Without some key players, Toronto FC battled to a very creditable 1-1 tie at Houston Dynamo on MLS on TSN on Saturday night. It wasn't pretty, but it was effective. That's the way it has to be at the moment if the Reds are to grind out positive results in the final weeks of the season.
With Designated Players Torsten Frings (rested) and Eric Hassli (back spasms) left at home, it was a good team display from Toronto with a couple of standout performances coming from Terry Dunfield and Darren O'Dea.
Dunfield headed in the late leveller, but his battling qualities in the midfield epitomise how this team needs to play with the pieces it has available. O'Dea looks to be a strong signing. Apart from his role in the buildup to Houston's goal, the Irish defender was solid in defence, providing an assured presence to a backline that has conceded the most goals in the league so far this season.
It's not just O'Dea's ability to be a commanding presence and organise those around him that will make him a valued addition to the squad moving forward, but also his ability on the ball. It was his left footed free kick that set up Dunfield's winner, and there were a couple of other examples during the match where he was able to take pressure off his team by knocking perfectly executed long passes from one side of the pitch to the other.
Of course, those are two positives in a situation that is once again far from satisfactory at Toronto FC. The rest of this season's MLS campaign is about playing spoiler against the teams that still have something to play for. But it also allows Paul Mariner to make assessments of which players he will want to keep at the club as they head into their seventh season still looking for a first playoff berth.
Freddy Hall is once such player who is being given an opportunity by Mariner. He has started the last two league games in goal for the club, and is likely to be between the posts again for the Champions League match against Santos Laguna on Tuesday. The fact Adrian Cann and Dicoy Williams were left on the bench while right back Richard Eckersley played in their position is another indication of where they may fit into Mariner's plans moving forward.
The squad is still far from good enough to compete on a regular basis with the league's top clubs. Injuries have played a part, but the fact the club decided to only name five substitutes on the bench in Houston is further evidence of the work that needs to be done to ensure there is enough depth next year to be competitive in MLS.
Montreal Marches On
Montreal Impact are one of the form teams in MLS at the moment. Saturday's 3-0 win over DC United was Montreal's fifth straight win and another exhibition of the entertaining attacking football they are becoming known for. The victory moved them to within one point of the playoff places, but their late season surge may ultimately fall just short.
If they are to continue their challenge for the post season, they'll need to find a way to replicate their home form away from Stade Saputo, something that has eluded them for much of the season. The Impact have only scored 11 goals on the road in 13 matches this season. They have won just twice, tied once and lost 10 times.
Four of Montreal's last six matches are on the road, three of them against teams chasing a playoff place in the Eastern Conference standings, the other an all-Canadian match-up at Toronto FC. It is great to see them playing so well in front of the home fans, but whether they can make the top five will be decided on their ability to carry their superb home form on the road.
Whether the Impact fall short or not, they have proven that an expansion team can be about more than just making up the numbers. They now have 39 points, an impressive total for a first-year team. But they also have assembled a squad that looks like a contender. Much credit goes to Montreal's management for the way they have approached this season. They acted quickly to correct any issues that arose both on and off the pitch, and with a mix of astute business and soccer minds, have given their supporters a year to remember.
Whitecaps Fall Again
Vancouver's loss against Cascadia rivals Portland Timbers was their third straight defeat. More concerning than the result was the actual performance from the 'Caps, summed up by Head Coach Martin Rennie's post-match comments: "That wasn't anywhere near the standard we would expect from anybody and we have to turn it around," he said. "We have to dig really deep now. We know we'll get criticism and I think we deserve it based on that performance."
Is it time to panic yet? I don't think so. Concern, yes – panic, no. The Whitecaps task this season is to get into the playoffs. It would be great to see them challenge at the top of the standings, but that isn't realistic right now. They just have to make the top five, and currently they still have a cushion. They can also look forward to having four out of their last five matches at home. However, they are now in a position where they are forced to look over their shoulder as opposed to chasing down the four teams ahead of them.
Fortunately for Vancouver, FC Dallas fell to a 2-0 defeat at LA Galaxy on Sunday night, keeping the 'Caps five points ahead of the team chasing them for the final playoff place. With two matches gone in a four game road trip, it doesn't get any easier next weekend for the Whitecaps as they look to stop the slump when they travel to face reigning MLS Cup Champions LA Galaxy.
Vancouver Whitecaps at LA Galaxy is live on MLS on TSN on Saturday at 10 p.m. ET, 7 p.m. PT on TSN 2.