TORONTO — Foundation.
It’s a word that Toronto FC coach Ryan Nelsen is very fond of using, a word he liberally peppers his conversations with — phrases like “we need to build a foundation,” and “the team needs a foundation” are often repeated.
TFC is off to a respectable 1-2-1 start to the MLS season and have looked more composed on the defensive end than last year, even though they have yet to record a clean sheet. Four points from four games is encouraging for a club that began the 2012 campaign with nine straight losses. The Reds will try to build upon the progress they’ve shown under Nelsen when they host FC Dallas on Saturday afternoon.
Still, there’s no denying this team is lightweight when going forward in attack, doesn’t create many scoring chances and lacks genuine creativity in midfield. At the same time, Nelsen is more focused on fixing what was the league’s worst defence last season, as underlined by his use of midfielders Terry Dunfield and Jeremy Hall as defensive shields just in front of the back four.
So it hardly came as a surprise that when asked about TFC’s lack of creative and offensive spark, the New Zealand coach emphasized the need to build a solid foundation first before the team can become more of an attacking threat.
It raises the obvious question: Why can’t TFC attack with more purpose while continuing to be defensively solid?
“Because we probably haven’t been that successful in the past (doing that). We won five games last year, so we have to put things into perspective,” Nelsen told reporters after Friday’s practice.
“We can’t build Rome in one day, but let’s just say as things progress the team will evolve. We’ll start getting more comfortable with each other and they know that they have a foundation and a structure they can fall back on. Then things will move on.”
Translation: At this moment, Nelsen doesn’t have the players to pull it off. That may change with the pending arrival of forward Maximiliano Urruti and a midfielder from Argentina. But for now, the team will stay the tactical course under Nelsen and focus on being a difficult team for opponents to break down.
“We can have as many scoring chances in the whole of the world, but if we’re conceding and we’re getting broken on, it’s just a waste of time,” Nelsen stated.
He later added: “There’s a reality to it. The reality is that the more creative you are, there’s the potential to be opened up. We have to take little steps.”
Like his coach, defender and team captain Darren O’Dea believes attacking and defending are mutually exclusive concepts for this Toronto side.
“When you’re that bad last year, no (you can’t do both). You need stability. There was none, so we needed to become hard to beat first and then learn how to win games from there. Most clubs could probably (do both) but this club was nowhere near where it should have been. Now it’s off the bottom floor and we’re climbing” O’Dea said.
“Slowly but surely it’s coming together. We’re a tougher team to play against this year, for sure.”
Dunfield out injured
Nelsen will be forced to make one lineup change for Saturday’s game, as Dunfield is out with a knee injury he suffered in training earlier this week. Nelsen explained that Dunfield, who has started all four matches this season, was being examined by a specialist, and the club is unsure how long he’ll be sidelined.
“It could be a short term (injury) or a long one. We just have to get the advice from the orthopaedic surgeon and we’ll go from there,” Nelsen said.
Nelsen wouldn’t tip his hand as to who might replace Dunfield against Dallas, or if he plans to continue to use two midfielders to protect the defence. But O’Dea has been thankful for the extra help.
“It gives a good stability to the team,” the Irishman said. “As we progress and we’re keeping the ball better and we improve as a team, you’ll see players breaking out of their positions a little bit more. At the moment, that stability and foundation needs to be there.”
Central defender Danny Califf didn’t train with the team on Friday because of stomach virus, and also might not play against Dallas.