Another match on the road, another disappointing result - though this time with a hard-earned point in tow.
Toronto FC returned home from a 1-1 draw in Philadelphia and will face a new foe on Saturday – the Houston Dynamo.
Much of last season was difficult to watch for folks in Toronto, but, of the more palatable matches, a pair of draws away to Houston standout.
Now, much has been made of the Dynamo’s historic home form – an unbeaten streak that stretches back to 2011 (thirty-five in all competitions – surpasses record - and twenty-nine in MLS – to tie Salt Lake’s tally).
The road, however, is an entirely different beast.
That said there is no doubt that Toronto will be hard-pressed against a formidable opponent. The schedule has been unkind to the Reds, or perhaps, the league is simply getting better; either way, a closer look at the enemy is in order.
Several familiar faces have departed - Geoff Cameron, midway through last season (bound for Stoke City of the EPL); Andre Hainault too is gone (Ross County of the SPL); Macoumba Kandji, Colin Clark, and Je-Vaughan Watson – the Greek second division, LA Galaxy, and FC Dallas, respectively – but much of the core remains in place.
After flirting with a 4-3-3 last season, head coach Dominic Kinnear has reverted back to his tried and tested 4-4-2 this season, with a diamond four in the middle.
There is one major question mark hanging over the lineup heading into the weekend - the fitness of one Oscar Boniek Garcia.
The dynamic Honduran midfielder has missed their last two matches with Achilles tendonitis; with injury reports being what they are, his inclusion will likely not be determined until later in the week.
Assuming his absence continues, Houston will likely trot out a starting eleven consistent with their last few outings.
That projected lineup is as follows: Tally Hall between the posts, from right to left, across the back-line Kofi Sarkodie, Bobby Boswell, Jermaine Taylor, and Corey Ashe; Adam Moffat at defensive midfield, with Andrew Driver – in place of Garcia, Ricardo Clark, and Brad Davis across the middle; Giles Barnes paired, though playing slightly in the pocket behind, Will Bruin up top.
Should Garcia be fit he will likely replace Driver on the right of midfield, though Driver has done fairly well in his quick adjustment to MLS having only joined on a season-long loan in February from Hearts of Midlothian in Scotland.
The other major off-season acquisition, Omar Cummings, formerly of Colorado, is still working his way into the new side and recovering from injury concerns, as is the man he was intended to supplement, Calen Carr, who is still dealing with the knee injury that forced him out of the MLS Cup Final last season.
The talismanic Brian Ching re-signed for another campaign, fulfilling duel roles as substitute striker and coach; Warren Creavalle continues his development as a professional, often appearing as a right-sided attacker, either in midfielder or at full-back.
Cam Weaver reprises his role as hard-working striker available from the bench, as does Luiz Camargo, who is more a central midfield attacking option, while speedy draft pick, Jason Johnson, has yet to see significant minutes.
Much has been made of their impressive home form – they’ve never lost a competitive fixture at BBVA Compass Stadium since it opened last May, to continue a streak that began with their last home loss on June 18th, 2011 – but their travels have been a different story altogether.
This season, they have lost both of their league journeys – to Dallas and Portland – as well as the away leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal tie with Santos Laguna, and last season they collected a measly fourteen points on their travels.
Saturday begins a run that sees six of their next nine matches away from those comforts of home and will prove a real test of their mettle – that stretch, neatly enough, ends with a meeting with TFC in Texas.
Their 3-2 loss in Dallas during MLS Rivalry Week was controversial; with Kenny Cooper’s winning goal appearing to have been controlled by the arm, but PRO – the professional referee’s organization – deemed the play clean, as the striker did not intentionally seek an advantage.
Dallas rolled out to a shocking two-goal lead with goals a minute apart, both from set-pieces as George John’s pressure – more accurately, his back - forced Bobby Boswell’s attempted clearing header into the goal on a Michel free-kick. Andrew Jacobson added the second from a corner kick, outmuscling Rico Clark to maintain his position at the near-post.
Houston would claw back with a pair four minutes apart – Driver taking advantage of some hard work by Sarkodie, who picked the pocket Michel near the end-line and found the English-born, but Scottish-qualified, Scotsman at the top of the box for a left-footed finish in off the underside of the bar.
Davis added the second, pouncing on a low Weaver cross that was spilled by Dallas keeper, Raul Fernandez.
Cooper’s collection of a stoppage-time Michel cross proved the difference, much to the chagrin of Kinnear who bemoaned the state of divers and cheats in the game post-match - comments very much out of character, given the quiet media voice he usually takes on – he’s a big music fan, fond of Robert Cray.
Tidy wins over Vancouver (2-1) and San Jose (2-0) saw goals from Barnes – one in each, Bruin, and Creavalle, before crumbling again on the road to the second half pressure from a surging Portland Timbers.
Ryan Johnson, former TFC front-man, nabbed a brace - touching in a wonderful cross from Diego Chara that handcuffed the back-line, at the back-post and streaking down the left in space to calmly finish over Hall in goal – as the Timbers rolled out 2-0 winners.
A return home, to face Chicago, spawned a further win 2-1 – and a continuation of the record–setting pace – largely on the performance of Davis, who crafted the first for Bruin with a lovely stuttered move on right-back Wells Thompson to make space for a delicious cross that Bruin simply helped on to the far-side of the goal and scored the second with a clipped cross-shot from the right-top of the box that nestled untouched in the far-corner of the goal in the final ten minutes.
Chris Rolfe scored Chicago’s lone goal, well-struck but bizarrely offered, as will be discussed.
It’s hard to look beyond the danger posed on set-pieces when discussing the Dynamo’s attack – the deadly-accurate service of Brad Davis must always be considered – but truth be told, they haven’t found as much joy from dead-balls this season as they have in the past.
Perhaps it should be considered that with the removal of Cameron and Hainault, as well as the inclusion of the smaller Garcia, their physical dominance has been diminished – that now said, they will probably score on a corner kick in Toronto and they still have formidable weapons in Boswell, Bruin, Barnes, Sarkodie, and Creavalle.
It has been in open play where Davis’ crossing ability has been most effective. His cunning to draw in Thompson and set the plate for Bruin against Chicago was positively stunning.
And his clipped ball, bravely won by Barnes, against San Jose was equally positively inviting.
Rico Clark, who returned from a spell in Germany, has shown an evolution to his game. No longer solely a destroyer in the midfield, his partnership with the ever-solid Adam Moffat has granted him far more license to surge up-field, displaying a touch on the ball and an ability to finish that was previously unheralded.
Adam Moffat remains a dangerous option from distance with a couple of long-range bombs dropped each season. He’s just about due.
The hard-work, pressing, and never concede attitude of Kinnear-led sides is evident at all times and defenders must remain on guard, even in seemingly harmless areas of the pitch. The hustle from Creavalle to create Driver’s goal in Dallas is a worthy example of turning effort into a chance and of Driver’s touch in front of goal.
And of course, as mentioned last year, the dreaded near-post cut-back is the signature move of the Dynamo; Clark’s goal above was one example and here’s another - Bruin against San Jose.
Toronto – Robert Earnshaw in particular – may well find some joy due to the hesitancy of the defense when faced with danger.
Twice now on the young season, the Houston defense has failed to properly pressure the ball in dangerous situations. Against Chicago, an errant clearance from a harmless throw-in fell to Rolfe, who duly finished high into the goal, as the defenders simply watched frozen in horror
Somewhat reminiscent of Darren Mattocks’ glorious strike, where he was given far too much time and space – to be fair, a great pass and his lovely turn helped - to unleash a shot from the top of the box.
Their high defensive line was exploited in Portland, with a seam-splitting Darlington Nagbe pass, after winning the ball and some fine combination play with Kalif Alhassan, to send Ryan Johnson in clear from the half-way line.
It is too early to claim Houston is vulnerable from set-pieces, but all three of Dallas’ goals came from aerial service into the box, while the inability to deal with the throw-in that led to Rolfe’s has already been shown.
And much of Toronto’s success last season in Houston came from such service – Terry Dunfield’s late headed equalizer was from a lovely ball by Darren O’Dea, while Jeremy Hall turned in a corner kick and Danny Koevermans got on the end of a solid cross from Julian de Guzman.
Point of Interest
The two have met on thirteen previous occasions, with Houston winning four, Toronto three, and six draws.
In Toronto, Houston have won just once – last season’s 0-2 win on goals from Calen Carr and Brian Ching - and drawn three times.
TFC have last won in 2011, with goals from Joao Plata and Maicon Santos before Lovel Palmer drew a late consolation tally.
Toronto won their first ever meeting in May of 2007 when Andy Welsh scored the lone goal.
For the extra studious, last season’s renditions of Know Your Enemy – The First (parts one & two), The Second, and The Third.