With a tentative sense of optimism surrounding the team right now let's take a look at what's brought us to this well, not as terrible as expected point so far in the season. Be honest now; you thought they'd be 0-4, didn't you?
Coach: It wasn't a huge surprise that Toronto FC chose a new coach once President Kevin Payne came on board; what was a surprise was that he chose a coach that not only had zero coaching experience, no coaching badges and perhaps the most shocking was still playing professional football. The announcement of QPR centreback and New Zealand international Ryan Nelsen as the lastest contestant in the game of TFC Coach Survivor gave the football world a bit of a turn. Although QPR had to be thankful for the increase in viewers from across the pond as TFC fans and players tuned in each week to watch their new coach.
So far Nelsen has the team playing more cohesively - this may not be saying much but anything is a step up from last season. But the oft repeated phrases from the off season and the pre season of fighting for the badge, playing to win spots and not giving up seems to have taken root. While the talent level may not yet match the effort, so far we've yet to see players going through the motions on the pitch as we did so many times last year.
Nelsen is also not afraid to use his subs to change the tempo of the game or replace a player that he feels isn't performing. Has he made a few odd comments post-match? Yes - Darel Russell anyone? But for the most part I've been enjoying how to the point he is about the team's performance and the fact that the Reds still lack quality. Players have been fairly laudatory in how Nelsen runs practices (very organized) and have praised him for his knowledge and experience. Having a defence minded coach can only be a good thing for this team and one month in I don't think that Nelsen has made any glaringly obvious errors.
Forward: Before First Kick there was much lamentation regarding the lack of proven fire power up front for the Reds. Danny Koevermans is still months away from playing, Eric Hassli had been shipped off to Dallas and the only options facing the fanbase in terms of where the goals were coming were less than prolific former Impact striker Justin Braun, Andrew "insert best finisher joke here" Wiedeman, newly signed trialist Taylor Morgan and never been tested rookie/new draftee Emery Welshman. Also on board was newly signed (literally the day before the match in Vancouver) trialist, Welsh striker Robert Earnshaw; a mostly unknown quantity to TFC fans.
Four weeks later, Braun is still recovering from a concussion and has yet to step foot onto the pitch, Wiedeman has yet to play and both Welshman and Morgan have only seen a few sub minutes. The true revelation has been Earnshaw and his 4 goals on the season - good enough for second in the MLS behind Mike Magee. It's not even that Earnshaw has managed to bag 4 goals to help lead Toronto to 4 points on the season but the way that he does it. Seemingly tireless each and every time he steps onto the pitch, Earnshaw has shown a willingness and the ability to be in the right place at the right time.
However, he has yet to score from open play from a move that TFC started - this is not to discount his instinct to pounce on opposition defensive gaffes and that stat speaks more to lack of service than skill. What is clear is that Earnshaw cannot continue to be the only scoring option for the Reds going forward.
Midfield: This is the area that sets off all of the alarm bells. Through all four games this past month the most oft repeated statement is the missing midfield. During the off-season and pre-season all anyone could talk about was the wealth of midfielders - an embarrassment of, well I hesitate to call it riches but there sure were a lot of them. Then as players were released or traded the numbers still seemed decent (even if the talent level was more of the average kind) and hey, Torsten Frings was coming back, they had signed a very experienced midfielder in Julio Cesar and didn't they pick up an exciting new Canadian AM in Kyle Bekker at the SuperDraft?
And then the wheels began to fall off - Luis Silva suffered an injury, Matt Stinson was injured, Julio Cesar was injured - seemingly almost everyone was injured! But then the death knell for many was the announcement of Torsten Frings' retirement from the game. With so many injuries and without Frings to provide the link from the defence to the attacking players, where would Nelsen turn? Not to mention presumed Frings replacement Cesar being released before the LA game without ever having played a minute for the team.
The less than overwhelming answer has been Terry Dunfield and Jeremy Hall in the centre, Reggie Lambe and Hogan Ephraim on the wings and John Bostock in support of Earnshaw. Both Ephraim and Bostock are new to the team and MLS, Lambe as we all know is maddeningly inconsistent, Hall's performance on defence last year is likely still giving you nightmares and Dunfield while solid is not the second coming of Frings.
What has been glaringly obvious throughout the first month has been the lack of play through the midfield; there has been almost zero build-up and play from the back. Every game has brought the same comments: lack of service to the forwards, no linking up, where the bloody hell is the midfield! While yes Hall has been better and not been a complete disaster and Dunfield always plays hard and can do some nice things, they as a duo are not the answer in the middle for this team long term.
The same can be said for Ephraim and Lambe - Ephraim has yet to have a real standout game and Lambe continues to frustrate (the LA game notwithstanding) with poor service and poor decision making. Bostock has had some decent moments showing off his fancy footwork but again, has yet to put in a complete game. The lack of service from the wings has shown in wasted chances, frustrating moments and all but one goal being scored either on a PK or from a opposition mistake. But that one goal? That lovely bit of work from Luis Silva and Jonathan Osorio in the LA game? That highlighted what having creative, attacking midfielders in the game can do. Those 20 minutes or so were some of the best seen by TFC's midfield this season and only served to underscore how poorly it's fared so far.
With long rumoured signings of someone (anyone!) from Honduras still not happening and now it would seem an unknown Argentinian is being brought on board later on this month; the slow makeover of the TFC roster continues. Added to that is a now fit Luis Silva and Osorio looking to make his mark and well, Dunfield and Hall's days as a duo are numbered. The team is begging for a fluid, cohesive midfield - hopefully we see one by the end of the season.
Defence: Long the Achilles heel of TFC, this season the backline is supposed to be different. With a very defence minded coach in charge, the Reds are expected to show a stronger spine at the back as former CB Ryan Nelsen seeks to rebuild this team and wipe out its reputation of being a leaky sieve and an easy mark for opposing teams looking to pad their goal differential stats. With Darren O'Dea returning and MLS veteran Danny Califf coming on board it looked as though TFC finally had a solid CB combo and Richard Eckersley could return to his natural position at right back.
While Nelsen did play around with a couple of different pairings in the centre during preseaon (usually employing Gale Agbossoumonde next to O'Dea) it has been O'Dea and Califf holding down the centre; and with the exception perhaps of the LA game, they have been pretty solid, both using their height and positional awareness to snuff out attacks. While not the speediest duo they make up for that with experience and communication with Bendik and the fullbacks. Both O'Dea and Califf are also not shy about throwing a tackle or getting their bodies in the way when needed; although both have shown a fiery temper and will need to keep their cool going forward as the back-up options are few and far between.
Ecks has clearly flourished being back at fullback and has been a bright spot for the defence since the season began. Showing a renewed commitment to defence - yes I know it's his job but tell me I'm wrong - with better man marking and tracking back after making one of his speedy runs up the wing, he's benefited from the change in scenery. Or perhaps having a defence minded coach and a strong CB pairing to work with has had more to do with his improved play; either way he's upped his game.
Ashtone Morgan is the nominal starter at left back but has struggled so far this year. He's often been pointed out as the weak spot in the back line which is disappointing for the Canadian international as last season he was seen as the opposite. We've not seen the same runs up the left or deadly crosses into the box and his occasional defensive liabilities from last year seem to be cropping up more and more. This culminated in a poor showing in the Montreal match that saw him subbed off and replaced by Darel Russell and then not named to the starting XI at all for the LA game (although this was likely a nod to his having just returned from international duty).
Either way, his next match will be a test to see if what was thought by many to be the back four for most of the season stays together. One of the worst things for TFC last year was a lack of familiarity in the starting XI and especially in the defence. Last Saturday's experiment with Ecks at RB and Russell at LB was pretty much an unmitigated disaster as the cohesiveness of the previous games was missing and Russell had a shocker of a game. With few options we need to hope that either Morgan returns to form quickly or that newest Red Ryan Richter can step in to fill his boots.
Keeper: TFC fans can be forgiven for thinking that there is some kind of curse on former (and perhaps future) No. 1 keeper Stefan Frei. After spending all of 2012 recovering from a broken fibula and torn ligaments in his ankle, he seemed poised and ready to resume being between the posts. And then it happened; he suffered a broken nose during a preseason game in Florida which meant that new back-up keeper Joe Bendik had to step into the fray.
There wasn't really an expectation level for Bendik as everyone expected Frei to heal, put on a mask and resume his place. However, Bendik had other ideas and has been one of the consistent bright spots the past four weeks. He has proven to not only be a good reaction keeper but has also shown a very good command of the area. Area of concern for Bendik is that while he can kick if a mile it's not consistently on target. But even with that the No. 1 spot is his to lose and we shouldn't expect to see Frei in net before the Voyageur's Cup unless Bendik falters.
Depth: While coach Nelsen has talked about the luxury of having a team full of fit players to choose from it wasn't until the day before the Vancouver match that Toronto even had a full team. Yes, there are some potentially talented pieces for him to put on the subs bench and perhaps even start but most of those players are rookies or still new to MLS play and cannot be expected to start week in, week out. This is especially important for the likes of Kyle Bekker and Emery Welshman - they have to be brought along slowly - last season TFC relied too heavily on Luis Silva and while the talented youngster will likely soon be starting on a regular basis he was run down by the end of last season.
Other bench players include the recent poor performing Darel Russell - Russell may be an option for Nelsen in the midfield going forward (as that is his natural position) if he can move past his terrible performance against LA. The others in Wiedeman, Welshman, T. Morgan, Ashtone Bennett, Logan Emory, Agbossoumonde and Bekker range from serviceable pieces to potential stars - but again, at the moment few if any are ready to start on a regular basis. So yes, more depth is at hand than has been in the past (especially the recent past) but not much to make you sit up and say wow, I can't believe that's our bench! But there is potential for good things to come if the players are handled right.
We all know this is going to be a long haul and no one expects them to suddenly be a new team tearing up the league. 4 points out of 4 games is as good as could be hoped for in the first month really. And we've seen some obvious signs of improvement; it's not time to plan the parade just yet but neither is it time to throw in the towel. I remain kind of optimistic about TFC 7.0 and can't wait to see what they do this month. So yeah; Come On You Reds!