We continue our preseason look at the Toronto FC depth chart by moving on to the defensive unit. It is one of the few areas in the squad where all the pieces seem to be in place and where we can actually safely guess what sort of formation they will be playing.
Chances are quite high that Toronto FC will once again be using a back four as it is the system that new head coach Ryan Nelsen has spent almost his entire career playing in and will likely prefer. With that as the starting point it really is quite simple to plug in the names of preferred starters for each position. There might be a bit of debate in the order players should come off of the bench but that is probably the only debate about the defensive unit at this point in time.
The starting back four will almost certainly be built around the pairing of Darren O'Dea and Danny Califf in the middle of the park. That duo provides the club with a left footed option (O'Dea) and a right footed option (Califf) which is ideal for your CBs. They also provide experience and leadership in the middle of the park which is much needed.
O'Dea joined the club last season and used that time to settle in which should allow him to hit the ground running in 2013. He looked impressive when he did get the chance to play last summer even though he was often left exposed by some questionable partners in the middle of the defense. The worst example was him being paired with Richard Eckersley who often tried to do to much and drifted out wide leaving O'Dea to cover far more space than he should have had to. He alone was not enough to stop TFC conceding a lot of goals but he showed that he is capable of being a part of the solution.
O'Dea is only 25 years old now and just entering the prime of his career but he already has a wealth of experience behind him including having featured in the UEFA Champions League, Euro 2012, World Cup Qualifiers, and starting his playing career at Celtic. He is a bit more prone to making mistakes than you want but having a stable partner next to him should help curb that habit as he will not need to do more than he is capable of.
That stable partner should be Danny Califf this season. Califf arrived in Toronto via the Re-Entry Draft having failed to find a home at Chivas USA after being traded there by the Philadelphia Union last summer. He had a rough finish to his campaign last season but he still brings a whole lot of experience and skill to the position. His career is closing in on nearly 300 total appearances and he collected 23 caps during his US international career. During his MLS career he has won a US Open Cup, a MLS Cup, been named to the MLS Best XI, and made the All-Star game. It is am impressive resume for the 32 year old from California.
That duo will be counted on to finally form a reliable partnership in the middle of the backline. The closest that TFC has ever come to having that was with Adrian Cann and Nana Attakora but even that was fairly short lived. O'Dea and Califf are certainly not without their question marks but they both come in with resumes that should inspire confidence.
The big question about the starting duo is if they have the athleticism to match the faster attacks in the league. Neither defender is going to turn heads with the pace but they have made careers of being physical defenders. If the team had intentions of playing a high line it would be asking for trouble with this pairing but hopefully Nelsen, as a defender himself, will know how to get the best out of them without exposing their lack of pace.
Should the team be looking for more pace in the middle of the park there will certainly be some options on the bench. The trio of Logan Emory, Gale Agbossoumonde, and Doneil Henry all provide more athletic options than either of the starters.
Emory, the only left footed option of the trio, will probably see time at left CB and left back this season but he could end up being the odd man out in this group. At 25 years of age and coming off shoulder surgery he has a fair bit of work to do to show that he has the quality to make an impact at the MLS level. He had some good moments in his first season with TFC but he also had a lot of glaring errors and on the balance of things he was one of a number of defenders who just were not good enough last season.
The other two, both right footed, are the youth side of things. Henry is only 19 while Agbossounmonde is 21 and both of them should be looking at this season as more of a chance to develop than to play regular minutes. Either would be capable of covering for one of the starters if needed but it would be a bit of a surprise to see Henry making 18 league appearances again in 2013.
Henry was solid last season even though he was probably asked to more than he was ready to handle as a teenager. He was forced to play a fair bit due to the numerous injuries to the back line and the handful of players who just seemed to fall completely out of favor at different points. He again spent time at RB but never looked comfortable there and continues to be much better suited to playing in the middle. When he plays this season he will bring that added athleticism as well as some very good aerial ability which may be needed late in games when the club is either trying to fend off balls into the box or get players forward in numbers depending on the score line.
Agbossoumonde is coming off a very poor season in 2012 in NASL. He made 17 league appearances for the Carolina Rail Hawks and was part of a defensive group that gave up a league worst (in a 3-way tie) 46 goals on the campaign. He will certainly want to put that behind him but he is probably the biggest question mark of the group. If he finally reaches some of his potential he could play a big part in 2013 but if his development continues to be stunted it might just prove to be another stop along the way out of the pro game for the much hyped US center back.
On the outside of the back four the picture is once again fairly clear. It would seem all but certain that Richard Eckersley and Ashtone Morgan will take up the starting spots on the outside much of the season. Both of them still have room to improve their one-v-one defending on the wing but there is no doubt that they can get forward and cause problems for the opposition. They are now 23 and 21 years old respectively so they should hopefully start to come into their own as defenders this season.
Eckersley had his stint at CB last season which he says helped him learned about positioning and where he needs to be to help his central defenders. If that is the case it will be a huge plus as in the past he has been guilty of leaving his partners in the backline exposed while he charged forward to try and join the attack. If he can strike a better balance this season and focus first on defending it would ease a lot of concerns.
Morgan on the other side played like a really young player last season. The talent is clearly there and the effort to match it but he needs to add some polish to his game and become more consistent. If he can do that he could well end up being among the best left backs in the league which is not a stretch considering that he is already a solid option at just 21 years of age.
Behind them it gets a little bit thin. Jeremy Hall is back with the club, hopefully on a much smaller deal than last season, and he would seem to be the likely choice to back up Ecks on the right side. The role of a MLS backup is probably just about where Hall belongs as he is the kind of player who is just okay at a lot of things and not overly great at anything. Teams need that kind of player but his 19 league starts last year speaks to the lack of quality options in the team. Hopefully he will see less playing time in 2013 and prove to be a nice serviceable backup for the times when Ecks is inevitably suspended for yellow card accumulation.
On the left side there is no natural backup at this point in time. That is why Morgan played almost every possible minute last season making 30 league appearances. The club has not signed anyone to add depth to that position so it seems like they will be going with Logan Emory on the rare occasion that Morgan actually needs a game off, or perhaps Jeremy hall who did play there briefly last season, starting there ahead of Morgan for Paul Mariner's first game in charge. It could be a recipe for disaster though unless reinforcements are brought in, especially if Morgan misses some time this season to join the Canadian National Team for the Gold Cup.
None of the club's six total draft picks this season are defenders so they may still have plans to add more depth through another means. It would not surprise me to see them looking to add a left back to the roster just to help Morgan to develop and allow him to get a bit more time off this season.
For now though, this is how I see the depth chart shaking out should the team not make any further moves before the season begins:
|Ashtone Morgan||Darren O'Dea||Danny Califf||Richard Eckersley|
|Logan Emory||Logan Emory||Doneil Henry||Jeremy Hall|