Welcome to the first installment of Waking the Red’s off-season series looking back at last season’s results and attempting to project forward into the next in the form of a question.
This week’s edition will look at Mark Bloom and ponder whether he can pick up his game to become the starting right-back.
When Bloom was acquired on loan from the Atlanta Silverbacks on July 12, it was with little fanfare.
A virtual unknown, it gave the appearance of a harmless move – pick up a role player for very little money, use the loan window to preview his skills, and add a little depth to a team in the midst of a rebuild.
Toronto FC’s history of reaching into the lower tiers of North American soccer has hardly been profitable - names like Marco Velez and Logan Emory immediately spring to mind, not flat out busts, but hardly as useful as hoped, though of course, trying to step up one’s game with a struggling club is never really the best way to go about growing.
TFC tends to cycle players downward rather than up.
And with Richard Eckersley in situ, pedigreed professional that he is, Bloom appeared to only be back-up, though one that would get some time given Eckersley’s recurring hamstring issues and occasionally fractious disciplinary record.
Eckersley’s contract however was always likely to be a bone of contention heading into the off-season.
Brought into the club under Aron Winter, though a Paul Mariner-sourced addition, Eckersley’s massive cap-hit - $210 000 base/ $310 000 guaranteed – was simply unmanageable as the club tightened its belt, jettisoning the excesses of the past in its effort to make the most of the stream-lined economy that is MLS.
Darren O’Dea’s mid-season exodus was a harbinger of things to come – his near half-million dollar paycheck was clearly too much for a salary-capped league – and Eckersley’s marginalization became apparent in the final month and a half of the season (following what will likely be his final appearance for the club in a 1-1 draw against Chicago), when he was repeatedly left out of the game-day eighteen, despite being fit.
That premature decision to sideline Eckersley opened the door for Bloom’s extended in-game trial.
The 25 year-old Marietta, Georgia-native made his first appearance on September 9 in New York and would hold down that starting right-back spot through the subsequent (and final) five matches of the season.
His first league appearance (after seeing some time against AS Roma in a friendly) was a tough introduction to the league and Thierry Henry provided a gentle reminder to Bloom that he was now in the big leagues - first Francesco Totti, then Henry (oooph!).
Just a half-hour into his debut, the right-back was made to pay for a momentary spell of ball-watching as Henry tapped a squared Dax McCarty ball into the net after making space off the back-shoulder of Bloom.
Henry has a way of making defenders feel foolish – he’s made a career of it - and his post-lean celebration only made it worse.
Bloom has all the attributes one would expect from an American footballer – size and strength, fit, the proverbial athlete – but he will have to be far more alert when facing down a higher quality of opponent.
In the above clip, Steven Caldwell can be seen to be talking to Bloom at the start of the attack, reminding him to stay alert and get tight against Henry.
Henry makes a savvy play, shoving the defender to create a bit of separation, and then holding his run for just a fraction of a second to exaggerate the spacing with Bloom focused on attempting to cut out the dangerous ball to the back post – those are always tricky situations for a defender.
But, as is often the case, goals are crafted by the little things.
Ashtone Morgan drifted a little too wide creating a gap between himself and Doneil Henry, Jeremy Hall then moved into the midfield towards the ball, leaving McCarty to exploit that space, precipitating the pass that exposed the defender.
Toronto would concede again and lose 2-0.
With the experienced Caldwell alongside him and a defender-turned-coach on the sidelines in Ryan Nelsen, that lack of awareness is a kink that Bloom can iron out of his game with a few more matches and a training session or two under his belt.
Nelsen kept his disapproval to a minimum post-match, referring to conceding, "… a couple of soft goals…" rather than singling out any particular player.
But it was a lesson unlearned that would find reinforcement a week on at home, when Bloom was again victimized, this time by Sporting KC’s CJ Sapong:
Bloom woefully misread the flight of Chance Myers inviting ball and allowed Sapong to get position on him and nod what turned out to be the game-winner in the 53rd minute.
Sapong is a constant threat in the air and while the defender must do better in that situation, Andrew Wiedeman’s half-hearted pressure – he backed off at the last second – on the cross was equally at fault.
Toronto would lose 1-2.
With losses in his first two starts, on goals that were largely, if not fully, his doing, Bloom exhibited the strengths he brought to the table, namely, going forward, in the next match, once more in Toronto against an under-strength DC United.
It was his alert play, first cutting out a pass, continuing to play on after Wiedeman was fouled, and then hitting a good ball for Bright Dike to volley for the eventual game-winning goal in the 67th minute:
Bloom was a threat all match, as TFC ran to a rampant 4-1 victory.
With debutante jitters out of the way, Bloom would not be at the forefront of the remaining three matches, as Toronto lost in Philadelphia and Chicago, before winning back at home in the final match of the season against Montreal.
All told, Toronto won two of the six games in which the right-back started, conceding just seven goals throughout – an average of 1.17 per match after conceding 1.43 through the first 28 matches (not too shabby of an improvement, though six of eighteen points is hardly the stuff playoff berths are made of).
So what to make of Bloom’s run-out?
Early troubles aside, Bloom managed to grow into a solid role, displaying a knack for getting forward, while shoring up his defensive contributions and at a mere $46 500, that could indeed be enough to see him take over the starter’s spot from the departing Eckersley, if not at least prove a solid role player from the bench.
Throughout his three years in Toronto, Eckersley was a model professional. Hard working, tenacious, giving his all for the team at a time of great distress – he will forever be remembered fondly for the effort he displayed, but too often it was in a losing effort.
One of the traits of his time that has been overlooked is how integral he was in the build up of Toronto’s play.
Think back to when TFC attempted to play out of the back under Winter, who was it that picked up the ball from the keeper – more often than not it was Eckersley.
Hardly the best exemplar, though good enough for purpose, was Toronto’s 2013 home opener against Kansas City – here is his chalkboard.
Eckersley led the team in passes (38), completed (27), and incidents - with nearly forty more (109 to 70) than the next most involved player.
And though his offensive stats (six assists through 72 matches – just six of his 23 shots on target) do not leap off the page, he was a driving force in the Toronto attack, inspirational, if not a difference maker.
Toronto has evolved over the past season, with better ball-handling midfielders (Matias Laba, Jonathan Osorio, and even Kyle Bekker) coming to the fore and perhaps they do not need that build to come for a full-back anymore and perhaps a less costly option come perform the decreased duty, while freeing up valuable cap space.
MLS success is built on getting more from less – harvesting potential from role players.
As Kristin adroitly noted in her 2013 Countdown profile of Bloom, Toronto acquired the right-back from Atlanta, the same place that helped develop Colorado’s Chris Klute, another previously unknown, who lit up the league this season.
Silverbacks Technical Director, Eric Wynalda, spoke mid-October on a local broadcast of a match and made mention of both Klute and Bloom, "We were really blessed with Chris Klute and Mark Bloom, but those two guys have moved on to bigger and better things. I’m going to try and negotiate to bring Mark Bloom back if I can," before noting, "We believed in him [Klute] and I think Colorado got a player who was ready and was hungry. Mark is the same way." [emphasis added]
Wynalda, who previously led upstart amateur side Cal FC deep into the 2012 US Open Cup, knocking out MLS-side Portland en route, is known to have a good eye for otherwise overlooked talent.
Plus he used to play for a club called the Southern California Seahorses, which is awesome in its own right.
That potential upside, along with his improving performances, was enough for TFC and on November 29, it was announced that the club had exercised Bloom’s option for 2014.
With Caldwell in place, Henry continuing to grow, Morgan having shaken off some of the troubles that saw him sidelined after a rough start to 2013, Bloom returning, and a handful of useful backups in Gale Agbossoumonde, Ryan Richter, and Jonas Elmer, Toronto has the foundations of a solid back-four.
In the middle of October, in a post at MLSsoccer.com, Caldwell remarked, "Mark is a fantastic young player who I think is going to play many years in this league. He has done superbly well. I think to get thrown into such a tough match away to New York was a baptism of fire for him and the way he handled that was just magnificent. He’s moved on from there and is gaining confidence. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing beside him."
Bloom himself recognized, when asked whether he had done enough to warrant another season with Toronto, "I don’t know. I can’t tell you for certain, but I can tell you that I will continue to do what I did when I first got here and that is working hard and doing my best to earn a spot," before adding, "I feel like I have proven to myself that I can play in this league."
The club has rewarded his growth with a roster spot, though whether he grabs the starting spot from the competition – currently Richter and possibly Jackson (who is not really a full-back in the traditional sense) – or another option is brought in remains to be seen.
But in the Bloom-Eckersley evolution a glimpse into the future is born.
This club has been far too short-sighted in roster building; the organization may have money to burn, but the team still must function within the constraints of the cap - trading in a $300K full-back for one that costs one-sixth that is a smart move, regardless of any potential on-field drop off.