It's finally here.
After nine long weeks, Toronto FC is finally set to take to their own pitch as Sunday sees the home opener at the renovated BMO Field.
The seven-match road start has come to an end, and given results the past two weeks, it looks a lot better than it did in the midst of a four-game losing skid, scant weeks ago. Wins in Orlando and Philadelphia, with a pair of clean-sheets no less, has put TFC in the admirable position of making their home debut with nine points in tow, primed to contend in the East as they make up for lost ground and an intermittent schedule.
But the return home brings with it another challenge.
May will see the club play seven matches – five in the league and a two-legged series against Montreal in the Voyageurs Cup, as well as a Friendly against Manchester City – four of those matches will be on short rest, as for the first time this season TFC will be playing three games in a week (eight days, to be exact). By the time they take to the pitch in New England next weekend it will be five matches in two weeks – a very different beast from anything the season has offered so far.
The best way to handle such matters is always to take it one game at a time; concentrate on the here and now and worry about tomorrow tomorrow.
This weekend's opponent presents an interesting challenge. Houston and Toronto are familiar foes, but with the Dynamo moving over to the Western Conference, that familiarity may wane with just one meeting per season in the regular season for the years ahead.
As such, a closer look at this weekend's opponent, the Houston Dynamo, is in order.
With Owen Coyle taking up the reins from the departing Dominic Kinnear, the only manager the club had ever known since their move from San Jose to Houston back in 2006, the Dynamo, while similar, will present a new look this season.
Officially announced as Kinnear's replacement on December 8, 2014, Coyle had already begun to overhaul his squad – his announcement was delayed until after the MLS Cup Final; former Montreal Impact keeper Matt Jordan, GM/VP, played a role in those decisions as well.
Having missed the playoffs for just the second time in their existence, a flock of players were allowed to leave the club. Options were declined on the likes of Omar Cummings, Brian Ownby, and Andrew Driver. Driver was re-signed only to be shipped to DC for goalkeeper Joe Willis and defender Samuel Inkoom. Servando Carrasco, who was out of contract, saw his rights go to Sporting KC for a 2015 draft pick.
Long-time starting keeper Tally Hall was traded to Orlando City for allocation money and an international roster slot, while forward Mark Sherrod was selected by The Lions in December's expansion draft.
More recently, the club pulled off another swap, sending speedster Jason Johnson to Chicago for Brazilian midfielder Alex, and waived draft pick, defender Oumar Ballo – the player selected with that draft pick from KC.
With so many holes to fill, Houston used a variety of means to rebuild their squad.
In the Re-Entry Draft, they selected forward Chandler Hoffman and former Toronto (and everyone else) midfielder Nathan Sturgis. From the SuperDraft they selected four – Zach Steinberger, the aforementioned Ballo, Taylor Hunter, and Rob Lovejoy – while also signing a homegrown player, Memo Rodriguez, who is on loan with USL affiliate the Charleston Battery.
Perhaps their biggest move of the off-season took place just days before Christmas, as Dynamo fans received a welcome gift when it was announced that Cubo Torres, who proved his goal-scoring bona fides in MLS with Chivas USA, was transferred from Chivas Guadalajara – fortunately for Toronto he remains in Mexico on loan for the time being.
Further bolstering the squad, the Dynamo added Spanish centre-back Raul Rodriguez from RCD Espanyol, as well as young Argentine midfielder Leonel Miranda on loan from CA Independiente.
Considering all the proven MLS talent the Dynamo already had in place, Coyle has a very solid squad at his disposal.
Recent injury reports state that the only player unavailable for Sunday is Sturgis, who will not be making a return to the Toronto pitch due to a shoulder dislocation, which is unfortunate for Coyle, as Sturgis has looked solid in the middle through recent outings.
Their projected lineup for Sunday is as follows: Tyler Deric in goal; from right to left – Kofi Sarkodie, Raul Rodriguez, Jermaine Taylor, and DaMarcus Beasley along the back; Luis Garrido and Ricardo Clark sitting deep in the midfield, with Oscar Boniek Garcia, Alexander Lopez, and Brad Davis further afield; Giles Barnes atop the formation as the lone forward.
That is the exact lineup that played against San Jose on Tuesday in a losing effort; it would not be a surprise if that was a sort of dry run for the weekend match in Toronto.
Coyle does have plenty of options at his disposal. Both AJ Cochran and David Horst were starting centre-backs at various times last season, while Corey Ashe has been unfortunate to lose his left-back position to Beasley, who may be due for a rest given the hectic schedule of late.
Given Toronto's potential ability to dominate the midfield, Coyle will seek to clog up that part of the pitch. Garrido and Clark provide the best balance of stopping power and forward impetus, albeit shading towards the defensive-side, but either Lopez or Garcia could offer a bit more attacking quality in that spot.
Davis is a lock on the left, but the right could go to either Lopez or Garcia, depending on who moves into the middle, while Rob Lovejoy is a tenacious rookie who has impressed and already has his first goal in MLS. Then there is Miranda, who has yet to really find his footing in the league through four appearances. And the recently-acquired Alex should be up for consideration in those areas as well.
If Coyle wants to get tricky, he could move Barnes into that attacking midfield position, thereby allowing Will Bruin to occupy that striker's position. Or, given that TFC has been playing a flat 4-4-2 recently, Coyle could go like-for-like, playing two strikers to pressure Toronto's vulnerable back-line.
Should he take that path, Clark paired with Barnes in the middle would allow Chandler Hoffman to take to the pitch, offering the speed alongside Bruin needed to really stretch the Toronto defenses. But given Houston's own defensive vulnerabilities, Coyle has preferred to provide some extra support in the middle, hence the reliance on Sturgis.
Plenty of options at his disposal for Sunday; will have to wait and see what Coyle decides.
With ten points from ten games, the Dynamo sit uncomfortably in ninth place in the West, a record of two wins, four losses, and four draws, having scored eleven goals and conceded thirteen. They enter Sunday's match on a two-game losing streak, winless in four matches, stretching back to a 3-0 win over lowly Montreal on April 11th. Notably, ten of those thirteen goals conceded have come in their last four matches.
Further complicating matters, Houston are winless in their travels, having lost one and drawn two, outscored by a margin of 3-2.
Their season began slowly, relying on a superb performance from newly-designated starting keeper Deric to see out a 1-0 result on opening day against Columbus. Barnes provided the ammunition with a screamer past Crew keeper, Steve Clark in the 66th minute.
An unfortunate 0-1 loss against expansion side Orlando City – Deric flapping the ball into his own net under pressure from Pedro Ribeiro was the only goal - would be followed by a pair of draws: 1-1 in Los Angeles with Robbie Keane and Sturgis exchanging goals inside the first eleven minutes, and a 0-0 result back home against Colorado.
They would fall the following week in Seattle, losing 1-0 to the Sounders on a 39th minute goal from Obafemi Martins - despite playing with a man-advantage for the final thirty-plus minutes after Gonzalo Pineda was dismissed - before rebounding with a solid 3-0 win back home over Montreal. Barnes, Clark, and Lovejoy provided the goals, the first coming after fifteen minutes, the other two deep in the second half.
A week on, a second-consecutive favourable result came in DC, drawing 1-1 against their hosts. Chris Rolfe opened the scoring for United, but Clark was able to respond in the 65th minute mopping up the rebound after Bruin's flick from a Davis cross was saved.
That run of good form was followed by an eight-goal thriller back home against Sporting KC; a result that highlighted both Houston's attacking potential and exposied their frailties at the back. Sporting took the lead after two minutes through Krisztian Nemeth, only for three straight Dynamo goals – two from Barnes either side of one from Bruin - to seemingly hand them the advantage.
But Dom Dwyer nabbed one back in the 74th minute and Benny Feilhaber added another from the spot in the 80th - the same play saw Taylor sent off for handling on the line (his red card was expuged afterwards by the Independent Review Commission, not that it helped at the time). Houston thought they quelled that comeback three minutes later when Rodriguez got his first for the club with a strong header, but KC has other ideas, Feilhaber finding the equalizer deep in stoppage-time.
Recovering from that shock, they would falter again last Friday against Dallas in the first Texas Derby of the season, falling 1-4 at home. Goals from Ryan Hollingshead and David Texeira inside the opening 21 minutes, both set up by Fabian Castillo (sounds like a familiar start to a match), all but determined the result. Barnes would score in the 32nd to breathe life into hopes of a comeback, only for Mauro Diaz and Castillo himself to snuff the match out seven and ten minutes into the second half, respectively.
And most recently, this past Tuesday they slipped up again at home, dropping a 0-1 result to San Jose with the lone goal coming from Adam Jahn in the 54th minute.
Part Two, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses will be posted as soon as it is available