With so much excitement already this off-season, it’s a wonder we’ve even been able to make it to this point. Kicking off our starting line-up (final eleven) in the Waking The Red analysis of TFC’s top 30 players from the 2013 season is a Canadian defender from Brampton, Ontario. A tall and powerful centre back with raw talent and endless energy, this individual has given us plenty to talk about over the past couple of weeks. Coming in at #11 in our countdown is homegrown talent and West Ham United FC’s newest acquisition, Doneil Henry.
While Henry has accumulated his fair share of both admirers and doubters over his four (and change) years with Toronto FC’s senior team, there was one thing that everyone who saw him could agree upon prior to the 2014 season. Doneil was huge. And in a good way. The young defender had bulked up over the offseason, which included a brief training stint across the pond with West Ham. And while most initially shrugged off and dismissed Ryan Nelsen’s suggestion that the Hammers (and manager Sam Allardyce) wanted to keep him at the end of his stay, a tiny seed had undoubtedly been planted- a seed that sprouted greater hopes and expectations for the young physical juggernaut expected to start in TFC’s back four.
With the introduction of Michael Bradley prior to the 2014 season opener, Doneil saw his kit number disrespectfully (mostly kidding) altered from #4 to #5. In what I jokingly tweeted was a clear protest of his switch to a #5 jersey, Henry proceeded to head out onto the pitch and concede an MLS-leading FIVE penalties in 2014, providing Toronto FC with yet another MLS record to be ashamed of. Fans were livid, and while few could deny the physical ability and positional awareness that Henry often demonstrated, his lack of both discipline and self-awareness in TFC’s 18-yard box prompted many to question his spot in the starting 11.
Coupled with the advent of another new young defensive talent in Toronto, Doneil Henry’s frequent defensive miscues led to him losing his automatic spot in the starting 11, and he began sharing time with Nick Hagglund. When Steven Caldwell went down to injury, Nelsen often rotated the young defenders, preferring to pair them with veteran Bradley Orr (if the lineup permitted) to minimize costly rookie errors. Toward the end of the 2014 season Doneil Henry also found himself out of favor with new head coach Greg Vanney, and by the time TFC wrapped up the year Henry had played only 1,802 minutes (21 matches) to MLS rookie Hagglund’s 2,088.
In terms of Doneil Henry’s comprehensive on-field performance, the defender did play some very impressive games in 2014 (conceded penalties aside). I can certainly recall several matches where Henry made the correct decision time and time again in terms of whether to get stuck in or stand off an opponent (his matches in the Voyageurs Cup competition stand out). When these decisions were paired with consistently well-timed and perfectly-executed tackles, it was easy to see why Henry would soon be Europe-bound. Henry’s dominance in aerial battles was also apparent throughout the season. While most of these battles won by Henry were in TFC’s defensive half, the lone goal scored by Doneil in MLS play (an improvement on his 2013 numbers) was also a result of his ability to use his head:
If Doneil Henry can improve his discipline to match up to his raw talent and physical ability, the possibilities are endless for the Canadian international. On that note, it should also be mentioned that while the conceded penalties seemed to be a step back in 2014, Doneil did not record a single red card in MLS play after accumulating two the year prior (in slightly less time on the pitch). Furthermore, Henry showed a willingness to learn and adapt over the course of the 2014 season, as Team Canada coach Benito Floro played him in a new role at fullback in international friendlies. While he still looks somewhat out of place trying to fly up the wing, Henry's efforts to learn a new position are indicative of the young Canadian's increasing maturity and commitment to improvement.
As a Toronto FC fan, Doneil Henry leaving the club is bittersweet. While the quick progression to the EPL of TFC’s first academy signing is a testament to good things happening in Toronto (I know, only spent one year in the academy, but still...), the fact that we will no longer get to see him in suit up in the backline, or witness his continuing development and progression, is truly unfortunate. As a Team Canada fan, I’m excited to see him reach such a high level so soon, and hope that it only furthers his career and allows him to develop in England over the coming years. Cheers to a solid 2014, Doneil- we’ll be watching and hoping that you crack the Hammers line-up when the time is right.