MLS takeaways: TFC all about the Champions League at the moment

Michael-Bradley

Michael Bradley in action for TFC. (Chris Young/CP)

Toronto FC 1 (Taintor 52’), Houston Dynamo 5 (Manotas 3’, Leonardo 7’, Alexander 46’, Elis 60’, Quioto 77’)

GAME RECAP IN A SENTENCE

Once again Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney fielded a reserve side in MLS play ahead of a crucial CONCACAF Champions League contest, and once again the Reds were outmatched and suffered a humbling loss.

MAIN TALKING POINTS

1. Vanney fields reserve side for 2nd straight MLS game
Having dropped a 2-1 decision at home to Chivas Guadalajara in the first leg of the Champions League this past wek, and with the decisive return match slated for Wednesday in Mexico, Vanney not-so-surprisingly decided to trot out an under-strength team against Houston, just like he did in last weekend’s 2-0 road loss to the Colorado Rapids.

How under-strength was TFC? Consider that Mitchell Taintor, who only joined the club on loan from second-division club Sacramento Republic on Friday, was in the starting lineup, as were Ryan Telfer and Julian Dunn, two recent call ups from the TFC 2 farm club. Or that Vanney only had five players on the bench, instead on the standard seven. Or that captain Michael Bradley and the rest of the starters weren’t even in Texas – instead, they flew directly to Mexico with assistant coach Robin Fraser to get a jump on preparations for Wednesday’s do-or-die contest versus Chivas.

To nobody’s shock, Houston outplayed Toronto, seizing on a makeshift defence that featured Dunn, a 17-year-old prospect who only made his MLS debut last week in Denver. His lack of experience, and that of Taintor and Telfer, showed throughout the contest, and veteran goalkeeper Clint Irwin was routinely hung out to dry.

But, it is what it is. The Champions League looms, and TFC is rightly focused on that at the moment. It’s unreasonable to have expected a patchwork lineup such as this was going to compete on even terms in Houston. Forget about it, and move on.

2. Should the game have been rescheduled?
Toronto tried to get Saturday’s game postponed so that it could have this weekend off from MLS duty ahead of next week’s Champions League second leg in Mexico. No official reason was given as to why it wasn’t, but you have to believe the Houston Dynamo didn’t sign off on it.

And to be honest, why would they? It’s naïve to think Houston would want to help out TFC. The Dynamo could smell blood in the water. They knew Vanney would field a reserve team, and not bring his bug guns to Texas. They saw an opportunity to collect an easy three points against the reigning MLS Cup champs, and they took it. By all looks it’s going to be a tight race in the Western Conference this season, and a side like Houston needs every point and win it can get.

Having one of its teams win the Champions League is a very big priority for MLS. No non-Mexican cub has ever won the tournament, and MLS is desperate to improve its reputation in the international soccer community. A TFC win on Wednesday would go a long way towards that goal. But this was a Houston home game, and they should have just as much say over rescheduling it as Toronto, regardless of the Reds’ Champions League schedule. The Dynamo had every right to say no to postponing the game.

3. No need to panic
TFC sits in last place in the Eastern Conference, 14 points behind leaders New York City FC, and have already lost four times – the Reds only suffered five losses all of last season. It’s not the kind of start the MLS Cup champs wanted.

But, as always, context is key. Toronto has fielded reserve sides in MLS matches in order to rest starters ahead of a crucial Champions League contests. That might not sit well in some quarters, but it’s understandable why they’ve prioritized winning the continental competition, as it represents the next frontier for this ambitious club. If TFC pull off the comeback on Wednesday night in Mexico, it’s difficult to imagine anybody remembering the fashion in which they dropped points against Colorado last week and Houston on Saturday.

Toronto has games in hand on every other team in the East, and it’s only April – there’s still plenty of time for them to close the gap. What’s more, they have the added bonus of not losing captain Michael Bradley and star forward Jozy Altidore this summer for World Cup duty.

And another important point to keep in mind. Toronto earned one win and collected just seven points from their first six games of the 2017 campaign. By the end of the year, they set the record for most points in an MLS regular season, won their first Supporters’ Shield, repeated as Canadian club champions, and hoisted the MLS Cup.

KEY MOMENT

2’ GOAL! Toronto FC 0, Houston Dynamo 1: It was a disastrous start for Toronto. Julian Dunn lingered on the ball far too long deep inside his half after being a played a simple pass by teammate Jason Hernandez. Houston’s Romell Quioto stripped Dunn of possession, and Mauro Manotas broke in on goal before firing through the legs of TFC goalkeeper Clint Irwin. There was no way back for the Reds after that.

BURNING QUESTION

QUICK TAKE

Vanney will no doubt be concerned about how his team is giving up early leads. Saturday marked the third consecutive game in which TFC have conceded a goal inside the opening three minutes. The Reds went on to lose all three times. In the first leg of the Champions League final, Chivas caught Toronto flat-footed in defence. On Saturday, it was a defensive error just outside the penalty area that led to Houston’s opening goal. Having given up two road goals in the first leg, TFC simply can’t afford to concede early on in Wednesday’s return match against a side whose defence has been breached just twice in the Champions League (and both of those goals came on the road). They need a strong, mistake free start in Guadalajara in order to give themselves a chance of overturning the deficit.

INTERESTING STAT

Mitchell Taintor on Saturday become the 100th player in franchise history to score a goal for Toronto FC in all competitions. (Hat tip to Martyn Bailey)

MAN OF THE MATCH

Romell Quioto, Houston Dynamo: The Honduran took full advantage of playing against a makeshift and largely inexperienced TFC defence. He expertly set up two goals (the first a result of his solid muck work in which he forced a turnover), and then scored Houston’s fifth on the afternoon to complete the rout.

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