Houston Dynamo and Toronto FC aren't all that different, really. Neither team is an elite MLS Cup contender this year (though one certainly had those expectations back in March) and both battled through squad inconsistency and injuries to reach so desperately for the playoffs. After a 3-0 loss to a truly elite LA Galaxy this past weekend, Toronto knows that a loss this week against the Dynamo may be the end of it all. Houston, too, knows that a loss in Canada will snuff out absolutely any chance at playing in November (though that hope is already stubbornly flickering among strong gusts of doubt).
Toronto, however, is nearing a full-strength squad after seeing injury woes (like the abductor issues that kept Jermaine Defoe out for two months) finally wither away. Houston, on the other hand, are bidding farewell for the week to two key players that are league-leaders in defensive stats, Luis Garrido and Boniek Garcia, who are taking on international duty in meaningless friendlies. As a result, Houston will be sure to see new faces in the starting lineup on Wednesday and, that it comes just days after a demoralizing 1-0 loss to New York, it feels that much more like throwing in the towel.
Regardless, Wednesday poses an interesting opportunity. The season is nearly gone but there is a lot of potential on the bench. Honduran departures clear the way for a defensive-minded midfielder like Servando Carrasco or the much-maligned winger Alex Lopez to get minutes among a true first-choice team rather than the makeshift lineups they were a part of in the summer. Rather than seeing ten minutes of sub-time, a player like Brian Ownby (I can hear your groans) might benefit from a full run-out. The lineup should prove to be unpredictable and, when its finally announced, Dynamo fans may see how Dom Kinnear views the final four games -- must-wins or 2015 auditions?
Toronto are just three points out of the playoff picture. After Wednesday's game, all Eastern teams will finally be level on games with three remaining for each club. The Reds certainly understand the importance of their final four games and have timed injury rehabilitations and player minutes to poise themselves for the best possible run to cap the season. Gilberto, who has netted 7 times for TFC, sat out on Saturday against LA so that he'll be ready to go against the Dynamo. Defoe was limited to just a half hour and could see his first start since the summer. Both of these players, when healthy, can provide an attacking threat that Houston have had issue with in the past (Toronto have posted a 4-2 win and 2-2 draw against the Dynamo this year). When not playing, however, the forwards are aimless. Despite thirteen shots against the Galaxy, only a single Luke Moore shot was on target and that could prove a liability again.
Michael Bradley remains the fulcrum of the Toronto playmaking machine. He has served as the (sometimes quite frustrated) voice of the team and continues to be vital. With a bit of a lineup shuffle last weekend, Warren Creavalle (who was pushed out of the Dynamo this summer to make way for DaMarcus Beasley) slotted in at right back for an impressive 90 minutes against LA and may have made a case to continue on Wednesday. Should Creavalle keep the position, it will be fun to see the resulting battles from a Brad Davis-led attack.
Reading match reports is sometimes like looking into a mirror as the TFC defense have been caught ball-watching at times and allowed crafty forwards to decimate the backline. The Toronto defense, not unlike Houston's, remains suspect though defender Nick Hagglund had several important stops in LA. Certainly, the whole defense will be called upon all night if Houston aims to have more offensive spark than they showed in New York.
Aside from the Honduran absences, the Dynamo will have a few other options to consider in defense and attack. Jermaine Taylor, was quietly cleared to play in New York and was subbed on in the final minutes as part of a last-ditch effort to earn a result. His return may signal the end of AJ Cochran's capable rookie takeover and a rejoining of the Taylor-David Horst tandem that had began to settle prior to Taylor's concussion.
Will Bruin, despite joining training last week after his mid-leg sprain, was cleared to play but apparently is not quite at 100% as he did not make the bench Saturday night. With another few days under his belt, he may be ready to take over for Omar Cummings, who posted a quiet night against the Red Bulls.
Whoever the Dynamo coaching staff deem ready to start on Wednesday, there is no question that the season is all but over. Now seven points out of the picture, Houston can max out at 48. Columbus, who has a tenuous hold on fifth, is at 43 with three games remaining. If the Dynamo leave Canada with zero this week, they will be just two points out of mathematical elimination. A dire outlook, indeed. However, if the Dynamo manage a victory, then maybe, just maybe, against all odds, we can keep our flame lit.
The Dynamo will travel to BMO Field to face Toronto FC on Wednesday, October 8th at 6:30PM. The game will be broadcast on CSN-Houston.
It appears as if the Dynamo will be even more short handed as Darrell Lovell reported that defender Jermaine Taylor will be spending time with the Jamaican national team as they take on Japan.