TORONTO - It's been a demanding opening to the MLS schedule for Toronto FC and new manager Ryan Nelsen.
Having taken a point from the defending MLS champion Los Angeles Galaxy last Saturday at BMO Field, Toronto (1-2-1) now prepares for the visit of Western Conference-leading FC Dallas (4-1-0).
Toronto's first five opponents currently have a combined record of 14-5-5.
Nelsen was disappointed but philosophical Saturday after watching his team concede a 92nd-minute goal to the Galaxy that negated a 2-1 Toronto advantage.
"We have to put in perspective who we're playing — that's the MLS champs, they're a very good team," he said after a chilly practice Tuesday at BMO Field. "The first five games of our season are all against top-10 teams. It's a good kind of valuation to see where we are."
While Rome wasn't built in a day, the early signs are good.
Toronto has scored five goals and conceded six in four games so far this season. At this same point last year, the team was 0-4-0 and had been outscored 9-2.
Captain Darren O'Dea credits Nelsen for setting the tone.
"As a character and a man, he's in control all the time," said the Irish defender. "He's not necessarily the type to go around yelling but certainly when he says something, he doesn't need to yell because what he's saying gets listened to. There's no crossing him, if you like.
"Some people think a manager needs to yell to keep control of a dressing room. He doesn't. He's got his own way but certainly everyone's really really adapted to him well and adapted to his ideas. And we're trying to get better at them. We know we're not even close to being where we want to be but certainly the strides forward have been fantastic so far.
"And that's a credit to the president (Kevin Payne) as well, who's obviously brought a good discipline and structure to the club and that's filtered down now into the squad, and we've got a very very good, strong dressing room now. But that needs to get added to and needs to get better but certainly it's getting better each day."
For Nelsen, it's all about fielding the best team. And while he has shown signs that he is ruthless when it comes to selection — soccer is not a popularity contest, as he has said several times already — he also clearly cares about his players.
But he's not about to wipe their nose for them. In the words of Raptors coach Dwane Casey, Nelsen expects his players to pull up their "big boy pants" and do their job.
The good news is the 2013 edition of Toronto FC knows what it is doing. Players are given clear instructions and duties. While that sounds simple, it was not always the case.
Nelsen is a thinker and planner, who probably plots his morning routine from getting out of bed to having breakfast.
Soccer players like direction. Especially when it works.
Nelsen's policy of pressure from the front, for example, has directly led to two goals from Welsh striker Robert Earnshaw, an opportunistic poacher with impressive wheels.
Joe Bendik has deserved every minute he has played in goal although one has to feel for Stefan Frei, a fine 'keeper who has been derailed in injury.
O'Dea has marshalled a backline that is still striving to find its best lineup. Fellow centre back Danny Califf adds veteran savvy to the team and energetic fullback Richard Eckersley adds plenty of heart and grit.
In midfield, John Bostock is still finding his feet but shows plenty of guile while fellow winger Reggie Lambe has been lively. Terry Dunfield and Jeremy Hall may not be the final midfield pairing but have given their all. Dunfield is a pit bull while Hall, who played defender last season, is athletic and committed.
Jonathan Osorio celebrated his first MLS goal off the bench Saturday, a moment that may have meant as much to Nelsen as the 20-year-old midfielder. Nelsen has backed Osorio from Day 1 at training camp, starting him in the first pre-season game.
Players notice when talent is given its due. Keeping Osorio and releasing veteran Julio Cesar, who counts Real Madrid and AC Milan among his many clubs, speaks volumes.
In Ashtone Morgan, Kyle Bekker, Doneil Henry and Emery Welshman, Toronto has prime young Canadian talent.
Hogan Ephraim is beginning to show his talents playing off the striker. The return of Luis Silva from injury gives Nelsen another attacking option. The sophomore pro was instant offence when he came in against the Galaxy.
Earnshaw is as polished off the field as he is on it. Everyone loves a showman and Earnshaw has shown off his post-goal somersault celebration with a twist (like the matador finishing flourish) four times so far.
And striker Danny Koevermans, while still not expected to be back until June, is looking impressive in his return from knee reconstruction.
Help up front is needed until the big Dutchman returns. If anything happens to Earnshaw, the attacking cupboard is not that well stocked.
Still the club is beginning to offer options in selection, something which has been missing in recent times. And players like forward Andrew Wiedeman, while waiting to see action this season, have bought into the Nelsen plan and have been ultra-positive squad members.
Nelsen sees progress but is still looking for his team to put together a 90-minute effort.
"We've got to be a bit better. We're slowly getting there," he said. "We've put in some 45 minutes together a couple of times. Now we're probably out 60 minutes in (against L.A.). Hopefully we can increase that a bit more."
NOTES — Dunfield limped out of practice Tuesday, holding his knee. Manager Ryan Nelsen played it down, saying he had only jarred it ... Earnshaw was given the day off for some physical maintenance.