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Spotlight turns to Toronto FC's young defenders in stern test against DC United

Gale Agbossoumonde

Photo Credit: 
USA Today Sports

TORONTO – While the suspension of head coach Ryan Nelsen for Toronto FC’s match against D.C. United has prompted the lion’s share of the headlines in the lead up to Saturday’s fixture (1 pm ET; MLS Live), the Reds could be hurt more by the suspension of defender Steven Caldwell.

The TFC captain and backline anchor earned a straight red for a hard tackle in the latter stages of Toronto’s 2-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City last weekend, meaning the coaching staff will now look to 21-year-old Gale Agbossoumonde and 20-year-old Doneil Henry to take up the defensive mantle against Dwayne De Rosario and company.

Neither of Toronto’s young central defenders appears to be overly fazed by the prospect of going into battle without arguably Toronto’s most important player.

“Steven is obviously a tremendous leader on the backline,” Henry told MLSsoccer.com. “Hopefully Gale and I as young center backs can put in a good shift against D.C. on Saturday. I’m not worried because Steven has taught both Gale and [me] well. Going into the game, we just have to keep focused and stick to what we have been doing in training.”

Agbossoumonde added: “It is definitely a big loss to not have Steven out there. He helps us a lot in games, especially with his communication. Doneil is not as vocal as Steven is, but I’ve played with Doneil in reserve games and we were good together and we know each other well.”

While Nelsen has generally preferred a central defense duo made up of one veteran defender and one of Toronto's athletic young developing center backs this season, the gaffer admitted that he is excited to see what his two talented youngsters can do playing together in a league fixture.

“It is kind of one of those ones where you look forward to seeing the young ones play,” Nelsen said. “You have a 20-year-old and a 21-year-old, and they will be tested playing together. This is a big opportunity for them to show that they are among the [Nos.] 1, 2 and 3 center backs at this club and to show where they belong in that order.”

With Nelsen having recently described Toronto’s remaining matches as a type of extended preseason, he admitted that the absence of key players does present something of a silver lining. He said it allows him to further evaluate players on his existing squad to determine his needs for next season.

“That’s life, and Steven will miss games next year as well,” Nelsen said. “You have to look at all the worst-case scenarios just as much as the best-case scenarios.”

Nelsen also added that their starting striker Robert Earnshaw and two starting midfielders, Matias Laba and Jonathan Osorio, are also unavailable against D.C.

"We’re a bit thin in some areas, but it will be good to see other guys step up,” he said.

As for Henry, he isn’t the least bit focused on outperforming a player he has been competing with for minutes for pretty much the entirety of the season.

“It’s been friendly competition between us because Gale and I both want to start,” Henry said. “He has been the one to push me all the time, with me knowing that he could take my spot.”