TORONTO — It’s only three games into the season but there are definitely good signs at Toronto FC, mainly a defensive organisation that is allowing the Reds to remain in matches and look competitive.
One of the major reasons for that improvement has been right back Richard Eckersley, who so far is looking much better than he did last season.
Last year, a little further into the season than we are now, I wrote about how Eckersley was struggling, the poor defence under Aron Winter serving to turn his strengths into weaknesses that just added to the chaos. At the time I wrote, "If (Eckersley) can find himself in a steady and cautious defence that has room for or a need for an aggressive and attacking right back, and can cover for the mistakes that come from those tendencies, he’ll be fine.’
That obviously wasn’t found under Winter, or Paul Mariner, where Eckersley was moved into the middle of defence. With Ryan Nelsen at the helm though, Eckersley might finally be in the right place at the right time.
Given Nelsen’s distinguished career and very recent Premiership experience, all as a defender, it’s not surprising that a new found resilience can be seen in the Reds’ defence. What is a welcome surprise is the part Eckersley has played.
Eckersley has distinguished himself, his skills dovetailing well with his partners in defence in a way that makes him and the defence itself look good. What he brings to the table is speed, energy, enthusiasm, all things that are proving very valuable to TFC so far.
It could be seen right from the start in the season opener against Vancouver. The high pressing style that Nelsen is playing requires the full backs to push up and pressure the wide midfielders in possession. Eckersley did that effectively, but that will lead to gaps, and vulnerability to the ball played behind him as he pushes up.
Many times the Whitecaps tried that with balls played for Kekuta Manneh to chase down. Fortunately, the biggest difference between this year and last is who Eckersley has alongside him on the right side of the defence. Danny Califf’s experience, combined with Terry Dunfield’s presence, meant that most of those balls played over Eckersley and into space were easily handled and Vancouver’s attacks were nullified.
It’s no coincidence that Manneh was taken off at half time, and that Vancouver’s attacking focus switched to their right wing, where they had much more success against Ashtone Morgan, Darren O’Dea and Jeremy Hall.
There was more evidence of how Eckersley’s speed and energy suit this system from the game against Sporting Kansas City in the lead up to the first goal. Quick pressing by Eckersley forced the ball back to the central defenders who then presented Robert Earnshaw with the chance to score.
This weekend against Montreal, Nelsen’s faith in Eckersley was shown when substitutions were needed to chase the game. When Darrel Russell was brought on, Eckersley was preferred at left back over Ashtone Morgan who was the man to make way for Russell.
The reason why could be seen towards the end of regulation with Montreal on a breakaway when Eckersley ran the length of the pitch to catch up with the attackers. In the end he didn’t have to make a challenge, but the fact he got himself in a position to do that if necessary was impressive.
Probably the most notable difference in how Eckersley’s talents are helping the team is that it’s very defensively focussed. In past seasons, at full back, his biggest contribution was often the energy and adventurousness he brought to the attack. Defensively, the lack of organisation around him meant his tendency to try and do too much often made things worse.
While he’s still getting forward to help with the attack where he can, he’s become a big contributor to the improved team defence through the Reds’ first three games.
Eckersley’s game, strengths and weaknesses haven’t really changed from last year when he often looked lost amid the confusion under Winter and Mariner. The team-wide defensive focus of Nelsen’s system, with the organisation that Califf brings to it, is providing just the base he needs to thrive.
Duncan Fletcher is a Toronto-based writer and key contributor to Waking the Red, a blog about Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. Follow Duncan on Twitter.