Hunting "that one chance," Toronto's Ricketts makes the most of his minutes

Tosaint Ricketts - Toronto FC - tries to bring a ball down with a defender on his back

TORONTO – Most any other club would be troubled by the possibility of heading into a crucial match without its two star strikers.

Not so for Toronto FC.

TFC will resume the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs on Tuesday night in Ohio when they travel to face Columbus Crew SC in Leg 1 of the Eastern Conference Championship (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes; TSN, TVAS). They do so without both Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, each suspended.

Enter Tosaint Ricketts.

The Canadian striker, who joined the club midseason last year, has put up numbers comparable with the best in the league.

In 22 appearances, totalling 1,003 minutes in 2017, Ricketts has netted seven goals. His goals-per-90 rate is a highly respectable 0.63, right up there with Giovinco (0.70) and Altidore (0.62). For comparison, Columbus' Ola Kamara, who scored 18 goals, averages 0.57 per 90.

With Altidore's appeal denied last week, it became clear that Ricketts would be the central feature of TFC's attack in the first leg.

“Tos is always focused,” said Greg Vanney last week. “He understands that the moment to play is upon him. He's chomping at the bit for an opportunity to make a difference.”

With two such formidable strikers in front of him, Ricketts knows his time will be limited.

“When you're only given 10 or 15 minutes, you may only get one chance,” said Ricketts on Saturday. “I bear down, keep working, and something will come.”

Having bounced around Europe for nearly a decade, Ricketts professes a calmness and maturity about his situation.

“Every player desires to play as much as they can. Circumstance doesn't always provide that,” said Ricketts. “That's the type of person I am, I'm very adaptable. No matter how tough the environment, the role I have to play, I'll embrace it, do my best for the team.”

He has already shown himself to be a big game player in Toronto. That goals-per-90 mark more than doubles in the playoffs to 1.34, Ricketts having scored twice in last season's MLS Cup Playoffs, against both New York City FC and the Montreal Impact, the latter in the second leg of that epic Eastern Conference Championship clash.

Ricketts has also scored against Crew SC this season, coming on late in May to turn the tide, scoring two goals in the final ten minutes of a 2-1 TFC win. And when given a chance in September with Altidore and Giovinco sidelined, Ricketts bagged braces in consecutive matches.

“Tos has been such an important guy since he's come here, both on and off the field,” said captain Michael Bradley on Sunday. “As a player he compliments everything we do very well. He can play with either Seba or Jozy, make them both better, and he can play by himself. In the moments that we've used [Victor] Vazquez, up there with him or underneath, that has been a good partnership.

“He has qualities that are unique in our team,” continued Bradley. “His mobility, his speed, ability to put defenses on their heels. His personality and presence in the locker room from day one have been great.

“He understands that opportunities are limited; he is determined to give everything for the group and walks off the field with something to show for himself. He's excited, ready to go. He's played in games like this and we're going to get the best out of him.”

Said Vanney: “He's relentless. He puts a lot of pressure on defenders. You have to respect the speed that he has. It forces a lot of questions. He continues to grow and progress in his game.”

Though some argue he could start for any other team in MLS, Ricketts is happy in Toronto and focused on “improving” first and foremost.

“It's hard to perform at your peak when so many external things were affecting you on and off the pitch,” he said. “Now I'm in a stable environment where I can focus on growing. People say you can be too old to grow, but I think it's a mental thing. I'm in a good place, improving every day.”

Constant fears in Europe held him back, but now, back home, life is good.

“It's all positive: career, life outside of football. It's been a rebuilding period where I could find myself again, get a clear head and focus on soccer,” said Ricketts with a smile. “That was the biggest problem overseas. There were so many external factors – getting paid, if my rent was being paid on time – that clouded my football life. It's been only soccer here.”

That clarity is serving Ricketts well. Tuesday will be another opportunity to show it.

“Knowing chances don't come so often, I'm not wasting them as much as in the past. I'm cherishing those chances,” he said. “Focus on finishing, getting in the right places, and working for that one chance.”