TORONTO — Eight games into the MLS season, Toronto FC is finding its stride.
The defending Eastern Conference champion plays best when it moves the ball fast, allowing its skilful attackers to find space in the opposition defence. And Toronto was in high gear in the first half of a 2-0 win over the Houston Dynamo on Friday.
With just one loss coming into the game, Toronto was hardly suffering. But some points had been left on the table.
That has changed.
Jozy Altidore scored twice in the first half Friday to help Toronto (3-1-4) post back-to-back wins for the first time this season. Coach Greg Vanney fielded the same starting 11 as last week's 3-1 win over Chicago, another TFC first on the year.
"I think we're just scratching the surface," said captain Michael Bradley. "And I think there's a lot of room for us still to grow and improve and get sharper. And ultimately when we think about that, that makes it all pretty exciting."
Consider that Toronto has lost just five of 29 games (15-5-9) since mid-July 2016 with one of those defeats coming in a two-game aggregate playoff win over Montreal.
Vanney liked what he saw Friday, save some turnovers but also agreed there is room for improvement. He'd rather his team finish off opponents with goals than have to protect a lead.
A midweek game against a hot Orlando team will be another good measuring stick, as will how Toronto negotiates the busy stretch of five games in 15 days that started Friday. That includes a visit to MLS Cup champion Seattle and Columbus as well as a home game against Minnesota.
Toronto's depth has shone through this season, with Alex Bono stepping in for the injured Clint Irwin in goal, Nick Hagglund sliding over to fill Drew Moor's role as defensive quarterback and Raheem Edwards filling in at wingback while Justin Morrow moves to centre back.
Despite the defensive shuffling, Vanney's team has four shutouts in eight games.
Altidore, who has five goals in his last seven games, applauded the BMO Field crowd of 25,358 as he came off to a standing ovation in the 79th minute. That was in stark contrast to strike partner Sebastian Giovinco, who headed directly to the tunnel slapping a stanchion en route when he was subbed in the 85th minute last week after scoring twice against Chicago.
Houston (4-3-1) is still looking for its first away victory of the year (0-3-0). The Dynamo came into the game with 15 goals, third best in the league going into weekend play, but only two have come on the road.
Houston packed its backline with a string of five defenders but Toronto cut through that safety net in the 16th minute with a 20-pass sequence that went through 10 TFC players. Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez hit several of those passes but it was Edwards, cutting into the penalty box after a slick pass from Marky Delgado, who found Altidore with a delightfully weighted cross.
Altidore got a foot to the ball which went in off goalkeeper Joe Willis's boot. Replays suggested Edwards may have been offside.
"Whenever the ball moves, defenders have to move and we were doing a good job of doing that ... And when defenders move, holes open up," said Vanney.
Added Bono: "It was beautiful to watch, even for me."
Altidore doubled his tally in the 32nd minute on a nifty one-two with Giovinco, who flicked the ball over three defenders to free his burly strike partner. Altidore controlled it with his chest and then smashed it home with his right foot from close range. Edwards was also involved in the buildup to the goal.
"Good team goals, good football," Altidore said in a halftime interview.
Giovinco almost made it 3-0 in the 41st but Willis got a fingertip to the shot, pushing it off the post. Willis also tipped a Giovinco free kick wide in the 67th minute in a second half that saw Toronto less dominant.
The Dynamo threw on more attackers as the game wore on but could not breach the Toronto defence. The visitors outshot Toronto 19-10 (shots on target were tied 5-5) and had nine corners but could not take advantage as TFC looked to defend its lead.
Houston coach Wilmer Cabrera took solace from the second-half showing.
"Hopefully we learn that for the games to come because when we did it we matched up with them and we started to play with better possession and control. And we could generate better attacking control and hopefully we can learn from that and start doing it from the beginning."
Honduran Alberth Elis was the pick of the Dynamo forwards before giving way in the 73rd minute.
Edwards, a 21-year-old local boy making his fourth start, gave the right side of the Houston defence fits.
The Toronto victory snapped a five-game winless streak against Houston (0-2-3) dating back to July 12, 2104.
With a team payroll of some US$5 million, Houston's entire roster costs less than Giovinco or Bradley.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press