Less-than-fresh off a disappointing setback, Toronto FC returns to the pitch at home on Wednesday night as they look to get back to winning ways in search of the club’s first-ever playoff berth.
Currently sitting in sixth-placed, below the dividing line, Toronto has forty points from thirty matches, three behind Columbus and four behind New York, who have both played one match more – Wednesday’s match will see TFC finally use up the game in hand that has made murky their position for most of the season.
With just four games remaining there is little room for error. This week, as many before it, will be crucial; more so in that without results this time, there may not be a tomorrow.
After Houston, Toronto faces a difficult trip away to New York three days later, before returning back home for a trap-game against Canadian rivals Montreal, and closing the season on the road in New England.
But now is not the time to get ahead of oneself; the focus must be on Wednesday and Houston.
The Dynamo have been on the cusp of one of their trademark late-season surges; the mantra being that a Dominic Kinnear team can never be considered down when the season starts to count.
The teams will be meeting for the third time, having played a home-and-away series a week apart back in July and, as a side with a definite style, much of what was written then holds true – the near-post cutback, set-pieces, etc. - but still, a closer look at this week’s enemy, the Houston Dynamo is in order.
The two and a half months since the last meeting has seen the Dynamo shirk their struggler status to keep themselves a factor in the playoff hunt, currently sitting in eighth place in the East, seven points off the playoff pace.
Before the loss in New York on the weekend, Houston had gone unbeaten through five matches.
Looking back, those two matches against TFC in July – losing 4-2 in Toronto and drawing 2-2 at home – saw the end of a eight-match winless run, as the Dynamo would win their next match, beating a DC side suffering on short-rest, 1-0.
They would lose 2-0 in Seattle the next weekend, before returning to winning ways, back at home - by the same score-line, over Philadelphia.
A disappointing loss in Columbus by a score of 3-0 would follow before they embarked on a two-game winning streak that morphed into a five-match unbeaten run.
Houston would pick up a vital 1-3 win in Kansas City, taking it to their old friends at their ground – Will Bruin notched the first only for Dom Dwyer to respond that the start of the second half; David Horst and Ricardo Clark would add two more for the visitors five minutes apart after the hour-mark - and win 3-2 at home over Montreal – Giles Barnes gave the hosts the lead in the 30th minute, but Montreal stormed back with Dilly Duka and Ignacio Piatti scoring either side of half-time; again a pair of Dynamo goals just minutes apart on the hour, from Barnes and Clark, would seal the result.
Draws against Columbus – 2-2, an Aaron Schoenfeld own-goal and Barnes strike gave the Dynamo a first-half lead, only for Wil Trapp and Ethan Finlay to respond and level in the first nine minutes of the second frame – and in Philadelphia – 0-0 – would extend the run that stretched to five games with a 2-0 win over Chicago at the end of September, with Omar Cummings and Oscar Boniek Garcia scoring for Houston.
They put in a solid performance against New York, a side that excels at home, only to be undone by a loose ball in the minutes after half-time, when Thierry Henry slotted home a free-look in the 47th minute.
The Dynamo have two wins and two draws in their travels, losing the other eleven matches, conceding 31 goals to the ten they have scored. The win in Kansas City, against a struggling Sporting, was their only success on the road in their last eight trips, though they did draw that match in Philadelphia recently when the season was on the line.
July 19 Houston 2: Toronto 2
Seven days after 4-2 defeat in Toronto, the Dynamo were eager for revenge when the clubs met back in Houston.
Their hopes were granted an early boost when Bradley Orr and Joe Bendik got their wires crossed on a long Barnes header forward, the defender touching back to, and unfortunately past, his on-rushing keeper, allowing Bruin to collect the loose ball and slot a right-footer into the empty net in the 11th minute.
Gilberto would respond for the Reds seven minutes later after a tidy build-up down the right, with Jonathan Osorio playing wide to Dominic Oduro, whose cross through the top of the area was cushioned by Justin Morrow to Gilberto, who pounced on the loose ball with a predatory right-footer past Tally Hall.
Barnes would reinstate the Houston lead in the 26th minute, finding a pocket of space for a low right-footer that beat Bendik to the bottom left-corner.
Michael Bradley would pass up the opportunity to level from the spot in the 28th minute after Luke Moore had been brought down in the box by Corey Ashe, striking his penalty kick of the base of the right post.
His blushes were spared in first-half stoppage-time, when Oduro got on the end of some good work from Moore down the left, forcing the ball over the line with his midsection from inside the six-yard box.
The draw stretched TFC's unbeaten run against the Dynamo to five matches.
Kinnear has stuck to a rather consistent lineup, though injury has played a role in a few changes.
The win in Kansas City came at a great cost, as ever-present goalkeeper Tally Hall suffered a right ACL injury that will see him unavailable for Wednesday – Tyler Deric has done well in his stead.
That same match also saw striker Will Bruin leave after forty minutes – he has missed their last five matches with a foot sprain, though Omar Cummings is an able replacement, if a different kind of player.
Shortly after the two meeting in July, Houston brought in a pair of reinforcements to solidify their playoff push. American International DaMarcus Beasley was acquired, using the allocation order, as a designated player, displacing Ashe from his usual left-back spot, while Honduran World Cup midfielder, Luis Garrido was brought in to patrol the middle of the pitch.
Fortunately for Toronto Garrido, along with Boniek-Garcia, will miss the game due to Honduran international commitments. Jermaine Taylor will also be missing to play for Jamaica.
Their projected lineup for Wednesday is as follows: Tyler Deric in goal; from right to left – Kofi Sarkodie, David Horst, AJ Cochran, and DaMarcus Beasley across the back; Andrew Driver, Servando Carrasco, Ricardo Clark and Brad Davis through the midfield; Giles Barnes will be paired up top with Omar Cummings in attack.
Jermaine Taylor and Eric Brunner have both seen regular time on the back-line this season, but the Horst-Cochran partnership has become the first-choice pairing, starting their last five matches; Taylor, the more recognized absence, is away with Jamaican anyways, leaving even less likelihood of a change.
Corey Ashe has been carrying a knock and is unlikely to displace Beasley from the left-back slot.
With international call-ups, Houston's options are stretched pretty thin, with Brian Ownby the only player remaining to have seen occasional minutes. Alexander Lopez is an interesting attacking option through the middle, but his adaptation to MLS has taken much longer than Houston would have liked.
Hat-tip to readers KevJP and mistercorporate for pointing out that both Garcia and Garrido will not be available, a fact overlooked in the initial posting.
Houston are very adept at making use of width to create spaces to exploit in the middle. Both full-backs, Beasley and Sarkodie, will get forward regularly on the overlap, spreading the play, while Garcia and Davis are excellent playmakers from those wide positions.
A rather simple play against Chicago exemplifies this use of space. Garrido plays out wide right to find Sarkodie in acres of space. Whether his cross was over-hit for the back-post, or he intended to find Davis’ late run, the ball popped into the middle after the centre of the Chicago defense had been sucked deep, found a wide open Garcia near the penalty spot for a lovely left-footed volley into the top left-corner of the Fire goal:
Toronto has struggled with keeping control of that little gap above the defense – recall Robbie Keane’s second goal from the weekend – and will need to be aware of not collapsing too deep when the ball goes wide, leaving that space for Garcia, Davis, and Clark to make a late run into the box.
Bruin leads the team with ten goals on the season and is a rather predatory finisher – here exploiting a miscue from DC (not unlike his goal against Toronto) – but hot on his heels with eight goals with Barnes, who has really taken to the league in his third season, becoming a dominant forward.
A rare combination of the proverbial English pace and power, Barnes meshes skill and size in a package that is difficult to contain; he knows the way to goal and can finish as well, here against Columbus, holding his devastating run perfectly and chip his finish over Crew keeper, Steve Clark:
Barnes is a tricky customer to deal with, as he can beat a side with his speed and can muck it up with the best. The primary option would be to not allow him to turn and run at goal – his strike in the last meeting being the prime example of what can happen when he is allowed too much space; keeping him occupied and not giving him the space to get moving, say with an early bit of contact, may be able to slow him down.
Aside from that, being sure to close down his options can reduce the about of interplay he is allowed to spark – it is not that he needs runners to excel, he can do without, but isolation would at least prevent a good chunk of his threat.
A worrying sign for Toronto is that Houston’s resurgence in the past few months has seen a revitalization of their favoured weapon: the set-piece. With Davis, Driver, Clark, and Garcia serving up balls for their towering contingent of threats, Houston are always likely to capitalize from free-kicks, corners, and open play looks.
Clark in particular has been the target, scoring in consecutive matches – with a header against Kansas City:
And getting a boot on a flicked ball at the back-post against Montreal:
Aside from Clark, Barnes, Bruin – if fit, Cummings, and each of their centre-backs, especially Horst, are targets as well. Here Horst gets on the end of a Davis corner kick against Kansas City:
The best protection is to not concede set-pieces, especially free-kicks in dangerous areas, but that is unlikely.
Toronto will have to match up and follow their marks, being especially wary of near and far-post runs – Houston will often look to meet the ball at the near, drawing attention there, before flicking it on to the back-side.
Fortunately, Houston can be had at the other end of the pitch, their usually solid defending has been an issue this season – Bobby Boswell, the anchor over the past few seasons, has excelled in DC with his new club.
Houston are prone to the occasional error at the back, Cochran is a rookie, while Horst is capable of the odd costly gaffe – here against Columbus, his miss-touch turns the ball over to Justin Meram who makes him pay for his mistake:
Pressure is the key here, one cannot take advantage of mistakes if not in position to do so. Toronto needs to be hungry in the box, looking for those loose balls. Moore had a chance to pounce on a flub from LA keeper Jaime Penedo on the weekend, but he wasn’t engaged enough to get a foot on the spill.
The Dynamo back-line is not particularly mobile, and when the full-backs are caught up-field, or jumping into a tackle, spaces will open up, as they did for Montreal’s Felipe and Dilly Duka. Beasley misses out allowing Ignacio Piatti to get on the ball, he, in turn, finds Felipe in the middle, who cuts a little ball for Duka to finish:
Horst and Cochran get crossed up in the process, creating that little lane of space for the finish. That deft horizontal movement to create gaps is something Toronto has not done enough of this season, plodding in attack rather than exhibiting a clinical mindset.
With Gilberto rested and Jermain Defoe back in the mix, as well as Bradley and Osorio on song, and Moore a presence, Toronto has the pieces to cause Houston trouble.
Aside from getting them moving, Houston has also really struggled to keep an eye on threats, especially at the back-post. Consider Thierry Henry’s game-winner from the weekend, ghosting in unmarked at the back-side to get on a rebound for a simple finish:
Of all the men on the pitch, Henry is the one to track, or at least be aware of at all times. Similarly, they dropped points at home against Columbus is a recent draw when Ethan Finlay got open at the back, to get on the end of a Waylon Francis cross:
That sort of casual marking – especially from Davis, who is jogging past Finlay, will drive a coach crazy.
Columbus, with their outside-in attack, has caused Houston all sorts of trouble, with Aaron Schoenfeld getting on the end of this cross for a sharp, downward header:
And Adam Bedell getting in between a pair of defenders for this simple finish from a recycled corner kick:
Toronto has the width to cause problems, but needs to get Gilberto into those positions, as they lack the sort of height to really threaten from open play. On set-pieces, Nick Hagglund and Steven Caldwell provide ample targets and Hagglund has proved his skill at arriving at the back-post.
This will be the third and final meeting between the two clubs this season. Toronto won the first at home 4-2 and drew the second 2-2 in Houston. TFC are unbeaten in the last five meetings, having drawn the two meetings in 2013 and the final encounter of 2012.
The clubs have met seventeen times in MLS play, each winning four matches and drawing the other nine. Nine of those matches have been played in Houston, where the Dynamo have won three, Toronto one, and the other five had ended level. Eight of those games have been at BMO Field with Toronto winning 3 times, Houston once and the other 4 finishing level.
Toronto are unbeaten in the last two meetings at home, winning 4-2 in July and drawing an April meeting in 2013 by a 1-1 score-line with Jeremy Hall and Warren Creavalle exchanging goals. Houston's last win in Toronto was a 0-2 result in July of 2012, when Calen Carr and Bring Ching struck for the visitors; TFC were unbeaten all-time in the five meetings prior to that result.
The match will be a reunion of sorts for two TFC players, as De Rosario spent much of his MLS career with the Dynamo, while Warren Creavalle, who was acquired from the Dynamo earlier this season – with the allocation ranking that led to Beasley’s acquisition heading the other way – spent the first two-plus seasons of his career with the Dynamo, having been drafted in 2012.