TORONTO — The Kevin Payne and Ryan Nelsen era kicked off this past weekend, and the result was what most people would have predicted going in, a loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps.
It was to be expected given the way pre-season unfolded, with a host of players added only in the last few days before the game.
What most were hoping to get out of the match were some positive signs, whether from individual players or from the team as a whole, something to suggest that TFC does at least have something to build upon. Happily there were actually quite a few.
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Starting at the back, the two new arrivals both looked impressive. It’s still not clear how long goalkeeper Stefan Frei will be out, but Joe Bendik put in a good performance that suggests he can be trusted to not let the side down in the interim. He couldn’t be blamed for Gershon Koffie’s goal, and though he didn’t have that many saves to make, he looked comfortable in the ones he did make. He also did an excellent job coming off his line to collect or at least deflect many of the crosses that were coming in.
Defender Danny Califf brushed aside concerns about his fitness in pre-season, saying it wasn’t his first rodeo, and he backed up those words with a very competent outing.
In the first half especially, Richard Eckersley was often pushing up the wing to help with the high pressure tactic that stopped the Whitecaps from getting anything going through the midfield. That left him vulnerable to long balls over the top for Kekuta Manneh to chase but Califf, helped by Terry Dunfield, did an excellent job of covering for Eckersley, using his experience to keep the much quicker Manneh from causing too much trouble.
Both Califf and Darren O’Dea could be seen cajoling and organising their colleagues, the on-the-pitch generals Nelsen will be relying on to maintain the defensive focus and shape TFC will need to give itself a chance of sneaking some results early on.
In midfield, Kyle Bekker continued the solid form he displayed in pre season. Nothing too spectacular but composure and good passing of the ball and some good set piece deliveries showed he’s on the way to becoming someone who can definitely play a part, even when the squad is improved.
Hogan Ephraim showed promise as well, playing a typical winger’s game with long periods of invisibility punctuated by moments of skill and excitement, leading to some dangerous crosses. If he can provide those moments on a consistent basis, it will eventually lead to goals, especially when Danny Koevermans returns.
Until Koevermans does return, Robert Earnshaw will more than likely be TFC’s main goal-scoring threat and he’s another who displayed potential despite not being at full fitness or having much of a chance to practise with his new teammates. He was very lively in the first half, harassing defenders and getting a couple of shots off as well, though he had less of an impact in the second half, tired and starved of service as he was.
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The main thing to take from the game was how effectively the team was able to stop the Whitecaps from playing in the first half. Yes, a tactical adjustment, an inspired substitution and a big Vancouver effort to start the second half was enough to overcome it, but that first half showed glimpses of what might be.
The high pressure, team-wide defence kept the more talented Whitecaps on the back foot and out of the danger areas. With more practise, familiarity and the return of injured players, this squad could end up looking like a competitive team that will be in more matches than it’s out of (though that improvement won’t happen in a vacuum, similar gains will presumably be happening throughout the league).
All in all, given what they had to work with due to injury and lack of time to prepare, one can really appreciate how Nelsen inspired his team. Add in the upgrades that Payne has said are coming and the returns of players such as Luis Silva and Julio Cesar, and the immediate future might start looking a bit brighter.
Real competitiveness probably won’t come until next year, but there are signs of a foundation that might make 2013 more bearable than it looked just a week ago. That’s about as much as we could have realistically asked for.
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.