Toronto FC’s fledging defensive partnership of Doneil Henry and club captain Steven Caldwell might not grab headlines, but both players deserve recognition for playing a significant role in TFC’s best season start in club history.
Henry, especially, has looked impressive for the Reds—TFC’s first academy graduate is looking more and more like the real deal. After speaking with him following Toronto’s successful home opener—1-0 win over D.C. United on Saturday—I was left with the impression that his ambitions go beyond becoming a key contributor for TFC.
“I see myself as being a great leader and a hero for the Canadian national team,” Henry said.
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It was a bold statement from a player who has just nine caps to his name. But don't mistake his confidence as cockiness. Henry is a firm believer in his abilities, and doing the necessary work to maximize his potential. The 20 year-old exudes the air of a true leader—a quality that current Canadian coach Benito Floro wants to see in his young players.
All the media attention leading up to this Major League Soccer season has been focused around TFC's high-profile recruits, which was evident in the dressing room post-match on the weekend, as a mob of reporters hovered around the locker-room stalls of Jermaine Defoe and Michael Bradley. Both players have thus far lived up to the hype, but the team’s new found success equally has a lot to do with the side’s overall structure.
Caldwell's leadership of the back-four has stood out, though the rugged Scottish defender preaches a strong collective being the ultimate factor into TFC's defensive stability. When asked about his pairing with Henry, Caldwell was extremely enthusiastic about the possibilities ahead.
"He is a very good young player, improving all the time, so it's a pleasure to play beside him, and I think we complement each other well,” Caldwell offered.
Looking at the two games—one goal conceded after 180 minutes—it’s tough not to come to a similar conclusion. However, it’s important to stay grounded. It's still early days, but for a franchise consumed with failure, TFC supporters can't be faulted for daring to dream and basking in the success. The upgrades made in the off-season were focused toward the offensive end of the field, leaving many to worry that not enough attention was placed on keeping the ball out of their own net—TFC conceded 47 goals last season. However, coach Ryan Nelsen expressed confidence and trust in his defensive unit, who for the most part haven't really been threatened in either of their two fixtures.
"You can see the progression of Doneil and Steven at the back,” Nelsen said.
A product of the Ontario Soccer Association Provincial Program, Henry started his career as a member of the Brampton Bullets in the Greater Toronto Area, before moving to North Mississauga's U-14 program. After joining TFC's youth academy in 2008, he quickly caught the eye of club coaches and swiftly moved up the ranks, becoming captain of the junior team. Henry received the highest rating in both training and match fitness of all players in the junior academy.
Soft spoken, and for the most part unassuming, the towering centre-back politely squeezed his way through the media blitz in the dressing room on Saturday, and rather inconspicuously took a seat at his locker. Defenders are used to doing the grunt work and receiving minimal recognition—aside from grateful teammates and coaches—for their work. It's the unfortunate nature of the business. Henry was humble when asked about his performance on the night: "I'm glad to keep it safe and secure at the back, without taking any risks." He keeps his answers short and straight to the point, never once taking added credit for a standout performance.
The Brampton-born defender possesses the ideal mentality to reach his maximum potential, a quality that was confirmed by veteran compatriot Dwayne De Rosario: "He listens very well, and is always open to direction, which is always important for a young player."
Henry might be a little green behind the ears, though, after speaking with him I came away with the impression that from a football standpoint, he is more mature than the year printed on his birth certificate.
"I know what I'm good at, and I stick to my game and my style of play,” he said.
It's also beneficial towards his development to have a grizzled veteran like Caldwell as a teacher.
"It's very important to know your partners tendencies and strengths. It's good that Steven and I have that pairing. He provides the experience, I bring a lot of raw talent and he shapes me accordingly,” Henry said.
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Henry also couldn't hide his delight when talking about the opportunity to learn from his new Brazilian teammate, goalkeeper Julio Cesar.
"Julio has been a great role model and guy to have in the change room. We have a lot of time to talk and see what my future can be. His resume talks for itself. Everybody is learning and benefiting,” Henry said.
After seven years of mismanagement, Toronto FC has finally taken the long-awaited steps to be competitive on the pitch. For all the negatives in those years—and there are plenty—it’s nice to see the club’s youth academy bearing ample fruit, with many former academy players now in the senior squad. Henry was the first, but certainly not the last. Jonathan Osorio and Ashton Morgan are among the other graduates.
The Canadian Soccer Association will also benefit from Toronto FC's new found commitment towards winning, having called up eight players from the club in the last 12 months. Henry is relishing in the opportunity to study under the likes of Defoe and Bradley—two players of proven European pedigree.
"These guys have all represented their country at the highest level. Looking at their success and hearing their stories, it definitely motivates me,” Henry said.
Determined to forge a similar path, Henry calmly voiced his ambition with a reassuring amount of confidence to end the interview.
"I want to be that guy for Canada."
Thomas Michalakos is a Toronto-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.