Fletcher on MLS: TFC badly needs offensive recruits

Kleberson scored on a free kick from 25 yards out in stoppage time, lifting the Philadelphia Union to a 1-0 victory over Toronto FC. (CP/Chris Young)

Well, that was dull.

But after two of the worst games of the season, Toronto FC is probably grateful to come away from a forgettable match with a point in a 0-0 draw against the New York Red Bulls on Saturday.

I’ll start with the positives, and really that’s all about the defence, helped by some lineup changes. This was just Toronto’s second clean sheet of the campaign and it was a deserved one as the defence neutralized Thierry Henry and company.

Doneil Henry was a big part of that, inserted back into the lineup by coach Ryan Nelsen at the first opportunity after missing games for Gold Cup duty and a suspension. He provided a physical presence alongside Steven Caldwell in a way that Gale Agbossoumonde can’t match – Henry won seven headers, adding six clearances and eight recoveries.

His game still isn’t about subtlety or smarts, though. He wasn’t credited with any interceptions or tackles on the official stats sheet, but his physical and aggressive style fits in well with the experienced Caldwell alongside him and behind the shield provided by Matias Laba and Jeremy Hall.

If TFC can clog up the midfield and force longer balls or crosses to be played in, then an imposing physical defender who can win headers can be a valuable asset. Henry has had trouble this season walking the line of being too aggressive, leading to two red cards already, as well as often over-committing to a header or tackle and leaving himself exposed. On Saturday, though, he seemed to get the balance right.

Given his age (20), there’s plenty of time for his game to develop, as well as for him to keep developing physically. You only had to look at the other end of the pitch to see the perfect example of the type of player Henry could become in Jamison Olave. The Colombian has been one of the best defenders in MLS over the last few years, mainly with Real Salt Lake and now with New York.

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Another lineup change that worked out was the return of Hall. He had been replaced in the last two games by Darel Russell. Perhaps that was Nelsen wanting a more proactive and aggressive presence in midfield, as Russell certainly put himself about a lot in those games.

Hall wasn’t really all that noticeable, but more importantly, neither was the New York midfield. Even when Henry dropped deep as he likes to do, he rarely found the space or the options to be dangerous. TFC’s midfield did a good job on the defensive end and the calmer presence of Hall helped with that.

A few games into his return, Richard Eckersley looked be his old self at the right back position. Energetic and always ready to get forward, he provided a more effective threat than Ryan Richter was ever able to, and came closer than anyone to scoring for Toronto.

That Eckersley has the best scoring chance sums up what would be the negative thing to take from this game for TFC – going forward there was very little happening, barely a threat at all. It’s not entirely surprising, though, as the promise of new attacking recruits has yet to be fulfilled, and the injury to Robert Earnshaw depleted the front line even further.

Jeremy Brockie and Justin Braun worked hard all game, but they just aren’t good enough to thrive in a team that was, rightfully so, more focused on defending.

This was never more evident than the one time TFC did get the ball in the net, as Ashtone Morgan was set free down the left and played a pass across the face of the goal. Braun at the near post delayed his run to stay onside, but just a bit too much as he couldn’t make contact. Brockie at the back post did make contact and scored, but had been unable to stay onside.

If lineup changes helped at the back, then it’s to be hoped there will soon be changes needed up front. TFC have been blanked in three straight matches, and in five out of their last six, with the exception being a 3-3 draw against a struggling Montreal defence.

As unfair as it is to blame Brockie and Braun, an upgrade in quality can’t come quickly enough.

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.

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