Nobody said it was going to be easy for Toronto FC to finally end its post-season drought this year.
The Reds are firmly in the playoff mix, currently sitting third in the Eastern Conference with games in hand on the two teams above them in the standings, and the three teams directly below them. But TFC is dealing with injuries to three starters, and is in a gruelling stretch that sees them play eight games in a month.
Here are three things to watch in Saturday’s road game versus the Houston Dynamo.
Saturday programming alert: Watch the Houston Dynamo vs. Toronto FC live on Sportsnet 360 and Sportsnet World. Coverage begins at 9:00 pm ET. You can also watch live on Sportsnet Now. | TV schedule
Changes to the back line
Toronto played its first game without injured captain Steven Caldwell in Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps. The Reds did well to come from behind to earn a valuable point, but it came at a cost—both right back Mark Bloom (MCL strain) and Brazilian winger Jackson (Achilles) picked up injuries.
Bloom is out four to six weeks while Jackson is expected to be sidelined for 10-14 days. Caldwell is out for a month with a quad tear.
The loss of Jackson can be overcome, as the Reds have other attacking options. But the absences of Bloom and Caldwell means they’ll be without two of their regular starting defenders, forcing coach Ryan Nelsen to shift things around at the back.
Look for Nelsen to start veteran Bradley Orr alongside youngster Doneil Henry in the centre of defence, and rookie Nick Hagglund on the right side. Orr is a right back by trade, while Hagglund’s natural position is in the middle. But both have spent time in their new spots (Hagglund came on for Bloom when he was subbed out in the Vancouver game, so the transition—in theory—should be relatively painless.
“We’re missing two starting defenders but when you bring in those two guys, you’re not really worried,” Nelsen said of Orr and Hagglund.
Cutting out the soft goals
TFC has four points from its last two games—the draw with Vancouver and a 4-2 win over Houston at home last weekend. In both matches, Toronto came from behind to earn a positive result.
Nelsen is pleased with the character his team showed, but is more than a little disappointed in the way they conceded the three goals. On Wednesday, Vancouver’s Russell Teibert went on a penetrating run down the left and cut back a pass from the end-line into the box. Teibert’s pass eluded three TFC defenders before reaching Darren Mattocks who tapped it home.
TFC was caught ball watching and allowed the play to develop, instead of reading the danger and snuffing it out. It was the kind of defensive lapse that the Reds suffered on both goals they conceded in their win over the Houston—and it left Nelsen shaking his head.
“There has to be a real intensity, and alertness of danger when (the ball) comes into certain areas that you have to be so concentrated. Better players tend to punish any lack of concentration or lack of focus,” Nelsen offered.
“We have been really good at that. We’ve been very strong; guys have been very good. But we’re getting punished once or twice when we lose a bit of focus.”
TFC needs to stop Barnes and Davis
Giles Barnes and Brad Davis tore apart Toronto FC’s defence last week in the Reds’ home win.
Barnes seized on some slack defending and twice fed the decisive pass to teammate Brad Davis who bagged a brace to give Houston a 2-0 lead after 30 minutes.
On the first goal Barnes found an unmarked Davis on the left side of the box and he slotted home past TFC goalkeeper Joe Bendik at the near post. Davis netted his second goal while alone at the back post off a cross from Barnes.
Henry said he and his defensive cohorts have to do a much better job of shutting down Barnes.
“He’s athletic. Very strong, very smart and very fast—everything you want in a striker. We’re not going to give him that much time on the ball to make a decision. He picked out Brad Davis twice (last week), and he punished us with his pace,” Henry stated.
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