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Know Your Enemy: Houston Dynamo - Meeting the Second

Oscar Boniek Garcia.  Too fast for cameras.
Oscar Boniek Garcia. Too fast for cameras.

A much needed week off and some menial All-Star-related distractions have come and gone, but now it's time to get back to work.

Fourteen MLS matches remain - forty-two points on offer; if anything is to be made of this season Saturday is the perfect chance to continue the fine run that saw the club finally lift itself off the bottom of the league - shush, don't jinx it.

Toronto FC returns to the pitch against a familiar foe - the clubs last met in Houston slightly more than a month ago, but they will encounter a much changed Dynamo on this occasion. Much of what was discussed before still rings true (Part One - Part Two), but five weeks can be a long time.

A closer look is in order.

Recent Form

Houston has played seven matches in the interim; one could be forgiven for interpreting a current six-match unbeaten streak - including wins in their last three, keeping four clean sheets, all while outscoring one's last six opponents eleven-to-two, as a strong period of stability. Granted results have been great - nine points in a week is nothing to snicker at - but beneath the on-field action, it has been a time of transition.

The protracted transfer of Geoff Cameron to Stoke City has cast some doubt over the composition of the eleven, while coach Dominic Kinnear, previously a staunch supporter of the 4-4-2, has converted to a 4-3-3.

Houston followed up that stoppage time 3-3 draw against Toronto - more on that later - with a 4-2 loss in Montreal at Stade Saputo. The Impact, having opened the stadium with a demolition of Seattle, continued that torrid form - until Toronto came in and showed them what's what - with Sanna Nyassi opening the scoring in the fourth minute.

Davis drew Houston level with a wonderful twenty-five yard free kick, before Davy Arnaud put Montreal back in the lead with a powerful header from a Justin Mapp cross. Will Bruin closed out the half, sneaking between two defenders, running onto a Brian Ching through-ball and touching it past a sliding Donovan Ricketts.

The second half was Montreal's,

Hassoun Camara reinstated the lead on the half-volleyed at the back-post after Arnaud had flicked a Felipe right-sided corner kick through the goalmouth. Patrice Bernier rounded out the scoring converting from the spot after Cameron was judged to have tripped the unstable - when he wants to be - Felipe in the box.

The match got chippy after that: the score-line, the disputed penalty, and the emotion of the offseason Ching-saga, got the better of Adam Moffat, who saw red for upending Felipe and slamming him to the ground, there may have been a little kick in there for good measure as well.

A week on, Houston returned home for a match against Philadelphia. Oscar Boniek Garcia made his debut for the club, as did the 4-3-3; both made an immediate impact.

Stationed on the right side of the attacking three Garcia was impressive, his low cross to Macoumba Kandji in the middle, allowed the Senegalese forward to dish out to Davis on the left to chip over Zac MacMath and open the scoring.

Keon Daniel tied the match in the first minute of the second half, before a fortunate refereeing decision - the first of many for Houston in the last month - decided the match. Davis sent a left-sided cross towards Ching in the box, Philly's Garfan was deemed to have barged the big man over by a ref making his fourth career appearance, and Ching converted the spot kick himself, at Davis' insistence; Houston ran out 2-1 winners.

A couple of dour 0-0 draws followed, at home to Chicago and away to Kansas City, to end a run of three matches in seven days. The Dynamo had the better of the play at home, flinging crosses into the box at an alarming rate, but were unable to convert any of the chances against the Fire. They were out-played in KC, but held strong in the stifling degrees of the midsummer heat wave in the Midwest.

Eight days later they returned home for what should have been a good test against Eastern Conference rivals DC. The match, however, was over before it began: Bill Hamid received a red card just a quarter of an hour in, upending Kandji in the box, in the first real attack of the game.

Left-back Corey Ashe played a long ball over the back-line for the speedy Kandji to run onto, he rounded Hamid on the outside, who leapt at him like a star-fish, catching the forward with his right leg bringing him down.

Hamid was off, Davis duly converted the spot kick, and Houston never looked back; DC wilted in the face of heat and misfortune. Bruin added a second before half-time, the Honduran, Garcia, again facilitating, as his ball over the top for Luiz Camargo led the Brazilian to the end-line, where he cut the ball back for Bruin to tap in at the edge of the six yard box.

Garcia added to the tally in the second half, his first for the club, uncharacteristically scoring a header at the back-post from a Andre Hainault cross on the right, before Ching capped off a 4-0 dismantling with another penalty kick after Danny Cruz's sliding challenge tripped up Calen Carr attacking the goal on the end-line.

Three days later a rematch with Kansas City, this time at home, was on the docket.

With Cameron's deal to Stoke in an advanced stage, Warren Creavalle manned the pivot role in the midfield three with which Cameron had been tasked.

The two sides exchanged goals in the first half, Carr got his first of the season, collecting a little pass from Bruin on the right-side of the box and powering a shot across Jimmy Nielsen in the twenty-fifth, before Kei Kamara leveled from the spot after Hainault twisted up Jacob Peterson in the Houston box, preventing him from getting on the end of a Kamara cross from the right.

The second half began with another red card, this time to Kansas City's Peterson Joseph - the Haitian Xavi, a nickname that must be used whenever possible - for a wholly unnecessary scissor-tackle from behind on Carr in the midfield, way out on the touch-line.

KC survived the pressure, even mustering a few limited chances of their own, before Carr capped his brace with the most unintentional of goals to win the match 2-1 for his side.

Carr began the play himself, dishing out to Davis on the left, he sent a hopeful ball into the box, it took a touch off the out-stretched leg of a defender before reaching a stumbling Carr continuing his run, attacking the far-post. Transferring his momentum to the ball, seeming to sweep it along with him as the tumbled towards goal - later review indicated he got decent contact with the right-shin, whether intentional or not - forcing the ball to trickle past the scrambling Nielsen at the right-post, to complete his first career brace.

Another rematch followed, again at home, but this time against Montreal, who offered relatively little by way of resistance.

Kandji opened the scoring after seven minutes, another of those near-post cut-backs Houston is so fond of, this time with Bruin playing provider. Kandji's initial attempt was blocked, but a follow-up hit Donovan Ricketts, then Zarek Valentin, before trickling into the net.

It should have been two-nil five minutes later, but Hainault was ruled offside, after converting at the back-post from a Garcia left-sided free kick. The flag went up in response to a Houston player in the middle flicking the ball on before Hainault arrived on scene, but it was a tight decision.

It definitely would have been two had Shavar Thomas not hustled back to deny Kandji a brace midway through the second half after the forward had beaten Ricketts to a long ball and looked to have only the empty net to contend with. Thomas did not concede to matters of fact and raced back to make a dramatic last-ditch tackle robbing Houston of extending their lead.

Houston would not be denied - Bobby Boswell, sporting the captain's armband in the spirit of revenge, leapt highest at the near-post to connect with a Davis right-sided corner kick in the eighty-fourth - and neither would Kandji - collecting his brace in the penultimate minute of regulation skipping past three defenders on the left and lashing a right-footed blast across the keeper, in off the bottom of the bar.

For Montreal it could have been very different: Lamar Neagle met a Marco Di Vaio corner kick at the near-post in the second minute, but his flicked header could only strike the base of the far-post, while a late penalty shout for a handball on Hainault was summarily turned aside by the official.

Some good fortune, plus two red cards and three penalties, have assisted the Dynamo in this current run of good form, but, one has to be good to be lucky.

Projected Lineup

The most recent injury report - at time of composition - indicates no injuries, so - especially given the week off for the whole squad - Toronto can expect to face Houston's strongest eleven.

The projected lineup is as follows: Tally Hall in goal; from right to left - Hainault, Boswell, Jermaine Taylor, and Ashe across the back; Creavalle in the pivot role with Garcia and Davis slightly further forward; Carr, Bruin, and Kandji across the top.

football formations

Of note, Ching is no longer first-choice in the attack, and is generally inserted into the action for the final half-hour or so.

Je-Vaughan Watson, Luiz Camargo, and Colin Clark are still useful pieces in the attack, while Brian Ownby has proven to be a tricky wide addition late in matches.

Last Meeting

The 3-3 draw that the two sides played out on June 20th began Toronto's resurgence to form.

Jeremy Hall opened the scoring, trapping an Eric Avila shot in the box, turning and firing, banking off both posts - first the right, then the left - before trickling in.

Boswell rose highest to meet a left-sided Davis corner kick seven minutes later - why in the world was Richard Eckersley marking Boswell? - sending his header back across the keeper to level, before a Danny Koevermans - remember him? - brace before half-time saw Toronto take a 1-3 lead.

His first, from some fine work by Ryan Johnson and Avila down the right, saw Avi play a tidy, low square pass to Koevermans in the middle for a simple tap in. Before Julian de Guzman - remember him? - placed a luscious cross from the left onto the forehead of Koevermans to place across the keeper to the far-side.

Houston came out for the second half intent on grinding back the result; Bruin, not to be outdone by the opposite big striker, did just that with a brace of his own.

Cameron - remember him? - sauntered up to the centre circle unpressured and picked a pass to spring Davis down the left. Davis cut back on Hall to tee up Bruin who was running into the box. He placed a right-footed effort firmly across Milos Kocic in at the far-side.

In the final minute of the ninety, some good interplay by Ownby and Cameron on the right from a throw-in saw Cameron float a cross towards the back-post. Bruin rose over Hall to nod it down and back against the grain to draw the sides level at three.

It was an entertaining match, but a tense one for Toronto fans; reliving that final thirty minutes, even in extended highlight-form, is harrowing. Paul Mariner made the mistake of removing both Torsten Frings and Julian de Guzman, two of his more experienced generals, and leaving a young squad at the mercy of one of the more dangerous and persistent attacks in MLS.

He has learned from that mistake.

Bullet Points

Dead-ball prowess remains Houston's primary strength, but the addition of Garcia and the switch to a 4-3-3 has added a level of fluidity to their attack, making them much more dangerous from open play than previously. The full-backs are much more involved in the build-up and attack these days, regularly whipping crosses into the box.

They are particularly potent at picking a long ball from the back for the speedier, Ching-less attack to latch onto and stretch a vulnerable defense. All the more dangerous is that the pass can come from any source - Taylor, Ashe, Boswell, Hainault, and the dearly-departed Cameron, have all contributed in this manner. Toronto needs to pressure the ball-carrier, regardless of where he is on the pitch.

Here's Geoff Cameron, and this link will take you to Andre Hainault showing his range.

Toronto will need to be prepared for near-post cutbacks, where one forward charges towards goal from the end-line and dishes off to another making a run to the near-post. Bruin is usually involved, either as scorer or provider, but Kandji and Carr can play either role as well.

Davis is in scintillating form with three goals and six assists in his last eight matches. Watch him, carefully.

Cameron's replacement in the midfield, Creavalle, as a still inexperienced professional, can be loose in possession and caught up, resulting in turnovers and good scoring chances. Get him.

Houston's defense can leave gaps of space at the top of the box for a shot from long-range. Look for Frings and Dunfield to station themselves in this area and wait for loose balls to fall to them.

Houston have never won in Toronto (0-2-3), nor in Canada (0-5-3).

Toronto won the first-ever meeting in Ontario in May of 2007 on a goal from Andy Welsh - remember him? - before drawing the next three encounters 1-1 on goals from some odd sources: Marvell Wynne in 2008 and Dan Gargan in 2010.

Goals from Joao Plata - remember him? - and Maicon Santos - remember him? - saw Toronto run out 2-1 winners last season; Lovell Palmer, now of Portland, scored for Houston.

Houston Dynamo 3rd Eastern Conference

34 Points 21 Played 9 Wins, 5 Losses, 7 Draws

31 Goals For 25 Against +9 Differential

7-0-3 at Home 2-5-4 Away

The two will meet for a 3rd and final time this year in Houston on August 25th.