March 29, 2013 - Major League Soccer (MLS) - Los Angeles Galaxy
WASHINGTON - The LA Galaxy head north of the border for their first road trip of the year against a rejuvenated and invigorated Toronto FC side that has enjoyed an energetic start to the season.
One of those responsible for the high spirits around BMO Field is new head coach Ryan Nelsen. A former MLS Defender of the Year with D.C. United, Nelsen hung up his boots this offseason to take over the head coaching position with TFC after a tumultuous year for the Reds. Nelsen's retirement ended a distinguished career that saw the center back win an MLS Cup with D.C. United before spending nearly a decade in the Barclays Premier League while also leading New Zealand to the 2010 World Cup.
But before he was suiting up for the likes of Blackburn Rovers or Queens Park Rangers or leading the Kiwis in the World Cup, he was a teammate of Galaxy left back Todd Dunivant at Stanford University. The pair spent two seasons together during their college days before Nelsen broke into the professional ranks, but he left an immediate an impression on the younger Dunivant.
"Ryan is a natural-born leader. He's a guy that is going to have his team be a hard team to play against. In college, his nickname was "The Rock" because he was so hard to play against and solid. He's a great person, not just on the field, but off the field," Dunivant told LAGalaxy.com. "He's just quality from top to bottom. You're not going to meet a better guy and in college, he was the best player in the country. He's top notch."
But how does Nelsen's trademark hard as nails defensive playing style translate to his new club?
"He's going to have his team playing defensively well by being a hard team to play against and difficult to break down, that's going to be the first key" said Dunivant. "Everything from there, he's going to build, but first and foremost, his team is going to be gritty and good defensively."
This strong defensive play has been quite evident so far this season in Toronto as they have conceded just four times in three matches. A far cry from the sometimes defensively disorganized sides that typified former coaches Aron Winter and Paul Mariner's tenures, Nelsen has built a strong spine at central defense with MLS veteran Danny Califf and Ireland International Darren O'Dea.
On the offensive side of the ball, Welsh International Robert Earnshaw has carried the offensive load this season with three goals as TFC have attempted to use their defensive prowess to create chances almost exclusively on the counter, using flank players like English midfielder John Bostock. However, this strategy could change as second-year creative midfielder Luis Silva -who scored against LA in the 2011-12 CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinals- has returned to training and may suit up for TFC on Saturday.
Regardless of who starts up top, it will come down breaking down Nelsen's hard nose defense.
"We have to be smart, you can't lose the ball in bad areas because they're going to be looking to take balls off of us in our defensive end and counter attack quickly," said Dunivant. "They have some talented guys in Earnshaw and Bostock. A team that is difficult to break down is looking to defend first and then counter attack out of that so that is going to be their biggest priority."
Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena has decisions of his own personnel decisions to make as LA are coming off a week-long stay in Washington, D.C. after a visit to the White House on Tuesday. In particular, Landon Donovan (extended absence), Omar Gonzalez remain question marks while Robbie Keane will not feature against Toronto.
But although the makeup of Arena's club will not be decided until kick off, they expect a battle from Toronto.
"They're starting off on the right foot this year and it's good to see," said Gonzalez. "I'm looking for a good sharp and intense game."
With Ryan "The Rock" Nelsen at the helm, that is likely exactly what the Galaxy will face on Saturday.
"There is new life in Toronto. They've kind of had to start over every year that they've been in existence almost, which is difficult. I think there's a sense of renewal now that Kevin Payne is in charge and Ryan Nelsen is at the helm, there's kind of new era of beginning there and it's working. There's a good spirit and they've carried it into the games and gotten some good results.