Twelve through 20. Those are the numbers manager Ryan Nelsen harped on throughout the last week.
Toronto FC came into Columbus with a number of injury concerns, along with the suspension of captain Steven Caldwell.
Key starters were ruled out, including Jermain Defoe, Doneil Henry and Jonathan Osorio. Columbus, sitting first in the Eastern Conference, was not a middling team rife for the picking.
In training, we could see those guys, the 12 through 20, working on their game, getting ready for the test.
Bradley Orr and Nick Hagglund working together, defending crosses. Issey Nakajima-Farran working on free kicks. Andrew Wiedeman working hard as he always does during practice.
Make no mistake, this team will be powered by their stars. Like Michael Bradley, who after shining for the United States in Arizona managed to power Toronto FC with a thoroughly professional performance in the first half.
Bradley’s early goal gave the team something to believe in, which they haven’t always had in Columbus, where three points are often hard to come by. Jackson, Alvaro Rey, Mark Bloom and Justin Morrow were all fantastic.
Though still early, these performances should be expected from the guys who will be relied upon to be the rocks for TFC.
It’s players like Hagglund and Orr that Nelsen will need to step in and deliver when the occasion arises.
Orr, a veteran who has played for teams like Newcastle, QPR and Blackburn, was superb, providing the leadership required in Caldwell’s absence. A number of desperately needed clearances during harrowing times in the second half, when TFC nursed a one goal lead, were gigantic.
Maybe this should not be a surprise. That’s why the 31-year-old was brought in on loan.
Depth is one thing, but key performances from this club’s young core, namely Hagglund and Kyle Bekker, stood out on a blustery afternoon in Columbus.
Bekker filled in for Osorio, and looked impressive beside Bradley. The American dynamo excelled for his national team in an attacking role, something Nelsen must have noticed during the week. Bekker sat deeper, allowing his midfield cohort to probe forward. The move paid off almost immediately in Columbus.
But while Bekker was fantastic, it was Hagglund who had the day to remember.
“He showed why we liked the man and we’re high on him,” Nelsen said on his defensive charge, who made his first career MLS start. “He’s not scared of the occasion at all, he loves it. If he keeps progressing the way he’s progressing he’s going to be a very accomplished center back in this league for years to come.”
Hagglund was known for his physical gifts coming out of Xavier. The 10th overall pick put them on display this Saturday, but his mental strength and communication skills were a revelation. When Toronto FC clung to a one-goal lead in the second half, it was Hagglund, along with Orr, organizing his teammates when corner after corner was hurled into the box.
It was a special day for the rookie for more reasons than one. It was a homecoming for Stu and Sue’s son, who watched him excel as a youth in Ohio’s youth soccer system.
“It’s going to be fun to be back in Columbus,” said the youngster on Friday, when it wasn’t certain he would start. “It’s where I got my first MLS experience playing for their summer team.”
Thirty to 40 of the people who saw the 21-year-old develop were on hand to watch their man lead an impressive defensive effort for a team that has struggled playing the Crew since their inception.
“That was an incredible experience,” Hagglund said following TFC’s third win of the season.
The Reds have nine points through four games. For comparison's sake, it took them until the end of June to accomplish the same feat two years ago.
“Bradley Orr played great today, he killed it,” continued the rookie, using vernacular more in tune with his fellow generation. “I felt secure, he always talking to me, telling me what to do.”
The game plan focused on containing Dominic Oduro and Federico Higuaín, two of the Crew’s more dynamic players. While Columbus dominated possession, there were few threatening chances.
“We made sure that we weren’t going to let Oduro go in behind us, or let Higuain turn and hit a ball over us. We wanted to keep the game in front of us.”
And keep the game in front of them they did.
“To have nine points out of four [games], I’m obviously extremely happy with that,” Nelsen added. “Once we get playing together and get our combinations together we’ll be a different animal.”
There has been good, along with bad - the game in Salt Lake stands out - but the best is yet to come from players like Hagglund and Bekker, along with the team’s stars.
Keep the game in front of them, don’t get comfortable, and don’t look too far ahead.
Words to live by for Toronto’s Reds.