The Houston Dynamo unveiled a new 4-4-2 last week against the San Jose Earthquakes which led them to their first clean sheet of the year as they took three points in the 2-0 win at BBVA Compass Stadium. The club is hoping for another first of 2017 as they hope to carry their momentum to Toronto, Canada where they’ll face Toronto FC at BMO Field.
In our preview of the match we discussed the new formation and what a win would mean to Houston, but we wanted to know about TFC so we spoke with James Grossi of Waking the Red to get an inside perspective on our opponents north of the border.
Dynamo Theory: Toronto FC finished strong last season as the runners-up to the MLS Cup, but currently sit just 1 spot out of a playoff position. Although they’re only 5 points off the club in 1st place in the Eastern Conference, they haven’t exactly jumped out of the gate given the number of draws the club has so far. What’s led to some of the trouble to finish out games and a relatively slower than expected start?
Waking the Red: It's been a bit of a strange season here in Toronto, no doubt, which has led to some consternation both within the club and amongst the fan base – the emotional conclusion to the win over Chicago provides some evidence of the frustration in place.
What the club will tell you is that they don't believe that on the balance of play through every match thus far they have deserved to lose a single one. One could make an argument about the Columbus match, the only one they've lost, but even there, had they taken their chances in the first half, the game could have been out of reach.
Two things have proved particularly costly this season: momentary lapses of concentration on the defensive end and the lack of the final action in attack.
To some extent both are functions of the new season. Toronto had a ridiculously short off-season – somewhere a little north of 40 days. Much though that can be a good thing, it also means that they haven't been able to shutdown and properly ramp themselves back into form. That shouldn't be too much of a worry, it will come with time, but will be a factor through these early passages of the year.
On the defensive end that manifests itself it occasional breakdowns and Toronto's opponents have been particularly precise, maximizing the output from the few chances that come their way. In attack, that slows down the build-up, giving opponents that extra split second to regroup and defend. Sebastian Giovinco thrives on those milliseconds, without them his task becomes harder.
Reasonably, one can expect that if indeed this lack of concentration and sharpness are by-products of the quick turnaround that both should fade as the season wears on.
Another factor that will not, and should not be overlooked, is that the club now has a target on their back.
When a team takes to the pitch against Toronto FC, they know that they must be on their game to give themselves a chance. They get up for the match. And thus tend to put in very solid performances. Salt Lake on opening day looked nothing like they did the few weeks after that 0-0 draw. The 2-2 draw with Philadelphia was undoubtedly their best 90 minutes of soccer – their first half against Montreal may have rivalled it, but then came the second frame.
In addition to that, teams are more content to seek to frustrate, sitting back, making TFC break them down, while waiting for opportunities to counter. The 0-0 draws with Kansas City and Salt Lake, as well as the 2-2 with Atlanta are prime examples – both Atlanta goals came on quick counters, very much against the run of play.
Some combination of all those factors have played a role in the less-than-ideal start. That said, the club has still lost just once and, if they are to be believed, are poised for a strong run as those hiccups fade.
DT: As I mentioned above, the Reds finished very well last season and fell just short of the ultimate prize in MLS. What has Toronto done this offseason to get them to the next step of winning the Cup and challenging for the Supporter’s Shield?
WR: There were two major additions to the club – in the form of Victor Vazquez and Chris Mavinga – otherwise, very much against the norm of MLS, it is largely the same side that reached such heights last season.
In Vazquez TFC sought to find a lock-picker, the player who came see and make the final pass in the attacking third, unlocking opponent's defenses. On several occasions last season, Toronto struggled against well-structured opposition. The MLS Cup Final loss to Seattle, where the Sounders did not manage a shot on goal and, one could argue, were playing for penalties from the off, was a prime example. But so too were the several occasions where despite playing up a man – or two on one notable occasion against San Jose – TFC were unable to find the breakthrough.
Thus far, Vazquez has been everything he was advertized as; perhaps more. Through seven appearances, the Barcelona product (must be mentioned at every opportunity) has already contributed five assists and a single goal. In one way or another he has factored in on seven of the clubs last eight goals and it is said that in terms of his partnership with Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, the surface of that relationships potential is just being scratched.
Mavinga is a left-sided defender that was brought in to shore up that side of the defense. Capable of playing either left-back or, more likely, the left-sided of the three centre-backs in Toronto's 3-5-2, he was a highly-touted teenager – spending time at Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool – before dropping down the French league on loan and landing most recently in Russia.
He is big, strong, and quick – there was some talk that he may be faster than Tosaint Ricketts, the acknowledge speedster on the side.
However, his start has not been as fortuitous as Vazquez'. He was at fault for both Atlanta goals in his only start. Understandable, given the lack of football he has played in recent years. He is on a large number, which will draw some criticism, but expect, as the season wears on, for Mavinga to find a role in the side.
In addition to those two, the club added a few other pieces: Raheem Edwards, an exciting winger/wide attacker was graduated from TFC II to the first team – he has seen some success already this year, as was Sergio Camargo, an attacking midfielder who was with the academy before heading off to college – his minutes have come in USL thus far. Jason Hernandez, a veteran defender well familiar in MLS circles was brought in to shore up the back – Drew Moor's current situation (a cardiac arrhythmia) has made his signing more crucial, though due to a slight knock and Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta stepping up in Moor's absence, Hernandez has yet to be called upon.
The club also signed two draft picks to first team deals: Brandon Aubrey and Oyvind Alseth, both of whom have spent most of their minutes with TFC II. They also added Mark Pais as a third goalkeeper following Clint Irwin's injury – Pais had been signed to a USL deal in preseason, while Ben Spencer is also in the squad, though he too has only seen minutes with II.
DT: The Reds have one of the best defenses in the league allowing only 7 goals in 7 games. For an attacking oriented team like Houston, what would be a way to navigate their way through to a chance on goal?
WR: Looking for an inside scoop here, eh?
Aside from set-pieces, which can always be a bit of a gamble for defenders, any opposition looking to get the better of TFC's defense has one of two options: the counterattack or catching them in transition before the behind-the-ball structure can get set.
Admittedly, the two are closely related.
The counter is pretty self-explanatory. It is the way of modern football that teams are so well drilled that advantage is to be found in quickly getting up-field before the opposition has a chance to get set up. A good example of this would be turning an TFC corner kick into a sprint in the other direction.
The other method is a little less-obvious. As mentioned above, a portion of TFC's troubles have been self-inflicted. When playing a possession game such as Toronto prefers, there are occasions where players have committed to going forward, thus exposing vulnerabilities at the back. When one has the ball, such risks are bearable, but when it is carelessly turned over or mistakes are made, it can be costly.
Many of the goals TFC have conceded this season have come from just such incidents.
The game plan therefore would be to let Toronto spread themselves thin with possession and then apply pressure to try to force such an error, prompting a turnover in a dangerous spot and thus exposing the vulnerability.
It should be cautioned that Michael Bradley may be one of the best at sensing such dangers and marauding over to put out any such fires, which makes such a tact all the more of a dangerous game: Toronto can punish teams who are too aggressive, but thus far this season, it would be an opponent's best hope to force the issue.
Projected Lineup: Alex Bono; (right to left): Eriq Zavaleta, Nick Hagglund, Justin Morrow; Steven Beitashour, Marky Delgado; Michael Bradley, Victor Vazquez, Raheem Edwards; Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco.
Predicted Outcome: 3-1 Toronto.
One does get the sense that there will be goals in this one – Houston averages three goals against per road match (admittedly, small sample size; though that does make the math easier) and Toronto still has those little flaws in its back-line. Cubo Torres will get a look or two, and, judging by this season, that is about all he needs to nab one. But there was an element of turning the corner in the win over Chicago last weekend. TFC have looked like the floodgates were about to open several times this year; it may just be to Houston's misery.
For my answers to James’s excellent questions, including one about what it feels like to do well so many years in a row to missing out on the playoffs several years in a row, please check them out at Waking the Red!