There's been much made of Toronto's lack of scoring over the course of its short history, and rightly so. Goals win games - that's how sports work - get more points than the other guy. But the (much needed) flipside to that coin is that a good offence starts with a good defence. And as much as TFC has been unable to put the ball in the net they've also struggled to keep it out.
Much of last season was an agony of last minute goals, injury time goals, and some truly horrific defensive gaffes. It was something that could almost set your watch by - if the game was in injury time the opposition was going to score and then win. Fun - if your definition of fun is getting relentlessly beaten down every time you watch your team fall apart at the death; again.
Last year TFC let in a dismal 47 goals - 6th worst in the league - the only thing that seems surprising is that it wasn't more. That's because for stretches of the season the defence actually seemed to know what they were doing - whether that was due to some stability in the backline, their defensive minded coach getting through to them or just better players is hard to say - some combination of all three. However, it still remains that they are the weakest link for TFC behind the woeful scoring unit. But like other parts of the team that should change this season with the addition of some veteran players; both at the back but also in front in the midfield.
But this is about the defenders so let's see what we've got:
CB: Steven Caldwell (captain), Doneil Henry, Gale Agbossoumonde, Nick Hagglund (SuperDraft pick) and Eli Roubos (Academy trialist). Not exactly an exciting list and still likely the weakest area in terms of depth for TFC at the back. On the positive side is that the main pairing of Caldwell and Henry are returning as familiarity in the defence has oft been an issue with the rotating cast of characters each season (or each month). Caldwell did more than enough to assert himself as the leader at the back as a vocal organiser and pillar on that line. His return and ability to teach the younger defenders is a positive with an ongoing upside.
But what about those younger defenders? The other CB options are very young, with Agbossoumonde being the oldest at 22! However age does not mean seniority as Henry is the de facto starter next to Caldwell. Henry is very young indeed (only 20) but has already been tapped as the starting CB going forward. While Henry gave most of us fits last year with his seemingly one stupid mistake per game, he did start to settle down by season's end and you could see the potential. His ability in the air and willingness (sometimes too willing) to put in the hard tackle is what you need in the centre of your defence. But is he the answer going forward? So far the answer is yes and currently there's no one else in camp to supplant him.
Boss is an adequate back-up for when Henry gets called up to the national team but so far hasn't shown much in the growth department. As for SuperDraft signing Hagglund and Academy trialist Roubos; well there's little to no expectations from either of them at the moment. Some camp experience and then a likely loan out to Wilmington for Hagglund and back to the Academy for Roubos. They may be the future but they're currently not the present. So that does leave a hole in the middle should there be injuries or suspensions - and additional pick-up over the next month would not go amiss unless Ryan Nelsen and Co. think that Hagglund has enough to step in on a consistent basis.
On both sides of the pitch there were issues with the fullbacks last season. On the left we saw Ashtone Morgan become a shadow of his former self as his weakness as a defender was exposed multiple times but where in previous years he was able to offset that with some offensive prowess (great darting runs up the flank, lovely crosses in); that aspect of his game also vanished and he found himself benched and his spot taken by former captain Darren O'Dea or (new NY Red Bull) Richard Eckersley. Then came along mid-summer signing Jonas Elmer who to date is still the most expensive bit of motivation ever - only seeing time in one game Elmer has not featured at all for the Reds and Morgan seemed to have lifted his game for the latter half of the season. But the mistakes are still there and in one of the less splashy (but quite exciting) signings of the off-season Nelsen and the Tims brought in former San Jose Earthquakes player Justin Morrow. Morrow is a recent MLS All-Star, member of the USMNT and a clear upgrade on Morgan on the defensive side. He doesn't have the same flair for going forward but with a vastly improved midfield and forward line this season, that's not as necessary.
Expect to see Morrow as the every day starter with Morgan on the bench - perhaps he too will get some time with Wilmington or maybe this will be the push he needs to elevate his game. But he is adequate bench depth and combined with Morrow should keep the left in good order. As for Elmer? Who can say - I keep expecting that will we find out that he's been traded or was an elaborate gag on the supporters - either way I doubt we'll see him on the field at all this season.
As for the right side of the back - well that's been fun hasn't it? Last season's trio of Eckersley, Richter and Bloom (we do not speak of Darel Russell) didn't exactly cover themselves with glory throughout the year. While Ecks was one of the more solid defenders when he was healthy - injuries at the beginning and towards the end of the season, coupled with his massive contract from the previous regime and well, it soon became clear that regardless of ability his time with Toronto would be coming to an end.
Without Ecks we had the exciting (in a dear gods no! kind of way) Ryan Richter and then the NASL loanee Mark Bloom. Both had their share of nightmare performances and both put in their share of decent showings - although Bloom gets the edge over Richter in the learning from past mistakes department. Both have a lot of work to do when it comes to defensive positioning and man marking but Bloom seems to offer just that much more going forward. However, neither are ready to be every day MLS starters and with Ecks now departed for New York something had to be done. And that something is Bradley Orr - childhood friend of Caldwell, former teammate of Nelsen and defensive bad boy from Blackburn Rovers. Potential for red cards aside, Orr offers a veteran defensive presence on the right as a balance to some of the younger defenders and should pair well with his old friend Caldwell. Clearly Orr is the starting rightback with Bloom his likely successor when needed.
Emergency subs: Jeremy Hall, Jackson Goncalves - Should all hell break loose and there are injuries and suspensions abound both Hall and Jackson are capable (more or less) of stepping in to fill defensive voids but we should all hope and pray that this doesn't happen - especially those of us that still have nightmares from Hall's last stint in the backline.
So upgrades pretty much all around for the defence with the centre still looking a little thin. Basically we need to hope for cool heads, no injuries and a quick learner in Hagglund if Nelsen and the Tims choose not to bring another CB on board before the season starts. As for all things TFC this year we should expect (and see) better results from the back. Orr, Caldwell, Henry and Morrow - there's your backline for 2014 - learn to love them.