emotions when, after days celebrating Toronto's MLS Cup win last December, he met the media looking like the corpse in Weekend at Bernie's.
He took the long road to his hometown club, spending two years at Club Nacional in Montevideo, Uruguay, thanks to his talent and the connections of coach Jorge Amura at the Clarkson Sheridan Soccer Club in suburban Mississauga.
Osorio, who speaks Spanish by virtue of his parents coming from Colombia, spent two years in Uruguay. He started in the under-19 ranks then made his way into the reserves before deciding to return home at the end of 2011.
Back in Toronto, he excelled for SC Toronto in the Canadian Soccer League, earning an invitation to join the TFC academy in September, 2012. In February, 2013, he was in Toronto's camp and signed a homegrown deal a month later.
Osorio has a deep toolbox. He is good on the ball and shows good vision, twisting and turning as he looks to create. He can also defend, swarming Tigres players like an octopus with hands and feet chipping away at the ball-carrier.
Different coaches have seen him in different roles.
Former Canada coach Octavio Zambrano saw him as a two-way link player rather than an attacking midfielder. Toronto coach Greg Vanney agrees, saying Osorio does not have to deliver the final ball these days, given the presence of stylish playmaker Victor Vazquez.
Osorio likes the role.
"I like to help on both ends. I think defensively, I put myself in good positions to help my teammates win the ball back," he said.
Vanney says Osorio is combining well with star striker Sebastian Giovinco, finding himself in good attacking positions.
"We like those goals, we like those chances, but it isn't necessarily the focal point for Oso," he said Wednesday after the win over Tigres. "So those are all bonus goals for him and for us."
While Osorio's 21 career assists are second only to Giovinco (37) among TFC players, goals have proved to be elusive at times.
He has 13 over his regular-season career - eight of which came in 2013-14 - and has missed chances to add more. He skyed a shot from close-range in the 54th minute against Tigres, grabbing his head in despair.
He made up for it with an exquisite winner, pivoting like a bullfighter to get to a Giovinco cross that was slightly behind him. Twisting his body, he back-heeled the ball home and then raced to the corner to celebrate.
"To be honest, [I'm] not surprised," U.S. international striker Jozy Altidore said of the wonder goal. "Oso, he can tell you, I'm hard on him. Because I think there is so much more there. There's so much more in the player. He has so much more ability than he even knows and it's just about confidence and about understanding that he can be that player.
"It's tough for a Canadian because I know what it's like playing here and the kind of lack of, I think, respect that they get.
But I think he's a player that's different. He has good feet, a lot of ability and there's more there. It's simple. We expect a lot more from him and I think he knows that because he's capable of it. He's a terrific player."
Osorio turned heads early on with Toronto. Then-manager Ryan Nelsen played him in 28 games in 2013. The former New Zealand international saw Osorio as a legitimate rookie-of-the-year candidate.
"For a guy who you could kind of say is coming out of nowhere in a way, it's been an absolutely fantastic year," Nelsen said at the time. "But what I love about Jon is that he only wants to get better and wants to improve every day."
"He's one of the absolutely top young talents in this league," added then-Toronto president and general manager Kevin Payne. "He's a tough kid. ... He looks like a cool, detached sort of player on the field, but he actually has a great deal of emotion within him. He plays with a lot of passion," Payne added.
Osorio made US$200,237 last season, according to the MLS Players Association.
That ranked 12th on the TFC payroll.
More often than not, Osorio wears his heart on his sleeve. At times in the past, when things were not going well, it was as if he was walking under a personal black cloud.
He has had to fight for playing time in Toronto's current preferred 3-5-2 formation that sees two wingbacks, captain Michael Bradley and Vazquez, occupying four of the five midfield roles.
Marky Delgado, whose direct passing style works well in the Toronto system, has proved hard to dislodge. Osorio played in 27 regular-season games last season, but only started nine.
When Toronto plays 4-4-2, as it did in the 2017 MLS Cup final, Osorio is pretty much an automatic starter.
He has also had to battle to play for Canada. Surprisingly, Osorio has just 19 caps and was largely ignored by former manager Benito Floro.
But, selected by Zambrano, a goal in a 2-0 win over Jamaica last September proved to be a tonic.
"This year, a lot of people have been talking about my [playing] minutes and stuff like that," Osorio said at the time. "All that went out the window for me today. Today was a chance to me to show what I can do.
"I've never stopped believing in myself and I know my ability. My teammates know my ability."
Osorio has two brothers who are also in the game. Younger brother Nicolas is a member of the Toronto FC academy while middle brother Anthony was released by Toronto FC 2 at the end of last season.
Toronto FC midfielder Jonathan Osorio moves the ball during a game in Vancouver last season. Thanks to his talent and the connections of coach in Mississauga, he got to spend two formative years at Club Nacional in Uruguay.
DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS