Sunday, June 1, 2008

How Do You Like Them Now?

Defender Tyrone Marshall, midfielder Carl Robinson, and defender Marco Velez; they are three players that have all, at one point, taken heat from Toronto FC fans. However, as the season progresses, and Toronto FC continues to roll over their competition, fans have had little reason to question this trio’s performance.

Each player has played a key role in Toronto’s successful start to the season, helping make the Reds one of the best defensive teams in Major League Soccer. This is especially true at home, where TFC has only surrendered one goal all season. A quick look at Toronto’s previous eight games gives you verification of Toronto’s strong defensive play, with the Reds conceding only four goals since April 19. In that time, Toronto has also achieved six clean sheets. It has been a particularly rough stretch of games for Toronto’s strikers, and attack in general. Without the consistent play of these three players, who make up the centre of TFC’s defence, it is safe to say that Toronto FC would not be where it is today.

Tyrone Marshall, who is a regular for Jamaica at the international level, has garnered a reputation over his career for being a particularly dirty player. Take for example his tackle on FC Dallas’ Kenny Cooper, which broke the striker’s leg. It was a ruthless tackle that Marshall probably regretted making. However, this over-the-top physical play has been non-existent so far this season for Toronto, as Marshall has transformed into an imposing centre-back for the Reds. His dominating, yet clean, physical play, and control in the air, has given Toronto’s backline the anchor that was absent in the club’s inaugural season. He has improved considerably since the start of the season, a time when many fans called for his exit from the club; it may be hard to find similar opinions now. Marshall gives it his all, game-in and game-out, making multiple essential tackles at the back on some of the leagues most dangerous players. Marshall has to show that this play can become habitual, but looking at his form since early in the season, there is little reason to doubt that he is capable of achieving this. It has been a new Tyrone Marshall on display for the Toronto faithful, and his play will be integral to Toronto’s rise, or demise.

Carl Robinson has been one of the best, if not the best, player so far in Toronto’s second season in Major League soccer. The Welsh midfielder, who was one of Mo Johnston’s first additions in 2007, has given quality performance after quality performance for the Reds. Robinson has dealt with some of the league’s top players every week, and he has continually shut them down. As a holding-midfielder, Robinson has done almost everything imaginable. Those who critique “Robbo”, as he’s widely known, obviously do not understand what makes him such a vital cog in Toronto’s midfield. His distribution from the back is top-notch, giving the Reds a solid starting point for their attack. Wild tackles are rarely seen from the Welshman, as he continually puts in calculated, clean tackles. His ability to stay with the opposition, and angle the danger away, gives Toronto a quiet but effective shield against the attack.

Thankfully, Robinson has finally been allowed to play his role as a defensive midfielder, rather than being relied upon as an integral player at both ends of the field. Last season, Robinson was relied on heavily, and he was seen all over the pitch, usually trying to do too much. Now, Robinson plays behind Maurice Edu, and rarely moves from this position. He is where he is supposed to be. Robinson can also be seen as a teacher, with his impact being felt among Toronto’s younger players. Maurice Edu and Pat Phelan have both spoken about the Welshman’s direct impact on their development and education of the game. It is clear that whether it is on or off the field, Carl Robinson is making an enormous impact in Toronto’s climb up the standings.

Whenever the third player in this trio makes a strong defensive play, the chant now echoes around BMO Field: Marco! – Velez! Marco! – Velez! It is a chant that many would have dismissed early on in the season, when Velez was undoubtedly Toronto’s whipping boy. It was hard to find a more maligned player, and rightly so, as it looked like the Puerto Rican defender would never be able to make the jump from the USL to the MLS. His poor play still resonates in the minds of many fans, as it’s hard to forget his early-season blunders. Nevertheless, a new view on Marco Velez has started to surface among Toronto fans, as Velez continues to improve game after game.

The Puerto Rican’s passion is unmistakable, his effort is unquestionable, and his ability is starting to shine through. It has been hard to find a player this season who has left as much on the field as Velez. He hustles for 90 minutes, no matter what, using his pace to track down the opposition, and go in for the kill. Velez resembles a pit-bull at times, hungry to make his presence felt. Many will remember Velez pushing Columbus’ diving sensation into the boards near the North End Elite. It was a play that brought Toronto fans to their feet. His impact on Toronto’s defensive stability is indisputable, and surprisingly, the same applies to his offensive impact. Velez has scored two goals, with both coming off the islander’s head. His first goal, against New York, brought about one of the best celebrations of the year. The defender couldn’t hide his enthusiasm as he ran over to the sideline to celebrate with teammates. This would later be described by Velez as the highlight of his career. Soon after, he would lift the Reds over Montreal, and give them the all-important first win in their quest for the Canada Cup. Overall, there is no disputing Marco Velez’s impact so far this season. He has been fantastic lately, and he looks set only to improve.

So as the season continues to move forward, and Toronto FC heads into the summer months, this trio will maintain a key role in the club’s climb in league standings. They are all additions made by Mo Johnston, and he is looking smarter and smarter day-by-day. Those who doubted Johnston’s eye for talent should clearly be giving their head a shake. Add to Toronto’s backline the presence of rookie Julius James, who scored his first goal this weekend, and Olivier Tebily, who gave one of the best defensive performances of the season against Montreal, and you have yourself one of the most solid central defensive walls in the league. Maybe now fans will start to show proper respect for Toronto’s defensive play, and not focus primarily on offensive contributions.

Come on you Reds!