Going in to the game I wasn't optimistic, thinking Toronto FC's only hope lied in the 'anything can happen' theory, something totally unexpected, a burst of class from Eric Hassli perhaps. That theory was blown apart with the announcement of the starting lineup. Not only was Hassli out, apparently with back spasms, but Torsten Frings was also missing, and Ashtone Morgan relegated to the bench, both presumably with the upcoming important CCL game against Santos Laguna coming up, a decision I fully support.
No, it was a very workmanlike lineup put out there, the type where you hope to keep it close and maybe scramble a goal from a set piece. If that was the plan, it worked very well.
It didn't really look like that in the first half though, as Houston were all over TFC, looking very dangerous in their 4-3-3 formation. Dangerous passing, with attacking intent from skilled midfielders, with speedy wingers providing a wide threat, they oozed menace, probably making Aron Winter weep for his unfulfilled dreams for TFC if he`d been watching, especially in their orange kits.
TFC's defence bent without breaking for a while, giving up plenty of corners that might well have been suicide against a Dynamo team that is very good at set pieces. They survived them though, with the odd hairy moment, but with none of the breakdowns we've seen regularly over the years. At the other end, TFC had more life than you might have thought with no Frings or Hassli. Though they didn't really look like scoring, it was certainly a brighter start than in the past few games.
That lasted until the 20th minute when the skill and speed paid off, Oscar Boniek Garcia suckering Darren O'Dea out of defence and going round his tackle easily before playing in Will Bruin who waltzed right between Richard Eckersley and Jeremy Hall, and lifted the ball over Freddy Hall for the opener. That seemed to suck the belief out of TFC as the rest of the half was all Houston, but somehow at half time it was just 1-0.
Paul Mariner was apparently delighted, saying "It was the best we've played in a long, long time" and "I'm delighted with what the lads are doing" to general amusement on twitter and disbelief from Darlington legend Jason de Vos in the commentary box. It wasn't quite up there with the "best finisher in the modern era" quote about Andrew Wiedeman, or that "sensational" first game of his time in charge in Kansas City, or his obsequiosness towards MLSE in his introductory press conference, but it was another good quote to chuckle at. You've got to hope he doesn't actually believe all these things and is just saying it to protect his players, so if we can all just roll our eyes and not have to pretend we're taking it seriously then no harm done I suppose, another bit of evidence for the pointlessness of touchline interviews.
Also interviewed at half time was Terry Dunfield who said "I think we've got a goal in us in the second half." and "If we get a chance, we've shown we'll take it".
If the first half saw some entertaining football that suggested an imminent massacre, the second half was a different story. Houston's fluid play through midfield disappeared and it was all very scrappy and dull, Houston getting a few corners that TFC somehow manged to defend without alarm, a testament to Darren o'Dea's impact. He's not a great defender by any means, but he's a good competent player at this level, and sadly enough, that's a big improvement.
The longer it went the more the potential 'anything can happen' moment came into play, and it did, in a very unlikely fashion. A cross from Darren O'Dea after a TFC throw in met who else but Terry Dunfield completely unmarked in the box and he headed it past Tally Hall for the equaliser. Atrocious defending, but who cares? Dunfield said we'd score, then he went and did it himself! I'm going to start calling him Messier.
The remaining minutes were very nervous as Houston all of a sudden piled it on, but TFC held on for the 1-1 tie. It wasn't pretty by any means, and there was very little offensive threat, but given the lineup that was put out, that wasn't unexpected.
1-1 in Houston is a good result taken simply on it's own, one of the most impressive and creditable results of the season, it's been over 20 games since anyone took maximum points away from Houston, new ground or old. Add it into the context of the season, and well, it's now only 2 points in the last 6 games, 18 from 16 under Mariner, 21 points all together so nothing to really get excited about, though good enough to lift us out of the basement briefly before Portland took 3 points against Vancouver to send us right back there. All in all, nothing to get too excited about, instead we get to look for the little positives to keep us all going. An unlikely result, a scrappy performance with a more complete effort than what we've seen in the last few games, many set pieces survived, against a good set piece team no less. That's a start I guess, a step up from the last 5 games.
Both other times we've played Houston this season, it's been the start of a dramatic turnaround of form, let's hope that happens again as we have another of those 'biggest game of the season, lose and there's nothing left to play for with a long time left to play' games coming up against Santos Laguna. Put in a similar type of performance on Tuesday night, but with the added attacking flair of Hassli, Frings and Morgan, and well, maybe anything can happen again.