The Houston Dynamo are still struggling to put wins together and recently struck out against Canadian foe the Montreal Impact and are hoping to rebound at home versus 2nd place in the Eastern Conference Toronto FC. While the Dynamo defense has been more or less solid, the offense has failed to produce.
In our preview of the match we discussed the difficulties of our own personnel, specifically along the backline, but we wanted to know more about our opponents so we spoke with James Grossi of Waking the Red to understand more about his club.
Dynamo Theory: Toronto FC made the playoffs for the first time in club history last season in MLS by getting the 6th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Obviously TFC didn't make a deep run in the playoffs, but with the club currently sitting in 2nd place in the East, obviously the organization has its eyes on more this season. What were the initial expectations coming into this season for the club and what would be considered a successful year? What would be considered a failed season?
Waking the Red: That's a very difficult series of questions - fans in this city, perhaps due to having been starved for so long, have a tendency to get very excited: see the Blue Jays and Raptors Playoff runs last season as examples.
Expectations have a tendency to rise and fall, depending on the weather, or how the last few games have gone. After the four-match home stand, folks can be forgiven for being pretty, perhaps ridiculously, optimistic about the possibilities. That said, the weight of the first eight seasons sits heavy on the club and fan-base.
If one goes back to the start of the season, what the club's brass has set as the 'goal', or at least a threshold, is a home playoff game. That is what eluded the club in 2015, not to mention all those other years. Doing so would be a sign of progress.
It could be argued that, seeing as this is a rather modest goal, given the investment and passion poured into the project, they should aim higher.
TFC are being a little coy here, inching the bar by the barest of margins to give themselves breathing room.
Every team out there, regardless of whether they are rebuilding or whatnot, has one goal in mind at the start of the campaign: to win the MLS Cup. Anything else they tell you is hogwash.
That said, building a true contender is a process. One that takes time. And, given the nature of the playoff system, a little bit of luck is required as well.
Tim Bezbatchenko, the club's general manager, has been in place for three-plus years, having joined in September of 2013. Greg Vanney, the coach, is in his second full season, having taken the reigns from Ryan Nelsen in August of 2014. Bill Manning, the club president, has been in place for less than a year, having been named last October.
Bezbatchenko has said that building a club, let alone a champion, is a three-to-five year process. When that clock started, is left to the imagination.
If they were to meet that goal of a home playoff game, progress will indeed have been made - it will be a first in Toronto FC history. Once that is accomplished, even if there is disappointment in how it ends, the bar next season will have inched a little higher. But such success could ring hollow with disappointment.
If they were to win that and earn a second, then they would have exceeded expectations - though ones they themselves set purposefully low - and few would be left bitter at what could have been.
On the other hand, were they to not make the playoffs at all, or slink in and drop out away from home in a knockout match, then that would clearly have not met that threshold and be a drastic disappointment. One that may cost jobs.
Dynamo Theory: Toronto FC has played pretty well without the USMNT stars Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley. With the two regaining health, how does Head Coach Greg Vanney insert these guys back into the lineup without taking away the success their replacements have brought?
Waking the Red: This is something that Toronto has been considering over the last little while. The injury bug that bit at the end of June claimed not only Altidore and Bradley, but also Will Johnson and Clint Irwin. Benoit Cheyrou, who was key to the initial spell without those starters, too has been laid up in recent weeks - and TFC have only done better.
In those absences, the rest of the club, players such as Jordan Hamilton, Jay Chapman, Alex Bono, to name but a few, have all stepped up. Those three earned particular praise by coming from deep on the roster to help the club earn points.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to consider leaving the likes of Bradley, Altidore, Johnson, or Irwin on the bench. But the rest of the side stepping up does give Vanney the luxury of selectively working them back into the side, taking his time so as not to see a recurrence of injury. The case of Altidore has been particularly instructive in this: he has featured from the bench in the last four matches, while Sebastian Giovinco and either Hamilton or Tosaint Ricketts made the start.
Bradley was a surprise inclusion on the weekend, having just come back into training. But this situation, players competing for starting positions, options at his disposal, is the sort of thing of which coaches dream.
Depth is so hard to build in MLS and this time of year, as the playoff race starts to heat up and the summer grind builds to fall, can be difficult to navigate. Games come thick and fast, the mileage on older legs starts to build up.
Expect to see Vanney make use of that depth, bringing the returning players back slowly, while also giving tired legs a rest when they need one. A weekend off at this time of year can ensure a player is at peak when the game demands it.
On top of that, all those coming off of injury will not have the wear and tear of the past two months. They will be fresh, ready, and hungry, albeit a little rusty. That can be a tremendous benefit when the matches start to pile up on the opposition.
Dynamo Theory: Although the spotlight has been Sebastian Giovinco for TFC over the course of the season, one of the biggest reasons why Toronto has played so well has been to its back line which has allowed some of the fewest goals in the entire league (and fewest in the Eastern Conference). How has TFC turned things around from last year defensively when they were tied for most goals allowed?
Waking the Red: Indeed, reducing the number of goal allowed, from a league high 58 last season (or 1.70 per match) to the current level of 24 through 23 matches (1.04 per match), was the primary focus coming out of 2015.
It was a process that began with the off-season additions.
Drew Moor, a free agent, brought a veteran MLS presence to marshall the back-line. Clint Irwin, acquired in a stunning trade with Colorado, became the recognized number one keeper, something TFC lacked with Joe Bendik and Chris Konopka platooning. And Steven Beitashour, who joined from Vancouver, filled the obvious gap at right-back, where a never-ending rotation of players, who were most definitely not right-backs, had tried, and failed, to solidify a problem position.
Along with those squad moves, there was also a change in attitude.
Toronto was a free-wheeling, run-and-gun (got to get in all the cliches) kind of side last season. They scored 58 goals in 2015, one for every goal that they let in at the other end. And prior to this recent spell, that prowess was something that had been lost - remove the 12 goals scored over the past four matches and Toronto only had 21 through 19 matches.
There is a certain symmetry in that, by concentrating more on keeping the ball out, they also cost themselves the chances that came from such an attacking outlook last season. And it makes sense that it would take them some time - even half a season - to figure out the balance that best set the match in their favour. Something they have done, if the small sample size of a four-match homestand serves as instructional.
Giovinco catching fire has certainly helped.
Projected Lineup: Alex Bono; (4-4-2, right to left) Steven Beitashour, Josh Williams, Drew Moor, Justin Morrow; Tsubasa Endoh, Michael Bradley, Jay Chapman, Jonathan Osorio; Jordan Hamilton, Sebastian Giovinco.
Predicted Outcome: A lot of this will depend on the first half hour. If Toronto manage to grab one early, they could be very dangerous - teams that have to open up in search of an equalizer are primed to be ripped apart by Giovinco. If Houston repel Toronto's initial attacks, this one could grind to halt.
A score draw: 1-1.
For my answers to James's questions please check them out at Waking the Red!