TORONTO — A week that saw Toronto FC post two wins against teams above it in the standings ended in depressing fashion Saturday in a 3-1 loss to the Houston Dynamo, a team that travels about as well as nitroglycerin.
The ugly defeat came despite Toronto having 68.4 per cent possession — 80.1 per cent in the second half. Toronto outshot Houston 18-7 although the Dynamo had a 6-5 edge in shots on target.
After electing to rotate his roster by making seven changes, Toronto coach Greg Vanney responded to a 2-0 halftime deficit by throwing on star striker Jozy Altidore and winger Jacob Shaffelburg.
But Toronto's second-half surge was nipped in the bud by a calamitous Houston goal in the 57th minute.
After a Toronto attack ended at the other end, Tommy McNamara fired a long ball up to a lone Mauro Manotas, who managed to elude Eriq Zavaleta, Laurent Ciman, Liam Fraser and Jonathan Osorio before beating goalkeeper Quentin Westberg.
"I don't even know to explain it," said an incredulous Vanney. "It's one guy against like five .. It's completely inexcusable."
"It was Keystone Cops," he added.
It was an uncomfortable evening all round. Toronto was under a heat warning Saturday and the temperatures were in the low 30s at kickoff.
McNamara and Tomas Martinez also scored for Houston (9-9-3), which had lost eight straight road games and ranked as the league's worst team away from home.
"We played for each other today," said McNamara. "We had to sacrifice a hell of a lot to get the three points and we desperately needed three points. It was a tremendous effort."
Substitute Jozy Altidore, with a fine header, scored for Toronto (8-9-5) in the 75th minute to cut the lead to 3-1. It was his eighth of the season.
An 83rd-minute Toronto goal off a Michael Bradley free kick was ruled offside.
Only Westberg, defenders Ciman and Justin Morrow and midfielder Tsubasa Endoh retained their place as Vanney rolled the dice on his starting 11.
Altidore and Bradley, both designated players, started on the bench. The team said Bradley was being rested — the first time he has been a healthy non-starter since April 2018 for a game at Colorado in the CONCACAF Champions League.
It made for some high-priced spectators with Toronto's bench making more than US$13 million this season.
Bradley, while voicing support for Vanney, said he wanted to be out there.
"I always want to play. I wanted to play tonight. I feel good. I feel like I'm in a good rhythm of playing and doing all the things I need to."
Vanney said he had made a "calculated move" in choosing his starting 11, looking for an "energetic group on the field to push the tempo at the start" while knowing he had big guns on the bench to close out the game.
"The problem was we didn't come out with any energy in the first (half) Everything was very stagnant, slow, passive, too soft. The goals we gave away were ridiculous."
The performance lacked "intensity and purpose and aggression."
The lack of energy is strange given many of those given a starting role are fighting for playing minutes. Vanney said he will be reviewing the pecking order in the wake of Saturday's performance.
After enduring an eight-game winless streak (0-5-3), Toronto had righted the ship in recent weeks. It had won its last two against Montreal and the Red Bulls and lost just once in the five games (3-1-1) prior to Saturday.
The Dynamo had been going in the other direction, having lost three straight — giving up 11 goals in the process — and winning just two of their last 12 matches (2-8-2) prior to Saturday after a 6-1-1 start to the season.
Houston had lost its last eight road league games — outscored 20-4 — since winning 4-1 at Colorado on March 30.
The visitors went ahead in the fourth minute on McNamara's goal, which was set by a beautiful pass by Memo Rodriguez that bypassed five Toronto defenders. Ciman misread the play, stepping up to get close to another Dynamo player and leaving space for the pass to McNamara.
Martinez doubled the lead in the 76ers minute, put in alone by a nifty flick from Manotas to cap a Houston attack that saw too many Toronto players left in their tracks.
Altidore had a couple of early chances in the second half and Shaffelburg drove at the defence and fired a shot just wide. Houston 'keeper Tyler Derrick had to tip a long-range Ciman shot over the bar.
Osorio's shot was cleared off the line in the 73rd minute. A Toronto penalty appeal for handball was then turned down as nothing went the home side's way.
Both teams were missing key pieces.
Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo, a third DP who tops Toronto with nine goals and eight assists, sat out after injuring an ankle in Wednesday's 3-1 win over the visiting Red Bulls.
Houston made five changes to the team thumped 5-0 midweek in Atlanta. Colombia's Manotas led the attack in place of the suspended Alberth Elis, the team's leading scorer who was sent off six minutes into the Atlanta contest.
Morrow marked his 200th game for Toronto in all competitions.
Toronto hosts FC Cincinnati next Saturday, the first of eight straight games against Eastern Conference opposition.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press