Toronto FC got busy towards the end of last week signings all kinds of players to their roster to ensure they actually had a squad to send to Vancouver and despite the scrambled, last-minute nature of the signings things seems to go well against the Whitecaps for the new guys. Fans got their first chance to see Robert Earnshaw and Hogan Ephraim in action and both did enough to at least show there is potential there for them to turn into contributors. Saturday night was also fans first chance to get a look at a trio of TFC draft picks who made their MLS debuts. It wasn't quite all the new faces possible but over the course of 90 minutes at BC Place there were seven different players making their competitive debuts for TFC.
The first of those 7 was Joe Bendik who got the start in goal ahead of the injured Stefan Frei. Bendik did well in goal coming to claim a number of tricky balls and showed that he was in control of his area. It was nice to see him making all the plays that you need to be able to rely on the keeper to make if you want to have a chance in any game. Bendik was making only his 4th start (6th appearance total) in MLS so to see him rise to the occasion was reassuring for TFC fans that might have been worried if he would be good enough to get the job done should Frei miss an extended period of time this season. Where he will need to improve is his ball distribution out of the back. Of the 28 times that the stats record him playing the ball out from the back he only managed to find a teammate on 5 of them which is a very poor rate and resulted in the Caps getting easy possessions throughout the game.
Danny Califf was a well known quantity heading into his season debut for TFC and that is because he has spent the better part of a decade being a top defender in MLS and for the US National team. The question for Califf was if he would be able to hit the ground running after a limited number of minutes in preseason play. Add in the fact that TFC starts the season with three games on turf and it was a legitimate fear that he might not be able to contribute much early on. He answered the questions well on Saturday night and for the most part formed a partnership with Darren O'Dea that looked in control of what was going on around them. They did play fairly deep for most of the game but that is a hard choice to argue considering the pace that Vancouver had in their lineup. With the Caps attacking down the wings for the most part Califf did not have that much work to do for long stretches of the game but he showed he could still deal with a cross and provide a physical presence at the back.
The only draft pick to make it into the starting lineup was Kyle Bekker who was thrown right into the deep end thanks to Luis Silva missing the match through injury. Bekker started at attacking mid and when TFC found themselves in possession it seemed to be Bekker that they were looking for to provide the link between the defensive players and the attack. He did well in that role but there were a few occasions where he showed signs that he might need some time to get used to the speed of the game and the fact that he is not going to get as much time on the ball as he did in college. A few nice passes from Bekker were instrumental in creating the limited chances that TFC did have and though he struggled to get his free kicks on frame it was nice to see him have the confidence to step up and take them.
Bekker's stats show that he was all over the middle of the park as he dropped deep to pick up the ball and was involved in the attack at the other end. He completed 37 passes on the night with only 15 unsuccessful which is a very good rate for someone in the middle of the park (Terry Dunfield was 48 and 16). The stat sheet also shows that it was Bekker who led the team in key passes as he registered three of the six passes for the team that led to chances being created. It was a solid all around performance that should have shown anyone who questioned Toronto's choice to draft him third overall that he has the skills to live up to that position.
Two more rookies entered the game in the second half as Ryan Nelsen gave debuts to Taylor Morgan and Emery Welshman in the closing stages of the match. With Morgan playing 15 minutes and Welshman only getting 5 it is hard to really judge their performances but it was nice that they could get their debuts out of the way in the first game of the season. They were both involved in TFC pushing for an equalizer late on but Morgan had a bit of a confusing moment when he seemed to reach out and handle the ball in front of Joe Cannon during a late scramble in the Caps box bringing the chance to an end.
Then there were the completely new players that TFC fans did not even get to see in preseason action. Hogan Ephraim and Robert Earnshaw both arrived in Toronto this week and have been so busy in recent days they probably barely knew what day it was or where they were when they stepped on the field at BC Place. With neither having played a whole lot of competitive minutes in recent years it was impressive to see them able to contribute for so much of the match (85 from Earnshaw, 90 from Ephraim) even though there were certainly signs of fatigue and rust on both players as the match wore on.
Earnshaw seemed very eager to get involved and try to find his shooting boots back. He is a goal scorer and has found a way to score goals where ever he has gone in his career and he seemed intent on getting his first for TFC out of the way quickly. He shot was not really coming off the way he would have wanted on Saturday though as he scuffed a few shots and never really did enough to trouble Cannon. Earnshaw ended up taking four shots on the night but only getting one of them on goal and that was easily snuffed out by Cannon. What was nice to see was that he was getting on the ball a lot an doing so in dangerous areas. The lack of fitness showed in the fact that he did not have his normal turn of pace which resulted in him settling for shots from outside the 18 rather than trying to take defenders on with his dribble. It was an efficient performance from a player who had barely signed for the team 24 hours before kickoff and certainly one that he can build on as he gets fitter and sharper.
Ephraim was one of the most involved player for TFC in the game getting regular touches on the ball and providing a strong passing option on the wing. He also showed plenty of willingness to defend all over the field by pressing his man and dropping back to help out whenever it was needed. He was one of four players in the team that managed to register over 40 successfully completed passes but he did so with only 10 unsuccessful passes which is an impressive success rate for any player let alone one who probably just learned his teammates names. He did lose possession on a number of occasions but the stats only charge him with 11 which is about an average half for someone like Richard Eckersley or Reggie Lambe.
Ephraim only managed to get one shot off and it was a fairly disappointing one as all he managed to do was fire it right down the middle at a nice height for Cannon to easily grab it. He is not really going to need to be a regular scorer for TFC but where he will need to improve is in his willingness to cross the ball into the box. It was nice to see TFC trying to find other ways to attack besides relying on the cross considering the lack of size up front in Earnshaw but there were times where Ephraim could have put the ball into the danger area and at least force the Caps onto the back foot. He did have three crosses in the game but that was one area he showed a fair bit of room for improvement.