Toronto FC head coach Ryan Nelsen claimed the first victory of his young managerial career on Saturday, as his team came out on the right side of a 2-1 scoreline against MLS Eastern Conference favourites, Sporting KC.
There were plenty of positives for Nelsen to take away from the game; two well-taken goals from striker Robert Earnshaw; an exciting debut for new signing John Bostock, who earned the penalty kick that led to Earnshaw's second goal; a two-way performance from left midfielder Reggie Lambe, that saw the Bermudian team up with left fullback Ashtone Morgan to stifle the play of Sporting KC star Graham Zusi.
Most impressive for me, though, was the team's work-rate and attitude towards defending as a group. For the first time in what seems like years, Toronto FC has collectively found the will to fight for each other.
That work-rate and attitude must come from the head coach, who sets out the team's tactical formation and game plan. It is no coincidence that Ryan Nelsen, an excellent defender himself, has already had a big impact on Toronto FC's approach to defending as a team.
It started up front, with Robert Earnshaw and Hogan Ephraim pestering Sporting KC's two central defenders, Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin. Neither defender had a comfortable day, in large part due to the efforts of Earnshaw and Ephraim.
It continued in midfield, where Terry Dunfield and Jeremy Hall broke up countless attacks in the middle of the park. John Bostock and Reggie Lambe – the latter, especially – did an excellent job of doubling up on Sporting KC's wide men, Bobby Convey and Graham Zusi. Defending is not something that Bostock nor Lambe will ever be known for – they are far more effective going the other way – but their continued efforts to track back and defend will not have gone unnoticed by the team's head coach.
At the back, Toronto FC appears to have finally solved the central defensive mystery that has plagued the franchise since its inception. In Danny Califf and Darren O'Dea, TFC has a partnership that could blossom, if given time. While neither player has blistering pace, their positional awareness against Sporting KC was very good. It was more about being in the right place at the right time – something at which TFC defenders have often been found wanting over the years.
As a team, it is always important to analyze every aspect of a game, regardless of the outcome. Looking back on the goal that Toronto FC conceded on Saturday, the team will see that it was a simple lack of communication that allowed the visitors to score.
Late in the second half, with Toronto FC comfortably in front 2-0, Sporting KC was given a free kick just outside their 18-yard box. As Danny Califf was making his way back into position after being shown a yellow card for his involvement in the fracas, Sporting KC goalkeeper, Jimmy Neilson, took the free kick.
Before Califf was able to recover his position, Sporting KC winger C.J. Sapong flicked the free kick into the path of his teammate, striker Claudio Bieler.
Bieler timed his run to perfection, latching onto the ball and firing it first time past Joe Bendik in Toronto's goal.
A well-executed goal from Sporting KC's perspective, but entirely preventable from Toronto FC's viewpoint. Had one of TFC's two central midfielders simply dropped back into Califf's position, the defender could have slotted into midfield until the danger had passed. This interchanging comes through communication, as well as from a collective understanding of where the danger exists.
It might seem like nitpicking, but this is the level of attention that is required for Toronto FC to build on their first win of the MLS season. A 2-0 result would have been a fair one for TFC, who will take a great deal of confidence from their collective performance.