Mavinga making mark in Toronto FC defence

TORONTO — Just 26, Chris Mavinga’s soccer journey has already taken him from France to England, Belgium, Russia and now Canada.

And after a bumpy debut, the French-born Congolese international has found a home in Major League Soccer, quietly becoming a key defender for Toronto. Mavinga has started 17 of TFC’s last 18 games, joining Drew Moor and Eriq Zavaleta in a three-man backline that is second in the league in yielding just 0.96 goals a game.

With awards season coming, TFC has begun talking up Mavinga.

Coach Greg Vanney calls him the team’s “safety blanket.”

“Not only does he defend his space and his responsibilities, he has incredible recovery speed … when you think you’re exposed, Chris comes out of nowhere to make a play,” said Vanney, a former elite defender himself.

Moor says Mavinga, a lean six foot one, is a candidate for MLS defender of the year.

“He’s smart, he’s athletic, he’s energetic. He’s a huge boost for everybody around him … for me, you can’t say enough good things about Chris right now.”

While quiet off the pitch, Mavinga is said to be a fierce, vocal competitor when he plays.

Mavinga and Toronto (16-3-8) host the San Jose Earthquakes (10-11-6) on Saturday. A win coupled with one of five other weekend scenarios — including a Montreal tie or loss against New England — will clinch a TFC playoff berth with six games remaining.

League-leading Toronto is looking to extend a 14-game home regular-season winning streak (11-0-3) that dates back to last October.

Mavinga, whose father is Congolese, has never been short on talent but has suffered from bad timing in the past.

He started in the Paris Saint-Germain system at 14, working his way up to train with the first team at 17. But a coaching change blocked his path so, rather than return to the reserves, he left for Liverpool at 18 — spurning an offer from Arsenal.

He did well in the Liverpool reserves and, playing alongside Antoine Griezmann, Alexandre Lacazette and Francis Coquelin, helped France win the under-19 European title in 2009-10. But he found himself shunted to the back in Liverpool after manager Rafa Benitez left.

He was loaned to Belgium’s Genk, making headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2011 in a title-deciding game in the season finale.

Prior to the match, the media spotlight had been on the young Mavinga, who was keen to show he could handle the opposition.

Chasing a high-bouncing ball down the flank, he went to kick it while Standard Liege’s Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez bent down to try to get his head to it. The result was Mavinga catching Carcela-Gonzalez flush in the face with a high, hard boot. The Moroccan, who was knocked out on the play, suffered facial fractures and a concussion.

“Footballer suffers horror knockout,” was the English tabloid Sun headline.

Genk went on to win the game — and the title. While his teammates celebrated, Mavinga cried.

“This night was terrible for me,” he said.

Wanting new pastures, he left Genk for France’s Rennes where he played regularly and saw Europa League action.

But things changed suddenly after practice one day in 2013 when he was told Russia’s Rubin Kazan had opened its wallet to buy him. After talking to his agent, he settled on lucrative personal terms and the move was on.

Then he consulted his mother, who told him he was too young to go to Russia. Mavinga tried to back out of the deal but Rubin Kazan still wanted him and Rennes didn’t.

So he went to Russia, admitting in hindsight his mother was right. While he saw action there, the team changed coaches and eventually loaned him to France’s Reims and Troyes.

Returning to Russia, he went six months without a game. Unhappy in the present but confident in his future, he told his agent he wanted a change — “something different.” The call from Toronto FC, ahead of interest from Montreal, was just what the doctor ordered.

“I was not scared because I went to Russia,” he said. “Now you’ve been in Russia, you can go everywhere in the world.”

Part of the appeal was being able to return to his favoured position of centre back rather than left back where he had been playing.

His arrival was anything but smooth, however. He was sick when he arrived in training camp and found himself going back and forth to France to be with his pregnant partner.

He lasted just 51 minutes in his first start, a 2-2 draw April 8 with visiting Atlanta that saw him chasing both goals.

“Really nobody played particularly well that game, in my mind,” said Moor.

A groin injury delayed his return. But Mavinga returned five games later in Seattle and is now a fixture.

“I think I am doing well but I can be better,” he said.

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