Toronto FC coach John Carver doesn't mince words when asked what he feels is the team's top priority before the 2009 Major League Soccer regular season kicks off in late March.
"I don't think you have to be a rocket scientist to work it out," Carver stated bluntly. "If you look at the defence … it's more or less the same people that we've had the past two seasons when we've conceded a lot of goals.
"Now, I'm not blaming the back four entirely for that problem, but we all know there is an issue in the centre of defence, so we have to address it."
Simply put, Toronto's central defensive pairing of Tyrone Marshall and Marco Velez was dreadful last season, and their inept partnership was a major reason why the Canadian club allowed 43 goals, one of the worst defensive records in the league.
The Marshall-Velez tandem was a complete train wreck, a fact not entirely lost on Carver and general manager Mo Johnston. Although Carver and Johnston have stopped short of pointing the finger of blame at Marshall and Velez, both have not hidden the fact that the team is actively searching for reinforcements and hopes to sign a pair of new central defenders to bolster the back line.
"I've been honest and straight with [Marshall and Velez] and told them to their faces that I'm looking to improve this team, [that] I'm looking to bring in a central defender — if not one, possibly two. So, they're under pressure. They have to realize the situation," Carver said.
Toronto acquired Marshall, an 11-year veteran of MLS, midway through the 2007 season in a trade with the Los Angeles Galaxy, hoping the Jamaican would anchor the club's defence and offer a steady and stabilizing presence at the back.
It hasn't quite worked out that way, though. Marshall, a physical player and a tough tackler, has looked way over his head. He's slow and plodding, lacks pace and is routinely burned by speedy forwards.
Marshall, Velez not threatened by competition
Velez has been just as disappointing.
Signed by the club prior to the 2008 campaign, Velez spent the previous six years playing in the USL First Division — a league below MLS — and it showed. The Puerto Rican struggled to keep up with the pace and higher level of play of the game in MLS and often looked completely out of his depth.
He also lacked discipline (he earned two red cards last season), and the fact he chipped in with two goals hardly disguised the fact that he was a defensive liability.
Curiously, Marshall and Velez thought their partnership was a success, all things considered.
"We weren't always paired together due to international commitments, but when we were, I thought we played well [considering we didn't] have a full year together," Marshall said.
"I thought we connected really well at the beginning of the season. Hopefully, we can continue that in the season coming up," offered Velez.
Velez said he is confident he'll be able to win one of the two starting positions in the middle of defence this season, and Marshall claimed he isn't bothered at all by the prospect of having some competition for his job.
"From day one when I came into the league, I've been fighting for my job because you don't have a guaranteed contract, so you have to go out and prove everyday that you belong on the field, so it's not anything different," Marshall stated.
An unshakable confidence in their abilities notwithstanding, it's clear that Carver and Johnston don't think Marshall and Velez are up to the task. Why else would the coach and GM publicly state the club is trying to sign two new central defenders?
One can only hope that they are successful in their search because Toronto FC cannot survive another season of Marshall and Velez; nor does it have any viable options.
Carver revealed that midfielder Kevin Harmse, who played a few games as a central defender last season, and youngster Nana Attakora-Gyan could see action in place of Marshall and Velez, but both would be stop-gap measures. Harmse's recklessness and propensity for picking up yellow cards and Gyan's lack of experience rule them out as long-term solutions.
Midfielder Carl Robinson also played in the middle of defence in emergency situations last year, and Carver declared he wouldn't shy away from using him again in that role this season.
Robinson said he would do it if called upon, although doing so would rob Toronto of one of its best midfield generals.
"I've done it before; I've done it many times," Robinson said. "John said he wants to address the centre of defence, and until he does it, I'm quite happy to play where I need to play. And if it means playing in the middle of defence, then I'll play there, but I want to play in midfield."