It hasn't been easy being a Dynamo fan, at least not over the past few games as results have been hard to come by, and even our draw to SKC feels empty considering the circumstances in that one. But, it's time to move on, and move on we shall. Of course, we're moving on to a talented attacking side, in their newly renovated stadium, in a place we've traditionally struggled, and doing so with less than great form. But bring it on Toronto FC!
In our preview of the game we broke down some of the ways for the Dynamo can find their advantages and a few ways they can prevent Toronto FC from utilizing their advantages. However, we also wanted an inside look at what's going on with the Reds so we talked with James Grossi of Waking the Red to get his take on his club's past, present, and future, and what some of that means in this game.
Dynamo Theory: Toronto FC have 9 points on 7 games on a 3-4-0 record. Despite having lost 4 matches this season, the Reds have kept it close only losing by more than 1 goal once this year to Columbus Crew SC. Is the team struggling to finish down the line, letting in late goals, or what's going on with a team with pretty high hopes this year?
Waking the Red: It has been a bit of a refreshing change this season. Toronto's struggles with closing out matches are well-known, crumbling in the final fifteen minutes turning wins into draws and draws into losses. They have only allowed one late goal, which did indeed prove costly as Salt Lake's Jordan Allen scored an 89th minute winner mere seconds after Jackson had tied the match for TFC, but they have scored five goals in that same final frame of the match (from minutes 76-90), that is a ratio the club can live with, so hopefully that is a concern that can be relegated to the past.
In a slight reversal of fortunes, it is early goals that have proved costly. Dallas burst out of the gates with two goals inside of ten minutes - Fabian Castillo nabbing the first inside a minute and they would add a third in short order - while Chicago needed just fourteen minutes to break down the TFC defenses. Toronto would lose both matches, despite mounting comebacks.
It has been difficult to pinpoint the exact deficiencies, it's is hard to properly assess a side that has been on the road for two months, but there are a variety of symptoms that need to be addressed.
The first is slow starts. One simply cannot gift the opposition a head start by coming out flat-footed. Combing the opening sections of both halves, TFC has conceded five of eleven goals against in those periods; clearly a disproportionate amount.
The second is maintaining composure after scoring a goal. Twice so far goals have been squandered as the opponent was allowed to respond in short order. For Salt Lake, as mentioned above, it was mere seconds, while in Chicago, Toronto took the lead, only to relinquish it two minutes later.
A third factor is bouncing back from conceding. One goal against is trouble enough, but to let the head drop and concede another is devastating. Columbus scored goals four minutes apart, Dallas nine, and Chicago twelve, those brief spells of madness are back-breakers.
The start to the season was always going to be a bit rocky, but there have been some encouraging signs as well. Consecutive clean-sheets in Orlando and Philadelphia, taking and maintaining a lead, while surviving some spells of pressure, albeit against less-than-top-class opposition, is something to build upon as the club prepares for the home opener and a busy month of May.
DT: About those high hopes, bringing in the likes of Jozy Altidore has to set the tone that this is the year for TFC to finally make it to the playoffs, but how far could they go?
WTR: Entering into potential hubris territory here.
When it comes to projecting sporting success in Toronto, one is best to expect the worst and savor every morsel that falls their way.
Making the playoffs is the stated goal - as it always has been - but beyond that anything else is gravy. And if there is one thing that the MLS Playoffs have proved is that once one gets there, anything can happen. That said, to project anything beyond the realities of the table, would be foolhardy.
Avoiding the Knockout Round would be nice, a one-off match is always fraught with peril, and Toronto has the quality, particularly in attack, to contend against any side in a two-legged battle.
There are, of course, some concerns. The firepower is there to go toe-to-toe with any opponent, but defensively there remain some issues that need to be hammered out over the coming six months before one can be more definite on their chances to succeed.
As far as the acquisition of Altidore setting the tone, it was more about what was absent than what his signings entailed. The club has been guilty of over-hyping and under-delivering in the past and despite high-profile signings like Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, they completed the off-season without the sort of hyperbole that can be fatal.
Last season's bloody big deal was a disaster. Jermain Defoe lost interest after he was not included in the England squad for the World Cup, subsequent injuries put end to any hopes of playing through that disappointment.
Altidore has been good, if inconsistent, scoring in bunches - he has two braces - and then fading into anonymity for large patches. Giovinco on the other hand has been spectacular with four goals and three assists through seven matches, at times almost single-handedly willing the side forward. It was his stunning free-kick that proved the difference against Philadelphia and his two late goals in Dallas after a length weather-delay just fell short of mounting an incredible comeback - one got the sense that TFC ran out of time rather than lost that match.
DT: The combination of Altidore, Giovinco, Findley, and Bradley provides plenty of punch for the offense, but it seems like the defense has struggled to keep up with the pace that the offense has set. Is the team missing a piece in the back or is the team still adjusting to new personnel?
WTR: The defense has indeed been a concern and it is a little of both adjustment and missing pieces.
Entering the season it was expected that Steven Caldwell would be a fixture in the lineup and newcomer Damien Perquis would provide him with a solid, first-choice partner. But Caldwell has been injured for most of the season, as too has right-back Mark Bloom - another troubles spot - so Toronto has had to scramble to field a consistent back-four.
Sophomore Nick Hagglund has been thrust into duty. He did well in stretches last season, but that was with Caldwell talking him through matches, so his performances alongside a new partner in Perquis, have not quite been to the same level. Justin Morrow has been tried out of position at centre-back, an experiment which ended with Dallas' quick start; more so because of Hagglund's struggles at right-back than any fault of Morrow's.
Meanwhile the transfer of Doneil Henry robbed the side of a starter, and while Perquis has been inconsistent at times.
Things have gotten better over the past few weeks, a pair of clean-sheets goes a long way to salving those wounds, but there is much work to still be done.
The looming question is that if Caldwell's time with the club is coming to an end - in a bit of pre-season controversy it was decided that Michael Bradley should wear the armband rather than Caldwell, who has been the consummate leader since joining in 2013 - did Toronto do enough in the off-season to strengthen that position?
Alongside Perquis, Eriq Zavaleta and Clement Simonin were the only defensive reinforcements to enter the club, neither of whom is really ready to step into a first-choice starters' role.
Left-back Ashtone Morgan has resurrected his career, which is excellent, but with current injuries and form, the club has starting calibre in two left-backs, one centre-back, and no right-backs - hardly the makings of a solid back-line.
There is plenty of time to get it sorted, and Hagglund has quality, but he will need some time to formulate a partnership with Perquis before he can be considered as a proper replacement for Caldwell.
All that said, if Caldwell recovers and the sore feelings evaporate, things look a lot better, if a little slow-footed.
Having rested a several starters for the midweek Voyageurs Cup match in Montreal, TFC is expected to field a first-choice eleven on Sunday, aside from Joe Bendik who is still carrying a knock.
Their projected lineup is: Chris Konopka in goal; from right to left - Justin Morrow, Nick Hagglund, Damien Perquis, and Ashtone Morgan across the back; Jackson, Michael Bradley, Benoit Cheyrou, and Robbie Findley across the midfield; Sebastian Giovinco will be paired in attack with Jozy Altidore.
Toronto will hope to win, but questions at the back remain - and if there is anything past TFC has proved it is not to get too cocky; Houston meanwhile is no stranger to high-score-draws, so a rollicking 2-2 draw seems like fun, but a 4-4 would be memorable
For my answers to James's excellent questions go on over to Waking the Red.