TORONTO — Seven games into his Major League Soccer career and elusive Toronto FC winger Yeferson Soteldo is already turning heads.
"He's a dribbling monster," said New York Red Bulls coach Gerhard Struber, whose team will try to contain the pocket-sized Venezuelan on Wednesday at BMO Field.
Soteldo's offence and penchant for taking on defenders one-on-one is welcome, especially with Tuesday's news that 21-year-old striker Ayo Akinola is out for the season after injuring the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee Sunday in Canada's 1-0 loss to the U.S. at the Gold Cup.
Akinola's absence also makes Jozy Altidore's presence all the more important. The veteran forward scored Saturday in his return to action after being on the outs with the club for eight weeks. The goal helped TFC to a 1-1 tie with Orlando City.
Altidore was quick to praise Soteldo's work.
"Anybody that has a football brain can see what this kid brings," he said. "The way he wants the ball. He never hides. He wants to get on the ball, he wants to be a match-winner."
Added forward Dom Dwyer: "He's pretty magic, I've got to say … The more chemistry he builds with his teammates, the more we can find him in dangerous positions, he's going to be very important for us. He's definitely one to watch."
Interim coach Javier Perez has seen plenty of talent in a coaching career that included time with Real Madrid's youth ranks, U.S. Soccer and New York City FC prior to TFC.
"Yeferson is a special player, there's no doubt about it" said Perez.
Listed at five foot three and 137 pounds, the 24-year-old Venezuelan is easy to spot, especially with a bleach-blond top to his hair. He likes to hike his shorts up, exposing chunky, muscular legs decorated with some ink.
While it may look like someone has let little brother onto the pitch, Soteldo's ball-control skills can cause a giant-sized headache for defenders. On Saturday, he had Orlando fullback Kyle Smith backing up like a skunk was coming his way.
On Wednesday, it will be Kyle Duncan's brief to keep Soteldo in check.
"A very interesting battle to see," said Struber, a native of Austria. "I have such big trust in my Kyle. He has handled many moments in a very successful way. I can remember in Orlando (against) Nani. In the end, Nani went to the centre or the other side (of the pitch)."
Soteldo plays with the ball like a kitten tangles with a ball of wool, rolling it one way and then another. Blink and he is by you. He has one goal and two assists and has left many defenders in his dust.
While a different player from former TFC star Sebastian Giovinco, Soteldo shares a trait in that he takes a lot of punishment from bigger opponents and keeps on getting up.
And like Giovinco, who was listed at a generous five foot four, Soteldo comes with some attitude.
Substituted in the 91st minute against Orlando on the weekend, he shook his head several times and began the long walk around the pitch to the TFC team seats, where Perez engaged him in conversation before letting him take a seat and work through his emotions.
Perez later explained Soteldo had done his job for the night — "He played a really good game." — and that he brought on Patrick Mullins as a replacement for fresh legs to help preserve the tie.
A larger crowd will be on hand Wednesday to see Soteldo, who signed on as Toronto's third designated player in late April from Brazil's Santos FC. Attendance at BMO Field will be capped at 15,000, up from the 7,000 allowed in Saturday when fans occupied the stands for the first time since March 2020.
Toronto (2-8-3) is unbeaten in two games under Perez, leaving a six-game losing streak behind it.
The Red Bulls (5-5-2) were to have hosted Inter Miami on the weekend but the match was postponed due to bad weather. The New Yorkers are unbeaten in their last three (1-0-2) and have lost just once in six games (3-1-2).
Toronto is missing four other players away on international duty at the Gold Cup — Jonathan Osorio and Richie Laryea (Canada), Eriq Zavaleta (El Salvador) and Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica).
Goalkeeper Quentin Westberg remains questionable with a hand injury. Perez says he is back in partial training but is not yet ready to catch a ball.
The Red Bulls are missing Youba Diarra (hamstring), Aaron Long (Achilles), Daniel Royer (thigh) and Andres Reyes (hamstring). Defender Andrew Gutman is back training after a knee injury.
NEW YORK RED BULLS (5-5-2) AT TORONTO FC (2-8-3)
Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. ET at BMO Field.
LAST TIME: The Red Bulls blanked visiting Toronto 2-0 on May 8.
HISTORY: TFC is 7-4-2 against the Red Bulls at BMO Field. The Red Bulls lead the overall series 18-9-8.
CLUB TIES: TFC's Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore played for the MetroStars, the Red Bulls' precursor, early in their careers — Bradley from 2004-05 and Altidore from 2006-08.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press