Part One, detailing Houston's lineup and form was posted earlier
With five of Houston's eleven goals, the primary threat that Toronto FC must manage is Giles Barnes.
Now in his fourth year in the league, Barnes, as well as the likes Bradley Wright-Phillips, has been a member of a new class of foreign imports. Failing to impress through four appearances in 2012, Barnes found his footing the next season, scoring twenty goals and adding nine assists over the coming two years.
Sourcing out overseas talent, as Toronto knows well, can be a difficult proposition. Some players falter, while others excel; past achievement is not always the guiding light. It takes a certain personality and style to succeed in MLS, Barnes has managed that transition as well as any.
Gifted in talents, imposing in size, with just enough speed to take advantage of the pockets that open up throughout a match; he does not shirk away from the physicality of MLS, riding challenges, and getting up when knocked down. He has been a most excellent acquisition.
Whether playing alone up top, or alongside another forward, Barnes will operate centrally, but is able to drift into wide spaces, finding gaps within which to operate. He is a target on set-pieces, as his goal against Montreal attests, but it is from open play that he is of most concern, especially when he pulls off moments of quality such as this strike against Columbus:
Kofi Sarkodie is played down the right-side of the box, pulling back a ball to the high near-post, which Barnes pounces upon, leaving Steve Clark helpless to stop the right-footed finish. It is worth noting is how a Ricardo Clark interception in the centre-circle and then Raul Rodriguez cutting out a hopeful clearing pass helps pin the Crew back, they never really recovered their shape after that initial Clark intervention, gifting wide lanes between the back-line for the Dynamo to exploit.
Depending on how he is tasked, Clark too can be a troublesome foe. Should Owen Coyle opt for a more defensive-minded plan, he may just sit deep, but if allowed to press forward, his rampaging through the middle will strain the Michael Bradley-Benoit Cheyrou partnership in front of the back-four. If one were interested in individual battles, the Bradley-Clark one may be the most influential on offer – whoever wins that central dual, may lead their side to victory.
Capable of not only tilting the field to his side's advantage, when free to surge forward, Clark is one of the more dangerous box-to-box midfielders in MLS. Against Montreal it was he who arrived into that vacant space atop the box, to collect a ball from Rob Lovejoy, and then, with two-touches, skillfully slice open the Impact defenses:
He is the Dynamo's second-leading goal-scorer after Barnes with two to his name; those moments where the defenders focus their attentions on the attacking width, forgetting about the late run, are where Clark is of particular concern. Tracking his movement from deep will again be the responsibility of the Bradley-Cheyrou duo. Each has shown moments of switching off in that duty, if they give Clark that space, it may prove costly.
As has already been seen above, on both the Clark and Barnes goals, Houston uses width very well to stretch the opposition back-line, thus opening up the gaps for their attackers to penetrate. In Clark's goal it was Lovejoy and in Barnes' it was Sarkodie.
Playing an early outlet ball out wide, or rolling a through-ball past the full-back to break that initial back-line obstinancy, Houston forces the defenders to turn on their heels to face either the ball or their own goal. Whenever that happens, tracking back-side runs gets a little more difficult, as a defender needs to be aware of both the ball on one side and the opponent utilizing the space behind on the other.
Toronto has struggled defensively in those wide areas, especially on the defensive-right, so they must be particularly cautious in tracking the central runs, so as to mitigate the danger of getting beat out wide. The goals do not come from a full-back getting beat alone, but from the combination of that with the free runs.
And, of course, Brad Davis has yet to even get a mention.
Still the master of set-pieces with his glorious left-foot, Davis has three assists this season, and should Toronto gift Houston either free-kicks in good areas – as Sporting KC did, allowing Davis to fling a pin-point right-sided, in-swinger to pick out the retreating run of Will Bruin at the near-post to flick his header on to the far-side of goal:
Or corners in abundance – again, KC not learning the lessons of the first half, allow Rodriguez to break free of his marker to meet Davis' ball at the near-post:
Davis will sting.
He can also do it in open play, as he did against DC, backing off Sean Franklin to pick out the run of Clark to the near-post:
Astute observers will notice a developing trend: the near-post run; long a favourite of the Houston Dynamo, dating back to the Dominic Kinnear days.
As if that threat were not enough to worry defenders, Houston has also been know to utilize the near-post in conjunction with the back-side, drawing all the attention to the front in order to sneak an attacker around the back – Toronto fell victim that this very move years ago, forgetting to track that seemingly innocuous move away from the ball.
Against LA, Houston mixed it up a bit, with Oscar Boniek Garcia sending his corner kick high to the back-post, where it was knocked back down to the near-side for the late-arriving Nathan Sturgis to touch in:
Variety only makes their threat more of a concern. Toronto, whose marking in the box has been suspect on occasion, will have their hands full in keeping Houston off the score-sheet.
As threatening as those tools may look, Toronto can take comfort in the fact that Houston can be troubled in several ways themselves. Of the thirteen goals the Dynamo have conceded, ten have come in their last four matches – they allowed just three goals against through their first six matches.
There is no doubt Coyle will be addressing those deficiencies in training, but whether the problems will have been sorted out in time for Sunday remains to be seen.
Toronto should look to do damage in four ways; three of which are interrelated and a fourth of which is more a general observation.
Houston has been surprisingly susceptible to conceding the space at the top of the box, slow to step up and pressure the ball-carrier, which allows shots from those areas. Against Sporting KC, it was Rodriguez who held off as Krisztian Nemeth surged towards goal, placing a low shot to the far-side of goal with ease:
A weak later it was more the fault of Jermaine Taylor and DaMarcus Beasley, who allowed Dallas' Mauro Diaz to drift across the top of the box before sending this vicious strike past a helpless Tyler Deric:
Toronto has several players that are capable of striking from that range: Bradley, Cheyrou, and Sebastian Giovinco come immediately to mind. Should Houston gift that space they must be punished.
The first goal had more to do with the threat posed by speed, while the second was a consequence of poor horizontal tracking.
Speed was a factor in two more of Dallas' goals that night. Ryan Hollingshead's strike on the counter showed how if Toronto can catch Clark up-field, the Houston back-line is ripe to be exploited. Rodriguez, focused solely on the ball, lunges into a hopeless challenge in the midfield as virtually the last man, allowing the swift outlet ball to find Hollingshead who tore towards goal unobstructed:
Toronto is capable of those sweeping moves as well, however, they need be a little more precise in their execution to really put opponents to the sword. The key will be to eat up the midfield ground as quickly as possible, so as to make the most advantage of Clark getting caught in advanced positions. Should Coyle indeed field Luis Garrido as theorized in Part One, it could mitigate the risk of Clark involving himself in the attack.
Fabian Castillo's strike that capped the four-goal Dallas performance took that same Houston over-attention on the ball – three defenders are caught watching Diaz, and added the isolation of a defender, in this case Taylor, as well as that hesitancy or backing off shown above:
Castillo is a handful, there is no argument there, but just because one may get burned by making a challenge does not give license to do nothing; that will sting as well.
Toronto does not have the speed that Dallas does, but they have enough to prove threatening, and Giovinco's guile is on par, if of a different nature, than the Colombian's. The Italian will draw a lot of attention from Houston when he is on the ball, the trick will be for his teammates to make those runs and find the space, so as to use Houston's focus against them.
This responsibility will fall squarely on the shoulders of Jozy Altidore, who has shown in flashes how excellent of a striker he can be. If Altidore is active and he and Giovinco can link up, Houston stands no chance of keeping a clean-sheet.
Yet another Dallas goal, adds another dimension to the mix: horizontal movement.
Dallas' second of the match was far too simple of a goal to concede. Castillo broke down the right-side of the area with seemingly nowhere to go. Rather than seize control and guide him out calmly, Houston panic. Two markers can only watch in hesitation, while a third, Taylor tracking back to the near-post area, is so focused on the ball that he is caught completely unaware by the run of David Texeira off his shoulder.
When he finally reacts, slipping in the process, it is far too late and Dallas has doubled their advantage:
TFC has not used width to the same advantage as Dallas does, but they are capable. Giovinco, Jackson, Robbie Findley, even Jonathan Osorio, has the tools to get wide and pick out the late arriving run of Altidore, Bradley, Cheyrou, or each other. Houston will be more alert having studied the tapes themselves, but the chances will be there, so put in the effort to make those runs. Texeira could have jogged into position, leaving Castillo to go it alone, but by giving his teammate that option, good things happened.
The final note of suggestion is that with Deric still growing into his starting role, test him. Young goalkeepers are prone to giving away half-chances that their more experienced counterparts will not.
Consider Giovinco's free-kick against Philadelphia last weekend – a more experienced keeper may not have conceded that one, but knowing that John McCarthy, or in this case, Deric, is inexperienced, such attempts become more possible.
Deric has already been guilty of a few mistakes, such as the casual manner in which he approached a back-pass against Orlando City, ultimately resulting in him conceding an own-goal:
Put balls on target, pressure, and close down rebounds. Good things will come.
Points of Interest
Last Meeting: October 8, 2014 Toronto 0: Houston 1
They last met in October of 2014 when the visiting Dynamo won 0-1 on a 35th minute goal from Giles Barnes. The striker muscled Nick Hagglund to the ground before slipping his low finish through the legs of Joe Bendik from a tight-angle on the right-side of the area. Toronto would have ample opportunity to equalize, playing with a man-advantage for 35-plus minutes after AJ Cochrane was eventually dismissed for hauling down Luke Moore in the area – there was some confusion as David Horst was originally shown the red card, conceding a penalty kick in the process. Tyler Deric was equal to the task, getting over to his right to deny Jermain Defoe from twelve paces.
With that win, Houston improved their all-time record against TFC to five wins, four losses, and nine draws – they are unbeaten in the last two encounters, having drawn at home in July prior to the October win.
In Toronto, the Dynamo's record stands at two wins, three losses, and four ties; both wins having come in the last four visits – the other a 0-2 result back in 2012: Calen Carr and Brian Ching the goal-scorers.
Toronto's last home win came the first clash of 2014 by a 4-2 scoreline, Jonathan Osorio, Dominic Oduro, and a brace from Jermain Defoe enough to overturn a pair of early goals from Brad Davis. They would draw 1-1 in between at the start of the 2013 season on goals from Jeremy Hall and Warren Creavalle.
With Houston moving to the Western Conference, this is the only regular season meetings between the two this year.