It was nowhere near a complete performance from Toronto FC on Saturday night in a 0-0 draw with the Houston Dynamo, but there were plenty of positives to take from it.
A point in Houston is a good result for any MLS team, especially in the summer heat. Though there were a few nervy moments, for the second straight week the final minutes came and went with no goal conceded. Finally, and this is a first for the MLS season, a clean sheet.
Are things finally falling into place for Ryan Nelsen’s team? Can long suffering fans expect this form to continue? It’s still way too soon to be making any kind of declarations but I’d give a tentative yes as there are a few obvious reasons for this new found defensive solidity.
This was Toronto’s third straight game with practically the same starting lineup, the only change in those games being the insertion of Gale Agbossoumonde last week, forced by Doneil Henry’s suspension.
After a somewhat steady first few games of the season, TFC struggled through April and May and it was a lot harder to guess the lineup as changes were made throughout the team — some forced by injuries, some to try and find the right combination.
Players changed positions or dropped in and out of the lineup, some players were released from the squad, and new ones brought in. It was chaotic and seemingly panicked.
Now though, after taking those steps back to find the right mix, TFC have settled on a lineup and taken steps forward to look like a team that, at the very least, is tough to beat.
One player who’s been a big part of that is Steven Caldwell and he had an immense game on Saturday. His initial signing wasn’t really one to inspire much enthusiasm, a short term loan for another Championship level Brit in his 30s and on the downslide of his career, almost exactly fitting the type of player Kevin Payne had previously said he wasn’t interested in.
Since his debut, though, he’s looked increasingly impressive, as has the defence around him, and in Saturday’s game it was particularly noticeable.
He took charge and set the tone within the first two minutes when he had won three balls that Houston had played long including a commanding header over Will Bruin.
By the end of the game his chalkboard stats show he won 11 headers, added 11 clearances, three blocks and two interceptions. At one point he won a header in the middle of the box then ran out to the right hand side of the box, chasing his own rebound and pressuring Corey Ashe who ended up shooting wide.
It was a masterful individual performance in marshalling a defence that includes a still raw and occasionally wild Doneil Henry, an out of position Darren O’Dea and an out of his depth Ryan Richter.
It’s now five goals conceded in the five games that Caldwell has played, and only two in the current three game unbeaten streak, one of which was a penalty. That’s the kind of record that will mean TFC is in with a chance in every game.
Finally, Nelsen has a player very much in his own image that he can build a defence around. He obviously wasn’t impressed by Danny Califf and Darren O’Dea has never quite managed to be that player in two separate seasons now.
Caldwell has the experience to know what needs to be done and the abilities and temperament to be able to do it.
Given his age, Caldwell obviously won’t be a long term solution, but if he can be re-signed once his loan runs out for another year or two, he could be a valuable player to keep things together while a longer term solution can be found, and experience will surely help the likes of Henry and Agbossoumonde .
It seems that the individual pieces of a reliable team are slowly coming together for Nelsen and the next challenge will be to carefully adjust the balance of the team to allow TFC to create more chances and score more goals. Whether that’s through Danny Koevermans getting into the starting lineup or through new additions brought in during the summer transfer window remains to be seen.
At least there now seems to be a stable and defensively solid team for them to be integrated into.
That’s a start.