TFC continues to build its depth, with the lesser lights proving capable when called into action.TORONTO - For everyone involved with Toronto FC, this season has been a learning experience.
The fans have had to learn to extend their patience as a rebuilding squad shows small signs of righting the ship. They've also had to learn the names of yet another slew of incoming players, as head coach Ryan Nelsen has brought in numerous reinforcements for a team that he himself admits is still nowhere near the finished product.
For the players, they've had to learn Nelsen's "defend to attack" high pressure tactics, which have so far kept TFC in games that in years past would have been blowouts for the opposition.
In addition, Nelsen's charges have had to learn - the hard way, for some - that no player is safe in his role. Assumed starters have been usurped by previously unknowns, as the neophyte head coach imposes a culture of fighting for everything - be it points in the standings or playing time on the pitch.
The message is being heard loud and clear.
"Coach is pretty fair, he doesn't really go based on your résumé," said defender Gale Agbossoumonde, who has stepped into Toronto's starting lineup after coming into the team as a backup to the established central defensive pairing of Danny Califf and Darren O'Dea.
"If you play well, he plays [you]," he added.
The young centre back played well enough when covering for Califf's flu-induced absence two weeks ago that he remains pencilled in as O'Dea's partner for the foreseeable future. This despite Califf's full recovery from the ailment that sent him to the sidelines.
It's not just the big defender nicknamed 'Boss' that has benefitted by Nelsen's play-by-merit selection tactics. The most obvious example of a player solidifying a starting job while covering for an injured teammate is Joe Bendik, the former Portland Timbers backup goalkeeper who stepped into Stefan Frei's spot in the preseason while Frei recovered from a broken nose.
Bendik has grabbed the no.1 job with both hands in the early going, with his stellar shot-stopping ability causing heads to turn league-wide. For his part, Nelsen will let Bendik keep the coveted stater's role until either he does something to lose it or Frei forces the issue in training.
It hasn't happened yet, however. It's something that veterans like Frei and Califf will have to deal with in the new culture that Nelsen and team president Kevin Payne have imposed.
"That's the brutal reality of professional sports, but the way Danny's been training at the moment's been great," Nelsen said of Califf after a practice session earlier this week. "You can only go two ways when things like this happen. You can get the sulks or you can puff your chest out and try to get better each day, and that's what Danny's doing.
"That's what we try to challenge all the players here to [do]."
It's not always injury replacements that are stepping up to the task, either. Sometimes - as in the case of Justin Braun, who missed a chunk of preseason with concussion-like symptoms and was eased back into the mix - it's just a matter of making the most of an opportunity.
Against FC Dallas two weeks ago, Braun was inserted into the match with Toronto down two goals. His energy and physicality up front caused havoc for the Dallas defence, and Braun was the catalyst for a comeback by contributing a goal and an assist.
The next game, in Philadelphia, Braun started and played 90 minutes.
"It's always good when you're in that starting eleven, but I'm not going to take anything for granted," Braun said, echoing the attitude that Nelsen covets from his players. "I'm going to keep coming out here every day and working hard on the training field and hopefully keep that spot and do whatever I can to help this team earn points."
'Take nothing for granted' should be the slogan for the 2013 edition of Toronto FC, if it isn't already.
"I think that's kind of the identity of this team," said recently signed utility man Ryan Richter, who was called into action against the Union last weekend after Darel Russell - himself a backup - went down injured early. "We're going to go out there and we're going to fight and no matter who gets thrown in the game, we're going to fight for a win. That's really what's gotten us improved this year, so far."
As the season gets into the inevitable grind and more players start going down to injury or loss of form, TFC's new focus on squad rotation and internal competition will serve to keep everyone sharp and ready to go at a moment's notice.
It's already been shown that players will be thrust into games without much notice, so keeping everyone at their best is a tricky balancing act that Nelsen seems to have pulled off a little over a month into the job.
Of course, there is still a ton of season left to play, but the early returns look good.