It was with a fair bit of trepidation that I approached this game. Without Alan Gordon TFC have not looked good this year so I wasn't really expecting too much, and when the starting lineup's came out, I really didn't know what to expect. There were some interesting lineup decisions from Aron Winter, with not even Gordon's injury stopping him from dropping Maicon Santos to the bench. That's really what Santos has earned after a lot of lacklustre performances, more surprising was the fact that Javier Martina was completely dropped, not even on the bench, as he's looked like one of the few attacking threats TFC have had this year. Winter explained he wasn't injured, it was just a tactical decision, saying in his post game press conference "I wasn't satisfied about him" and refusing to elaborate further when given the chance. This left us with a forward line of Alen Stevanovic in the middle and Joao Plata and Nick Soolsma on the left and right wings respectively.
Changes were made in defence as well, ones that were much less surprising and more welcomed by fans, Richard Eckersley got his first MLS start at Right back, and Mikael Yourassowsky replaced Danleigh Borman at Left Back. Adrian Cann and Dicoy Williams were partnered together in the Centre Back positions, and with Julian De Guzman just in front of them in a 'point back' 3 man midfield, the defence as a whole was much improved.
De Guzman especially had a very good game, but it was the newer players who were the real story. Eckersley and Yourassowsky both looked good at the full back positions, obvious upgrades over Borman and Gargan, and hopefully we can now say, 9 games in, that we have a clear first choice defence and we can get some stability at the back. TFC haven't had the same 4 defenders start consecutive games all season, but this group looked good, and with Nana Attakora apparently in Aron Winter's bad books, there's no-one else I'd like to see come back and disrupt this foursome.
The new guys up front did well as well. I'm not a huge fan of Soolsma, and he didn't have a great game by any means, but he certainly had good moments, combining a few dangerous and productive runs down the wing with good basic ball retention and possession team oriented play.
The real story to the game though was of course Joao Plata who scored a goal, set up the other and really provided the spark for TFC all game long.
Plata is very clearly popular within the team. If you watch the pre game interviews with Adrian Cann and Tony Tchani, when asked about Plata, they seemed to immediately burst into a grin. After he scored, the celebration in the South East corner was much happier than usual, it wasn't just that TFC had scored, it was that Plata scored, they were genuinely happy for him, not just for the team. Alen Stevanovic picked him up then as well as after the final whistle, and after Santos scored, he and Plata had a fun little dance to celebrate. Whether it's his age, size, lack of english skills or his personality, there's clearly something about him that the players love and they treat him like, not a mascot, that sounds a bit disrespectful, I'll say like a little brother.
Obviously, the fans love him as well, there's a sense of expectation when he starts running at the defence that something's going to happen, and people were willing him to score, in a way that's not felt with other players. After this performance, that feeling's only going to increase, personally I loved the way that when he was awarded the Man of the Match, rather than just pose with the trophy for the obligatory photo for the sponsor, he hoisted the tophy and showed it off to all sides of the stadium, as if it really meant something to him.
It was a deserved Man of the Match for him, in a game that TFC genuinely deserved to win. The first half wasn't the most thrilling or fluid performance, we looked solid at the back, but very rarely got anything going in the fiinal third of the pitch. The only good chance created was from a gorgeous tricky run down the wing from Soolsma, but his cross was wasted by Jacob Peterson who had a free header but ballooned it over the bar. Aside from that we came close a couple of times with long shots from Julian de Guzman and Stevanovic, but didn't really look threatening.
The main positive to take from the first half though was that there was no repeat of the slow starts TFC have suffered from all year, and that's also been a problem in the second half as well. Not in this game though, whatever was said at half time clearly worked as within 5 minutes, Peterson had forced a very good save out of Tally Hall and then Nick Soolsma made a great run into the box and drew a penalty.
Plata scored that penalty, and he drew another penalty later in the half when he chased a long ball and was fouled by Hall. Unfortunately the assistant referee pointed out that Hall got the ball first, which is true, and the penalty decision and yellow card were reversed.
The last 30 minutes or so, with Houston chasing the game and after they'd subbed in Will Bruin saw TFC have to absorb a lot of pressure, and Stefan Frei really did his bit to ensure the win with some key saves. The second goal came on the break, Plata putting recently subbed in Maicon Santos through on goal with a lovely ball, that was only bettered by Santos' clinical finish. The two of them did a bit of a dance to celebrate, the best part of which was that Matt Gold tried to join in but Santos shooed him away, as if saying 'back off Ginger, you are nowhere near cool enough to pull these latino moves off'.
Houston did pull one back to ensure a nervy last few minutes, but in the end it didn't matter, and TFC got only their second win of the year. The best thing is that this feels like a game that leaves us with more answers than questions. We appear to have an established and decent back 4, Plata's shown that he can do well at this level, and Julian De Guzman had one of his best games yet for TFC, all in all very satisfying.
This season's obviously going to be one of highs and lows, when it goes wrong it will go really wrong, as we've seen in Vancouver, Seattle and against DC at home. Fortunately we seem to be able to rebound from those defeats, and hopefully as the season goes on we'll have fewer of those disasters and more competent displays like we saw yesterday.