"I am excited about being able to try and take these guys and make us a group. Make us our own little gang. I think that as a back four you need to try and stick together and really be like a little team within a team."
That was what Danny Califf had to say at yesterday's Toronto FC media day when asked about filling the role of being the veteran leader of the club's defense.
It was a sentiment that was echoed a number of times throughout the rest of the day by other defenders who continually highlighted the fact that having a stable back four that knows each other and develops that kind of bond is key to improving the club's terrible defensive record from 2012.
It seems like such a simple concept when Richard Eckersley describes how the defending could be improved. "I said it from day one when I came here. If we can get the same back four playing week-in week-out we grow together, we get clean sheets together, and we win together. It is a boost for everybody if we can do that. Obviously there are injuries so you have to adjust but we need to be playing together." Yet, for some reason in Toronto FC's entire history we have almost never seen a stable defensive group from week to week.
The demands of an MLS season certainly require a team to make some changes in the backline to deal with injuries and fatigue but the fact that at many times last season you had no clue who would be in the back four from one game to the next was quite worrying and it showed in the lack of cohesion among the defenders.
There was also a lack of leadership in the defense last season before the arrival of Darren O'Dea. At the start of the season you had Miguel Aceval who was unable to speak the same language as the players around him, then you had a constantly rotating cast of CBs that included Adrian Cann, Ty Harden, Logan Emory, and even an out of position Eckersley. Bringing in O'Dea was the first step to addressing the lack of stability and the leadership void but it was the addition of Califf that will hopefully complete the puzzle.
On paper, Toronto FC now has a back four that should be able to start most games when they are all healthy. That unit will likely be Ashtone Morgan, Darren O'Dea, Danny Califf, and Richard Eckersley. It is a fairly expensive group but if they can form the kind of gang that Califf hopes to shape them into that would go a long way towards helping the team improve on 2012.
Having Ecks back out on the wing will also help the team. This right back is happy to be back in his natural position but does not consider his time at CB to be a total waste. "I think it is important that I had that stint at center half because I know as a full back where to help my center half out. It is good for me personally because you can see from different perspectives," said Ecks.
In the past he has been guilty of leaving his central defenders exposed too often by his forward runs so hopefully he has learned how to balance joining the attack and remaining in position to help on the defensive side of things. It is an area that both he and Morgan could improve upon but having a pair of veterans in the middle to provide a guiding hand when needed should help.
Like Califf and Ecks, O'Dea is looking forward to forming new partnerships with his fellow defenders. "Hopefully we can develop relationships all around the pitch. You need a settled back four that know each other and hopefully over preseason we will get to know each other and come the start of the season we will be a solid team." It is a lot to accomplish in under two months time but it seems that the team is already off to a good start after just a couple days of training camp.
The team will certainly be looking to Califf to be the on field leader of a very young defensive group. He admitted that he is not going to be a ra-ra kind of guy who is screaming in the locker room but instead prefers to lead by example. He looks back on the early years of his career with the LA Galaxy where he learned from Robin Fraser with fondness and wants to do the same for the young players here in Toronto. "Him just being an incredible person and letting me be me. He let me have my own personality but also held my hand like a little kid. It was just that patience and it was never condescending. He took me under his wing and always treated me with a tremendous amount of respect and never tried to preach to me which I appreciated." Califf is willing to offer corrections when needed and holding the younger players hands to ensure know how to be a pro and meet the standard that is expected of them but he stressed the need to give them the freedom to be themselves and occasionally make their mistakes so they can learn.
The other piece of the puzzle is that the team has another defensive leader among them. This one on the bench. Every defender I spoke to at media day had high praise for their coach as being one of the best defenders in the Premiership and commented on how excited they are to work with him and learn from that wealth of experience.
"I am just trying to learn from him. He has gone from MLS to the Premiership. He has a wealth of experience and you are trying to get as much of that as possible. You are trying to push on to have a career like he has," said Eckersley of his new coach.
It was a sentiment that O'Dea echoed, "For me it is brilliant because he has played at the top level in my position so he is going to teach me a lot. That is certainly what he wants to do, he wants to improve players individually and improve us as a team."
Even the younger players are looking forward to the chance to learn from Nelsen. Gale Agbossoumonde, who the team won in a weighted lottery this offseason, added, "I can't have a better coach than a guy like Ryan Nelsen who is at my position and playing at the highest level and he is one of the best players at that position in the EPL. I can't have a better mentor than that, you can't ask for better than that. Hopefully I can learn a lot from him and just work hard every day and get better."
There was also a major sense of excitement among the players now that the date of their coach is nailed down and they know that he will be in camp for most of the preseason. O'Dea quipped, "it is important, we were poor with a manager, what are we going to be like without a manager," making a joke about a situation that was clearly causing some concern among the players prior to its resolution.
Nelsen did confirm that next Tuesday when QPR takes on Manchester City will be his final game for the club and he will join TFC full time come February 1st. He has yet to officially retire from New Zeeland but he did rule out any chances of him suiting up for TFC this season.
He discussed his plan for the team a bit noting that, "what they will be trying to do as coaches is emphasize the strengths of the team and hiding all the weaknesses and hopefully that can produce us results." Sounds like a simple plan but the good news is that having a stable back four might just be one of the teams strengths this year rather than the weakness that it has so often been for TFC in the past.