Missing five players who would ordinarily be in the starting lineup, Toronto FC's squad depth was tested against the Colorado Rapids on Saturday. No Jermain Defoe and no Michael Bradley meant that two of the league's premier players were unavailable for Toronto, providing Dwayne De Rosario and Kyle Bekker with opportunities to fill in. Tactically, head coach Ryan Nelsen again chose to employ his favoured 4-4-2 formation.
The Colorado Rapids lined up with two changes to their 4-4-2 diamond midfield lineup that was successful against the Vancouver Whitecaps last weekend; Kamani Hill was replaced by former TFC midfielder, Nick LaBrocca, and Edson Buddle replaced Deshorn Brown up top.
This game was a big test for Toronto FC, given the quality and quantity of players that were unavailable. But despite losing the game 1-0 to an Edson Buddle goal, TFC acquitted themselves quite well.
Defensively, the back four looked as solid as it ever has. Bradley Orr slotted into Doneil Henry's position and looked comfortable and composed alongside Steven Caldwell, who was excellent. Mark Bloom had another very solid game at right fullback, reaffirming Ryan Nelsen's belief that he can be the solution for that position.
With the signings of Defoe and Bradley getting all of the headlines this offseason, the acquisition of Justin Morrow flew under the radar. However, one could argue that his performances have been a big factor in TFC's solid start to the season. No longer do opponents view Toronto's left flank as a free runway for opposing wingers and fullbacks to cross the ball at will. Morrow is shutting things down nicely, and while he doesn't have the same desire to get forward as his predecessor, Ashtone Morgan, Morrow does what all good defenders should do first - defend.
In midfield, there were concerns that the absence of Bradley - who has been behind everything good that TFC has done to start the season - would have a dramatic impact on Toronto's ability to compete against a slick Colorado side. Those concerns were alleviated by the performance of Canadian international, Kyle Bekker.
Drafted third overall last season, Bekker's rookie year was not what he would have hoped. He struggled to find playing time, and in Ryan Nelsen's opinion, had a tough time making the transition from college soccer star to reliable professional. Bekker's performances over the last two games (he started alongside Bradley in TFC's 2-0 win over Columbus the previous week) will go some way towards convincing Nelsen that Bekker's professional career is ready to take off.
The midfielder's passing was crisp and precise, and his positional awareness and defensive work - while not his strongest assets - were much improved over last season. One of Bekker's strengths is his set piece delivery, and on two occasions he rattled the woodwork with direct free kicks.
Bekker's first effort in the 76th minute struck the base of the right post, and was just inches away from opening the scoring. The game turned little more than a minute later, as Colorado scored the only goal of the game.
Toronto was solid defensively throughout the game, but got caught by a well-delivered ball to the back post for Dillon Serna. The youngster mis-hit a strike across goal, and the ensuing scramble saw the ball land at the feet of 2013 MLS Rookie of the Year, Dillon Powers, just inside the penalty area.
At this stage, Toronto was well positioned to deal with Powers. There was lateral pressure coming from both Bekker and Issey Nakajima-Farran, with Mark Bloom directly in front. But Powers bumbled the ball past the challenge of Bloom, clearing room for a shot on goal.
As a defender, one must prioritize threats on goal. The nearest defender must close down anyone with time and space to shoot inside the penalty area. The other defenders must then adjust to cover the next immediate threats.
Steven Caldwell read the situation well, and as his momentum was in the direction of Powers, Caldwell left Edson Buddle to block the shot from Powers. It was a calculated risk from Caldwell, but it was the correct decision.
Edson Buddle did what all good strikers do - he created space for himself in the penalty area by simply holding his run outside the six-yard box. The covering defender, Bradley Orr, is in the correct defensive position, as he also had to be able to intercept a ball across the six-yard box to Deshorn Brown, who was lurking at the far post. Buddle knew that if Powers could cut the ball back, he would have a shot on goal. When Powers' cut back was successful, Orr immediately attempted to block Buddle's shot - as did TFC goalkeeper, Julio Cesar - but Buddle's effort slid under the keeper and into the back of the net.
Apart from Bloom getting beaten by Powers just inside the penalty area, TFC defended this situation exactly as they should have. Unfortunately on this occasion, Colorado's quality inside the penalty area was simply too good.
I have been impressed with Colorado over the last two games, including a 2-1 come-from-behind victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps last week. José Mari looks like a fantastic addition to their midfield, and they move the ball around very well. They can over-narrow their midfield diamond at times, and exploiting the resulting space in wide areas will certainly be a key feature to focus on for any future opponents.
Kyle Bekker put in a very solid performance, which will do his confidence a world of good. If he can continue to improve his positional awareness and general defensive responsibility, he will be a very valuable asset in Nelsen's rejuvenated squad.
The back four looked comfortable for most of the game - no mean feat, as Buddle and Gabriel Torres (as well as substitute, Deshorn Brown) offer a stern test. There were concerns going into the season about TFC's depth at centre back, but Bradley Orr proved that, while not his preferred position, he is more than capable of providing a solid alternative if the situation arises.
Perhaps it can be put down to unfamiliarity, but the partnership of Dwayne De Rosario and Gilberto didn't click. De Rosario is usually very tidy in possession, but far too often conceded the ball or gave it away through miscommunication with teammates. With options up front currently few and far between, this is a partnership that Nelsen will need to work if TFC is to be competitive in the absence of Jermain Defoe.
The playing surface was infinitely better than it was back in March, when TFC defeated DC United in their home opener. (Credit to the BMO Field ground staff for working miracles during Toronto's harsh weather.) But it still didn't lend itself to a slick, free-flowing passing game - something that both teams will prefer when the surface undoubtedly improves.
The Star Man
Few would argue that Bekker is deserving of a mention (which he is), but for me, Steven Caldwell put in an outstanding effort at the back. His distribution was precise, his positional awareness was superb, and time and time again he snuffed out dangerous situations before they could develop into goal scoring situations for Colorado.