Off the back of another disappointing result – funny how quickly a six-match unbeaten runs turns into winless in three, TFC returns to action on Saturday night when they host the Houston Dynamo.
The failure to pick up the win at home on the weekend, as well as seeing a red card in a second consecutive match, puts Toronto’s recent form in perspective: MLS is a league where success is based on taking points on the road and winning at home. Thus the points accrued in New York and Chicago morph from good to underwhelming with the loss to DC.
But a week’s rest will have been more than welcome one as the club returns to the July grind, picking up their action packed month in preparation for a run of seven matches through the next three weeks.
Houston, while nowhere near as busy, have struggled through the start of summer, with one win in their last eight league matches, though they did finally manage to end a soul-sapping five-match losing streak with a draw against New York on the weekend.
Things may be bad on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, but experienced MLS observers know that opponents overlook a Dom Kinnear team at their peril.
Injured players have been regaining fitness and their internationals have returned from the World Cup, so Houston will pose serious questions of Toronto on Saturday – a closer look at this week’s enemy, the Houston Dynamo is in order.
With Kinnear having fronted the club since they moved from San Jose back in 2006, Houston seldom undergoes radical overhauls in the off-season, opting instead to make subtle changes as the seasons pass.
This year was no different, gaps in the squad left by the retirement of Brian Ching and the decision to not renew the contracts of Bobby Boswell, Calen Carr, Mike Chabala, and Cam Weaver were quickly filled by trades – acquiring David Horst from Portland, the SuperDraft – selecting Mark Sherrod and AJ Cochran, and loans – the first-ever intra-league loan, of Tony Cascio from Colorado.
But injury can cripple even the best made plans: season-enders to Sherrod and Cascio – each, of the knee, left and right, respectively, as well as concussions suffered by Ricardo Clark and Brian Ownby, have seen Houston’s substitutes’ bench regularly undermanned.
Added to that was the extended absences of both Brad Davis and Oscar Boniek Garcia, who represented their respective nations, the USA and Honduras, at this summer’s World Cup.
As the calendar flipped to July however, Houston have been able to welcome back most of those absences - aside from the two long-term knee injuries: Clark, their midfield general, returned last weekend, while both Davis and Garcia also resumed their place in the starting eleven, allowing Kinnear to field something resembling his first-choice eleven for the first time in months.
Their projected lineup for Saturday is as follows: Tally Hall in goal; from right to left – Kofi Sarkodie, Eric Brunner, AJ Cochran, and Corey Ashe across the back; Oscar Boniek Garcia, Ricardo Clark, Warren Creavalle, and Brad Davis through the midfield; with Giles Barnes and Will Bruin up top.
Ashe was unavailable last weekend, listed as questionable with a knee problem of his own, as was Jermaine Taylor, who left their match in Montreal at half-time. David Horst was forced off after nine minutes prior to the World Cup break in a match against Kansas City and has yet to return to the pitch, though he was on the bench against New York this past weekend.
With Houston looking to put a poor stretch behind them expect Kinnear to be a solid as possible at the back, taking note of the fact that Toronto’s threat is likely to come from pace, rather than size. Brunner and Cochran appear to be the fittest of the centre-backs, but if ready, Taylor would likely return; whether the same could be said for Horst, who was spectacular early in the campaign, but a step (or two) slower than the rest, remains to be seen.
Kinnear has tinkered with his centre-back pairing throughout the rough patch, fielding every possible combination; consistency has been a major concern.
If Ashe is still not available, Creavalle will likely drop into that position, as he did last week – or Taylor could do in a pinch, again, if fit – allowing Garcia to move in-field, opening up the right side for Andrew Driver, who has been solid, if unspectacular, since joining the club last season.
Alexander Lopez, a young Honduran designated player, has seen precious few minutes in his year with the club, though he did score a lovely chip against Laredo in the US Open Cup recently.
Up top Barnes and Bruin are the preferred tandem, though with the likes of Omar Cummings and Jason Johnson in reserve, Houston has some speed of their own to cause problems.
The Dynamo currently sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference on eighteen points from as many matches; three points behind TFC, who has played four fewer matches.
Houston’s season began well enough, winning their first two matches at home – 4-0 against New England and 1-0 over Montreal, before a downturn saw them go winless through their next six matches.
Losses away to Vancouver (2-1), New England (2-0), and New York (4-0), as well as at home to Dallas (1-4), were interspersed with a pair of draws, 0-0 at Philadelphia and 1-1 against Portland.
May brought a change in fortune, winning 1-4 at Chivas and 1-0 over Columbus before collapsing against Salt Lake, losing 2-5 at home. They would rebound with a 1-0 win over Los Angeles on May 17, before the aforementioned losing streak began with a trio of road losses.
A 2-0 defeat in DC, a pair of 3-0’s in San Jose and Colorado, before returning home for one final match before the World Cup break, losing a fourth straight to Kansas City, 0-2, on goals from Soony Saad and Dom Dwyer, who scored from the spot, despite KC losing a man to a red card after just 21 minutes.
During the pause, they would taste victory in the Open Cup – 1-0 over Laredo Heat – before dropping out of the competition at the hands of another Texas club, MLS foes Dallas, in the next round - 2-3 at home in extra time on a Tesho Akindele goal.
Fabian Castillo had given Dallas the lead, only for Barnes to level from the spot before half-time. Castillo then set up Andres Escobar in the 59th, only for Cummings to again pull Houston equal three minutes later, setting the stage for Akindele’s 98th minute winner.
When Houston resumed league play with a match in Montreal on June 29, their losing slide would continue, 3-0 on a pair of Jack McInerney goals (including that incredible looping flick-finish) and a Marco Di Vaio strike.
They finally earned their first point in over a month with a 2-2 draw at home against New York last weekend.
During that five-match losing streak the Dynamo were outscored 13-0, going 479 minutes with a goal, until they got off to a quick start against Red Bull, when Barnes nodded in a cross after just 39 seconds.
Bradley Wright-Phillips, the bane of Houston’s existence this season, leveled in the thirteenth minute, then gave them the go-ahead in the 72nd, notching his fifth goal of 2014 against the Dynamo.
But fortune smiled upon the struggling Dynamo, as a controversial handball call on Chris Duvall offered Davis a chance to level from the penalty spot, which he did in the 82nd minute.
While the losing and goal-less streaks ended, Houston still have not won in MLS in six matches – considering the two long winless runs, that they are within reach of the tightly packed Eastern Conference playoff spots is a measure of what they can do when clicking.
Toronto must prepare for a hungry opponent, buoyed by the return of several starters and eager to turn their season around in time for the second half of the MLS season.
Part Two, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses will be available early tomorrow.