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Ashtone Morgan - Defensive Troubles or Room to Grow?

Only three matches in, but they've been unkind. Can Toronto FC's young defender rise to the new challenge?

A frustrated Ashtone Morgan. A sadly common sighting this season
A frustrated Ashtone Morgan. A sadly common sighting this season

Coming out of the disastrous 2012 season, there were plenty of concerns for Toronto FC fans, but one position that seemed to be locked down was left back, where local boy Ashtone Morgan had proved himself a more than adequate option, whose defensive issues were made up for by his attacking verve, and who would surely only continue to improve.

Sadly it hasn't been that way as Morgan has struggled; his defensive deficiencies cruelly exposed.

First up was the Canada game against Denmark in Arizona, where the Danes repeatedly found joy down the flank Morgan and Russel Teibert patrolled. That display could easily be dismissed as a byproduct of an unfamiliar back-line in pre-season form, but his troubles have continued as he has struggled to adjust to a new defense-first role under Ryan Nelsen with Toronto FC.

In the first game against Vancouver, after a surprisingly strong first half from TFC, the Whitecaps made a tactical adjustment that allowed them to repeatedly target TFC's left side with much success - their eventual breakthrough came from a long ball up the attacking right flank.

Against Kansas City his unnecessary barge on CJ Sapong could have led to a costly penalty kick.

And in Montreal, well, he struggled mightily, conceding a penalty kick – on a very similar charge to the uncalled Sapong incident - and suffered due to Montreal’s overloading of his side, again isolating him as the weak link.

That strategy forced Darren O’Dea to cheat over as cover leading to the centre-back being caught straying too far from the middle and opening up the lane that allowed Davy Arnaud to thread through Marco Di Vaio for the Impact’s second.

Morgan was removed after sixty-five minutes, replaced with Darel Russell - Richard Eckersley switched over to left-back and Russell took up the right-side.

He looked frustrated as he walked down the line following his substitution.

These deficiencies are not new; defending has always been the weaker side of his game.

Previously he’s been lauded for his attacking prowess, but this season, under Nelsen, he has not been asked – perhaps not been allowed – to charge forward with such abandon, instead required to concentrate more on his role as a member of a solid four-man defensive unit.

This is a new challenge for Morgan.

Unsure of when to stay or when to move he has looked uncomfortable and it has shown in both sides of the ball.

Morgan has been reticent to commit, lest he lose his defensive position; this hesitancy allows the opposition too much space and time within which to operate in front of him, while also negating the forward bursts that have punctuated his game.

Unsure of his duties, his passing this season – completing 73/114 or 64% - has been troubled, but more concerning is that he has conceded possession 45 times through his 3 appearances, including 16 in the Montreal match alone – turning the ball over once every four minutes against the Impact.

Passing alone does not account for all those turnovers, but a glimpse at his attempts from the Montreal game - successful and unsuccessful – shows that his longer attempts fail, where playing shorter succeeds.

It is a trend that was evident in both earlier matches as well and could indicate he is trying to force the issue, struggling to balance wanting to contribute offensively with maintaining his defensive duties.

It is no surprise he looked frustrated after a tough afternoon in Montreal.

However, fret not for the promising young man’s future, figures in isolation do not paint the whole picture – there can be any number of factors that influence these results.

The defensive roles of those in front of him – Reggie Lambe and Jeremy Hall, who have both been good, but are still adjusting to new roles – and the need to chase the match in Vancouver and Montreal play their part in those numbers, not to mention the strength and focus of the opposition’s right-sided attack, which has included, at various times, Andres Romero, Andrea Pisanu, Graham Zusi, the aforementioned Sapong, Daigo Kobayashi, Kenny Miller, and Darren Mattocks.

The next few weeks will make for interesting viewing as those in Toronto wait to see how Morgan continues to grow and adjust to these new parameters.

It has been a meteoric rise from the nascent academy to the national team for the young man, there will of course be some bumps along the way.

One thing that Toronto has sorely lacked over Morgan’s three seasons with the club is stability, a key to any player’s development.

There has never been a first-choice left-back in front of him to assist in his progression, while for the first time he will be part of a stable defensive unit and he has a clear delineation – both of power and of style – from those above in the club hierarchy.

This is an opportunity to learn; from Nelsen, from Danny Califf, from O’Dea, from Russell, and from Eckersley, all vastly experienced defenders who have many more matches under their belt and will have important lessons to impart.

Improving his game defensively, even if it hampers his ability to attack in the short-term, will make his offensive prowess infinitely more useful.

And, it should be remembered, he is capable of such growth. In his first season, his crossing was sub-par, but he worked on it, came back and has become quite proficient since.

Perhaps a trip to Qatar with the Canadian National Team was just what he needed – a break from the everyday, a chance to clear his head and to refocus for the next stage of the season with MLS heating up and the Voyageur’s Cup around the corner.

Perhaps a brief spell on the bench will do him well, providing a chance to watch the system closely before stepping back on the pitch. The acquisition of the experienced and versatile Russell provides the club with another option at right-back and, if the last half-hour in Montreal is any indication, Eckersley can feature at left-back.

2013 has been unkind to the young defender, but it's only just begun.