The Houston Dynamo home-heavy schedule for the opening two months of the season will be coming to an end soon. They’re in Toronto this weekend, and then after two more home games, they enter a stretch in which five of their six matches will be on the road. With zero points in their two away games thus far, they will have to figure out what they need to do to gain away points.
A road loss to a quality out-of-conference opponent would be by no means a disaster for the Dynamo, but losing the first three away matches of the season does not bode well for their playoff chances.
Here are three keys for that game:
1. Cut off Giovinco and Altidore
Sebastian Giovinco broke out of a poor run of form last week with two goals in a dominating 3-1 win over Chicago. He looked much more like himself — getting on the ball often in the final third, looking more confident and bold in his actions — and the results came for TFC, who had no trouble in beating down the Fire.
The way he gets his goals, and the way Toronto create most of their attacks, is through Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, in some way, shape or form. Whether it’s through expert hold-up play from Altidore or their ability to drag defenders around and open space for teammates, everything starts and ends with these two when in comes to TFC’s attack.
That means the Dynamo have the task of tracking them, and making sure they are never isolated with defenders or have time to control the ball in the final third. Letting Toronto have continued possession high up the field is generally death.
The first step to stopping the two is making sure Giovinco gets the least amount of touches as possible. He helps initiate TFC attacks from deep with expert diagonal switches or weaving dribbles forward that draws the entire opposing team to him like seven-year olds. Play him tight, even if it means allowing more space to someone like Jonathan Osorio.
Altidore’s ability to bully defenders and play with his back-to-goal is part of what makes the above hard. He will draw defenders away from Giovinco and help combine with him and others; people forget how beautiful of a touch he has:
The plus for the Dynamo is Adolfo Machado who has shown himself to be a strong physical presence in central defense so far in his debut MLS season. Machado has the physical tools, if not the technical skills, to at least content with a talented No. 9 like Altidore.
Bottom line: Houston will require real defensive organization and commitment from the midfielders to deal with Giovinco and Altidore. Sustained attacking pressure from TFC could kill the Dynamo, especially from their strikers.
2. Prevent overloads on the flanks
A prominent feature of TFC’s 3-5-2 is the use of their wing backs. No other team in MLS utilizes their full backs as much as Greg Vanney does, and it can become a serious weapon when they are on their game.
Justin Morrow, arguably the best left back in MLS, could very well end up at center back again on Friday due to a round of injuries, in which case Homegrown Toronto native Raheem Edwards would receive another start opposite Steven Beitashour. Edwards played well against Chicago last week, and he provides the same characteristics to their attack that Morrow does, albeit with slightly less quality.
Given the lack of width in the formation and the focus on Giovinco and Altidore, the wing backs provide another element to an already scary attack. How often do you see one full back assisting another from open play?
Morrow is a legitimate goal-scoring threat. Not even Columbus’s Harrison Afful or Seattle’s Joevin Jones — two of the best overlapping outside backs in MLS — can say that.
There are ways the Dynamo can minimize their effectiveness: 1) pin them back by pushing wingers (or strikers) out wide when pressing, and 2) allow the midfielders more flexibility to support the Dynamo’s outside backs in defending them, to help prevent Toronto from getting overloads down the flank.
3. Find a little bit more of the ball
The Dynamo seem to have no intention of ever possessing the ball during a game. They kept only 41% of the ball last week, despite being at home and holding a lead for most of the game, against what I once thought was the team most averse to possession in MLS.
This is fine, because possession doesn’t really matter all that much in this league. I’m not trying to say they should start trying to play out of the back, because they shouldn’t, or change how they play despite general success. But against a team like Toronto, a team that likes to hit teams quickly on the counter and wear them down with constant balls into the box and shots on goal, it might be better to hold on to it a bit longer, because if you have the ball, the other team can’t score, right?