Doneil Henry, 20, earning his keep in Toronto FC backline stacked with veterans

TFC defender Doneil Henry

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TORONTO — The development of Toronto FC Academy graduate Doneil Henry appears to be progressing nicely at both the club and country levels.

After solidifying a spot in Ryan Nelsen’s starting XI over the last several weeks, the 20-year-old Toronto native has now been named to Canada’s roster for the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup. However, life on the TFC backline wasn’t always so rosy this season for the emerging center back, especially with respect to playing time.

The athletic, 6-foot-2 defender started Toronto’s 2013 campaign pretty far down in the pecking order due to the offseason acquisitions of players such as veteran Danny Califf and heralded American youngster Gale Agbossoumonde, but his efforts in training and quality performances in matches has earned himself an increase in playing time. 

READ: Gold Cup: TFC defender Doneil Henry named to Canada's final roster

“I’m used to it by now, especially when they bring in players to solidify the position," Henry told MLSsoccer.com. "I don’t worry about that. I just keep playing my game knowing that eventually I will get my chance. I’ve got it now and I just want to keep working hard.”

While the addition of more experienced defenders has meant that Henry had to wait for his playing opportunities, the Canadian international has always looked at the additions of veteran defenders Califf, Darren O’Dea, and Steven Caldwell as an opportunity to learn and also test himself against players who have excelled at the highest levels.

Henry has also been quick to grasp the opportunity inherent in playing for a head coach who was playing his position in the English Premier League only a number of months ago.

“The best part about Ryan being my coach is that he played my position,” Henry said. “He gives me a lot of feedback and always tells me what I am doing right and what I am doing wrong. I have a lot of respect for him and I take his criticisms to improve my game and get better.

“Steven Caldwell has also been really great for me so far,” Henry added. “He is a tremendous leader and a great communicator. I’m trying to add that to my game and trying to be a bit more vocal and also play a lot more simple.”

One constant during Toronto’s improved defensive play in recent weeks has been the central defense pairing of Henry and Caldwell, with both the youngster and the experienced veteran quick to express their admiration for each other.

READ: Nelsen pleased with scoreless draw in Houston

“I’m very excited for the boy,” Caldwell told MLSsoccer.com. “He is a fantastic lad. I’ve got a good friendship with him already. I do think he is an outstanding talent. The improvement I have seen from him over four or five weeks has been incredible. He has all the attributes to be top class player.”

“Steven is the anchor of the backline,” Henry added. “From the first training session he came in and he was a presence on the backline.”

With the Gold Cup on the horizon and Toronto delivering improved results in recent weeks, Henry is seeing his career progressing nicely, but also knows that he still has plenty to learn as a player who is still very young for the central defender position.

“Once you think you know everything and you stop learning, you prevent yourself from becoming a better player. I try to learn something every day and take what I can from the veterans on the team.”