TORONTO - They did not arrive with the hoopla of some of Toronto FC's off-season signings, but Luke Moore, Collen Warner and Dominic Oduro bring a smile to manager Ryan Nelsen's face.
"They are three brilliant trades," Nelsen said. "Those players have elevated us as a team to probably a next level.
"We might not see that until four or five more games, but I think some of the quality of our play has been very good. You see it in training, see the levels have just got so much better and better."
For Nelsen, no matter how good your designated players are — and with striker Jermain Defoe and midfielder Michael Bradley, Toronto has two excellent ones while the verdict is still out on Brazil forward Gilberto — a talented supporting cast is essential.
A chock-a-block July schedule should allow Moore, Warner and Oduro to bed in with TFC. Toronto (6-5-3) has played two games already this month and has five more league games and a high-profile friendly with Tottenham left in July.
Next up are the 5-10-3 Houston Dynamo, who visit BMO Field on tonight. The two meet again July 19 in Houston.
The six points on offer are especially valuable given Toronto, despite having played four fewer games, holds a slim three-point edge over Houston in the Eastern Conference standings.
Unlike Toronto, the Dynamo are enjoying a leisurely schedule in July with just four games.
But Houston has been suspect on the road with a 1-7-1 record this season, scoring five goals while conceding 20. That's two more than Toronto has in 14 games home and away.
And Houston ranks worst in the league in goals allowed, averaging 1.89 a game.
Toronto will likely have to make do Saturday without Bradley, who wanted to play immediately upon his return from the World Cup. Nelsen started the U.S. international last week, moving Bradley farther up the field in a revamped formation.
"I look back and regret it," Nelsen said. "I tried to play Michael ahead of Brad (Orr) and Warner, more to save his legs. But after abound five minutes when he picked the ball off the centre-backs and was behind the centre-backs and started players, he just ended up going to what he knows and it kind of got us out of sync.
"Too many guys doing very similar jobs. We changed it in the second half and it was more like us."
Nelsen replaced Orr with Oduro at halftime and put Jonathan Osorio on for Bradley after 61 minutes.
Nelsen kept Bradley out of training this week, allowing him to recover from a variety of niggling injuries and it's expected the American star will watch from the sidelines Saturday. Orr will likely start in his place alongside Warner.
On the plus side, Gilberto has returned to training from a hip flexor and is eligible for selection. The Brazilian will likely start on the bench with Moore partnering Defoe.
"Me and JD, we enjoy playing with each other," said Moore. "We have good understanding on the pitch."
The Dynamo have suffered in midfield from an injury to Ricardo Clark (concussion) and the World Cup absences of American Brad Davis and Honduran Boniek Garcia. All three were back for last week's 2-2 draw with the New York Red Bulls, with Davis converting an 82nd-minute penalty to secure the tie.
Houston has not won a league game since a 1-0 victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy on May 17. The Dynamo are winless in six since — a 1-5 stretch that has seen them outscored 15-2.
"Their position in the table probably doesn't really resemble the quality in their squad," said Nelsen. "I think they'll make a typical Houston run (in the second half of the season). It's when you're in these ruts, how can you get out of them? And they're in one and they just can't seem to get a win."
For Toronto, the game is a chance to put last week's 2-1 loss to D.C. United behind it. That defeat turned a six-game unbeaten streak into a three-game winless string.
"We let one slip against D.C.," said Nelsen.
Now is the time to start turning games in hand into points. Moore, Warner and Oduro will play their part in that endeavour.
Moore has three goals in seven games since joining Toronto from the Colorado Rapids on May 8 for defender Gale Agbossoumonde.
"He's been brilliant," Nelsen said of Moore. "I thought he was really good in the New York game (a 2-2 tie June 27) but I think he's just got better and better. Now he's playing with Jermain a lot, their understanding's really good. And that second half against D.C. (United), nobody could get near those two. They were very good."
Moore turned heads at an early age. He made his Premier League debut at 18 with Aston Villa and scored his first Villa hat trick at 19. Moore went on to play for West Bromwich Albion, Derby County, Swansea City and Turkey's Elazigspor before coming to MLS.
Captain Steven Caldwell, who played against Moore in England, points to the striker's skills in holding up the ball.
"He's got a lovely touch and brings people into the game. Nice turns. A very elegant player."
Added Nelsen: "His feet and vision are fantastic."
That works well with Defoe, who uses his speed and vision to separate from defenders.
Warner arrived May 16 from the Montreal Impact in exchange for Canadian international midfielder Issey Nakajima-Farran and allocation money. He's expected to play a key role in midfield, allowing Bradley to move forward as needed.
"He's been absolutely outstanding since he's come here, I think you can see his quality on the park," said Caldwell. "He's obviously a combative midfielder with passing range and very good feet on him."
Warner, a 26-year-old from Denver, now has a home in Toronto, taking over Ryan Richter's place after the fullback was loaned to Ottawa Fury FC.
Oduro came from Columbus on June 6 in exchange for Spanish midfielder Alvaro Rey. He provides pace on the flank, a scoring threat who can also play up front. Oduro also brings league savvy, having made a combined 235 league and playoff appearances before pulling on a Toronto jersey.
NOTES — Rookie centre back Nick Hagglund is suspended after receiving a red card last week. That opens the way for Doneil Henry to move back into the centre of defence alongside Caldwell.