TFC game time again? So soon? Well, alright then, if we must. It's off to Houston this Saturday, for the 3rd of this season's games against the Dynamo, and things are very different from the last time the two teams played. That was back at the end of July, with TFC bringing a 3 game winning streak out of their self imposed mini break around the Liverpool friendly. At the time, it was a clash between the two most in form teams in the league, with TFC's 10 points in their last 5 games bettered only by Houston.
That game of course ended 2-0 to Houston, as poor set piece marking in defence and uninspired play up front killed off that winning streak, sending us off onto the current downward spiral that sees TFC now with the worst MLS record over the last 5 games (MLSSoccer.com seems to have stopped including recent form in the table, but Portland have 2 points in their last 5 and I can't imagine there's any other candidates) while Houston have 10 points from their last 5.
It doesn't look good, but having said all that, we now enter the straw grasping portion of this preview, and there's plenty of them for you. Firstly, they only have 1 point from their last 2 games, a 2-0 defeat to New York and a 2-2 tie with Columbus. Secondly, they're coming off a trip to El Salvador in the CCL on Wednesday night, so hopefully there's some fatigue issues there. Thirdly TFC's other game in Houston this season came with a similarly bleak feeling to it, coming after a feeble 2-0 loss at Kansas City in Paul Mariner's first game in charge, and the infamous TFC3 arrests from Sunday night drinking in Houston's Club Escobar. That game saw TFC surprise the crap out of us as they jumped out to a 3-1 half time lead. Sure they turtled their way to an inevitable but still disappointing 3-3 tie, but that was the start of that magical 9 game stretch of competence, only 1 defeat coming in that time, which was of course ended by Houston as mentioned earlier.
Can TFC once again confound the experts, get an unlikely result and kickstart another streak? Probably not no, but why not keep reading anyway.
Why not? Well those straws are really pretty flimsy ones when looked at in more detail. Houston's last 2 opponents, New York and Columbus are obviously better teams than TFC are, there's no disgrace in losing at Red Bull arena, especially as they beat the Red Bulls the week before in Houston (oh, unbalanced schedule, you're so wacky). They also got a 3-1 victory in CCL action to put an end to the slump.
The fatigue thing? Probably not an issue, I imagine San Salvador to Houston is a shorter trip than Columbus to Toronto to Houston, and that was only their 4th game since they played in Toronto whereas TFC have fit in 5 during that time, with 2 consecutive midweek games in there. It seemed a bit odd to me that TFC flew home from Columbus rather than straight to Houston, adding an extra unnecessary flight in there, but we've all seen what happens with too many free nights in Houston. Here's Club Escobar's Thursday night promo. No Luis! No! Also, here's a link to their Saturday night lineup, doesn't look too bad at all.
That 3rd straw, the 'anything can happen, it did before' one, well that's the flimsiest of all, the one that's always there, that keeps us all coming back time and again against our better judgement, but it's the one that's hardest to discount, anything could happen. It probably won't though, Houston are unbeaten in 21 home games now, and TFC have just the one win in Houston in their history, back in 2010 when De Ro smacked 2 free kicks past an old, confused and up past his bedtime Pat Onstad. That came after another miserable streak for TFC, the 6 game run that killed off Preki's reign (6 MLS games, with 2 ties in there, after a very good start, that's all it took!)so there it is again, anything can happen.
As for guessing at a team, well there's interesting decisions to be made all over the pitch, starting in goal. Was the debut of Freddy Hall merely a matter of resting Milos Kocic, spreading out the misery if you will to avoid too much TFC defence related trauma for one player? Will Kocic be back, or is he now on the outs with Mariner and about to get the Eric Avila treatment and be left to sit and sit and sit some more on the bench, while Hall gets the chance to prove he can be the back up to Stefan Frei next year? Hopefully not, I like Kocic and whether he's looked at as being the longer term back up to Frei or not, to drop him now blame him for anything this season would be unbelievably harsh.
Intriguing decisions await in the defence as well. Ashtone Morgan and Darrren O'Dea will definitely be there, and barring any issues from being kicked and repeatedly elbowed in the head on Wednesday, so will Richard Eckersley, but where exactly? Jeremy Hall came into Wednesday's game, so if he's fit to start, he may well take the Right Back spot to allow Eckersley to move back into the middle. I hope that doesn't happen, as Eckersley showed us what we've been missing on the right with a typically feisty performance, offering the attacking threat we missed while he was at Centre Back. Mariner though seems to really like Ecks in the middle, and Dicoy Williams really didn't give a convincing reason to go away from that plan, so as long as Hall can take the RB spot, I think it'll be Eckersley back alongside O'Dea.
In midfield, Torsten Frings and Terry Dunfield will be back for sure, with the 2 attacking spots providing the questions. Luis Silva did well, scored a goal and had Dan Dunleavy and Adrian Serioux purring after being dropped back into midfield late in Wednesday's game. Will he be dropped back again, allowing Ryan Johnson to move back up front? Johnson hasn't looked great in the 2 games he's played in the wide midfield position, so that's a move I'd make, but again Mariner seems to really like Silva up front with Hassli, so we'll see. On the right, Quincy Amarikwa impressed when coming on as a sub, but that's probably the best role for him, so it may well be Andrew Wiedeman again, or (I guess this is another for the 'anything can happen' file), Eric Avila might be resurrected from the naughty spot. I'll guess at Wiedeman again, and you know what, he wasn't all that bad against Columbus, he did some good stuff in the 2nd half, not much, but some, so it wouldn't be the absolute worst thing.
Up front it'll be either Silva or Johnson alongside Eric Hassli. Hassli appeared to let his frustrations get the better of him on Wednesday as Chad Marshall played him very physically, and he got little protection from the ref (which is a trend that TFC really seem to be vocal about, bringing attention to it to hopefully get more favourable calls). Hopefully that won't be a problem this time, he's never going to be a prolific scorer, but he's due a goal and due a really impressive one, and i think that's probably TFC's best chance to get a result of some kind here.
Houston are clearly a better team, and TFC clearly aren't on form right now, it's not like they're playing well, creating chances and just having bad luck. If we are to get something, it'll have to be something like what we saw in 2010 with De Ro, the star player coming up with a couple of cracking goals out of nowhere. If that can spark another run of good results, that's even better.
As unlikely as it seems, and as feeble a straw as it is to be grasping on to, anything can happen. That's about as optimistic as I can get right now.