Toronto FC answer call with win over Red Bulls

Nick Hagglund, right, in action for Toronto FC. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO – With Toronto FC set to enter a crucial part of the Major League Soccer season, coach Ryan Nelsen earlier this week challenged his players to step up their games.

It was a warning that didn’t go unheeded on Saturday.

Fresh off a World Cup snub from England, star striker Jermain Defoe sent Roy Hodgson a message by netting his fourth goal in five league games to guide TFC to a 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls before 22,591 fans at BMO Field. Newcomer Luke Moore also scored for Toronto.

Defoe’s stellar form aside, it was more the play of TFC’s unheralded heroes that inspired the Reds to a win and allowed them to snap a three-game losing skid in MLS.

Toronto was missing midfield Michael Bradley, who is away with the U.S. national team as it prepares for the World Cup. With Bradley gone and Jeremy Hall returning from a lengthy Achilles problem, Nelsen was short on options in the centre of midfield. Nelsen gambled by slotting defender Bradley Orr alongside Kyle Bekker in the middle of the park.

Also, backup Joe Bendik started in goal in place of Brazilian Julio Cesar. Another noteworthy change saw rookie Nick Hagglund start beside captain Steven Caldwell in central defence. Canadian Doneil Henry dropped to the bench.

Without the influential Bradley, this was a serious test of TFC’s depth, and no player stepped up his game more than Orr. A right-back by trade, the Liverpool native has excelled when given the chance to demonstrate his versatility. Orr did it earlier this season when asked to play at centre back, and again against the Red Bulls while deputizing for the absent Bradley. He was an absolute revelation in midfield for Toronto.

Nelsen explained he tried Orr in central midfield to have him shield the back four and have more of a defensive balance to his starting lineup, as well as force New York into playing long balls forward, instead of passes to the feet of strikers Thierry Henry and Bradley Wright-Phillips.

“Brad was superb. ... He read the game very well,” Nelsen said.

He later added: “It was a bit of a risk... but he’s such an experienced player that you can put him anywhere on the field and he’ll file the role for you.”

Others who answered Nelsen’s call included Defoe (brilliant runs off the ball), Bekker (excellent two-way play) and Hagglund (solid in defence).

“One of the great things I admire about Nick is that he has absolutely no fear,” Nelsen stated. “I had no problem with him going up against (Henry) because the bigger the challenge the more he rises to it.”

Orr admitted that the last time he played in central midfield was eight or nine years ago. It hardly showed.

“It was a little bit alien to me at first but I had good teammates around me giving me instructions. I’m grateful to them,” Orr said.

With Bradley and Cesar set to miss more than a month’s worth of action due to World Cup duty, Toronto needs to bank as many points as it can so it’ll have a fighting chance to make the playoffs when their key starters return from Brazil.

TFC showed on Saturday that, perhaps, they can weather the upcoming storm. One concern, though, is that despite his continued strong play, Brazilian forward Gilberto hasn’t scored in seven league appearances.

Defoe netted the opening goal in the 12th minute, but it was a goal created out of nothing by Orr. The English defender intercepted a New York pass and then launched forward with pace before delivering a defence-splitting pass for Defoe. The former Spurs star galloped into the box before hammering a shot past New York goalkeeper Luis Robles.

“Jermain’s movement off the ball made it easier for me. It’s that good, it’s world class. As soon as I made the interception he was off running behind the defenders, so the credit goes to him,” Orr said.

Defoe had another chance later in the half off a superb cross ball from Bekker, but he fired his attempt just over the crossbar from the edge of the box.

“We passed the ball really well, we created a lot of chances. Unlucky not to score a couple more but overall we were the better team,” Defoe stated.

Toronto looked wobbly at the start of the second half, and as Henry’s influence grew, New York took charge. The Red Bulls should have tied things up when Henry delivered a low pass into the middle of the box in the 62nd minute. But Bendik did well to get a hand on it before Wright-Phillips misfired from a few yards out with a wide open net before him.

Moments later, New York’s Jamison Olave made a crucial goal-line clearance off a Daniel Lovitz shot after a lovely crossover play from teammate Mark Bloom.

The game turned chippy late on and tempers flared when New York’s Armando made the most of a challenge to sucker the ref into giving Defoe a yellow card.

Moore sealed the win in injury time with a tap-in into an empty net after a miscue by Robles.

NOTES: New York was undefeated (7-0-3) against Toronto since Oct. 24, 2009 ahead of this game... The Red Bulls lead the all-time series with 10 wins and four draws in 19 meetings. These teams meet again this season on June 27 and Oct. 11 (both games in New York)... TFC returns to action next Friday when it visits Sporting Kansas City. The Reds then host the Montreal Impact on May 28 in the first leg of the Amway Canadian Championship final... Midfielder Collen Warner, acquired in a trade with Montreal this week, is expected to make his TFC debut in KC...