Houston Dynamo vs. Toronto FC brings a British air to North American game with players, styles

A Brad vs. Bradley midfield battle did not materialize last Saturday but Brad Davis and Michael Bradley are expected to feature at BBVA Compass Stadium on Saturday when the Dynamo host Toronto FC (8 p.m. CT; TICKETS).

That would see the U.S. World Cup teammates lock horns as rivals 24 days after they took on eventual champions Germany together in rainy Recife. Bradley missed last weekend’s 4-2 Toronto win at BMO Field but played on Wednesday as his side tied 1-1 with the Vancouver Whitecaps at home.

He is one of the very best American players of his generation, so the Dynamo know that keeping the 26-year-old former AS Roma man in check will be key to establishing mastery of the midfield.

“Michael Bradley’s going to be a player on their team that adds a level of composure and intellect to an already pretty smart team, as we saw last week. They break well and we can’t give them opportunities to turn and run with numbers so we have to be smarter about holding our position,” said goalkeeper Tally Hall. Left back Corey Ashe may be available after missing the past two games with knee problems, which would be a significant boost to the Dynamo defense.

While Houston head coach Dominic Kinnear is vastly experienced, his opposite number on Saturday is a relative novice, though he is no stranger to MLS. Ryan Nelsen is in his second year as Toronto’s head coach. A former New Zealand international defender who went to Stanford University, he spent four years with D.C. United then moved to the English Premier League in 2005, playing for Blackburn Rovers, Tottenham Hotspur and Queens Park Rangers.

He hung up his cleats in January last year to take the Toronto role. The 36-year-old has mined his British connections in the transfer market, bringing in former Tottenham teammate Jermain Defoe, striker Luke Moore, utility man Bradley Orr and veteran Scottish defender Steven Caldwell, who will miss Saturday’s match due to injury. Former Dynamo players Dwayne De Rosario and Dominic Oduro are also on the roster, while Brazil's starting World Cup goalkeeper, Julio Cesar, was on loan at the club from QPR before the tournament.

Defoe followed up his Dynamo double with the equalizer from the penalty spot against Vancouver, taking him to eleven MLS goals on the year. The point leaves Toronto third in the Eastern Conference, seven points behind leaders Sporting Kansas City but with three games in hand. It was achieved at a cost, with defender Mark Bloom and former FC Dallas midfielder Jackson suffering injuries that have ruled them out of the trip to Texas.

Last Saturday’s match was one of the liveliest and most chance-laden Dynamo games so far this season. “2-2 at half time, a lot of goals, and obviously the third [Toronto] goal makes it really open because we’re trying to chase the equalizer there. It’s just guys wanting to attack a lot,” said Kinnear.

For winger Andrew Driver, the flow of the match, the surroundings and the names on Toronto’s teamsheet reminded him of home. The 26-year-old was born near Manchester, England, and moved to Scotland aged 11 where he played for Edinburgh side Heart of Midlothian, lining up opposite Defoe in a Europa League tie in 2011.

“Their pitch up there was quite small, a pretty British style pitch. I’d met a couple of the guys there before and I think it was quite an old British-style game. Physical, end to end, they’re good on the break. We’re renowned for being fairly British in the style we play so it was pretty much like a blast from the past, really,” said Driver.

Houston really will face off against a British club the following Saturday, when English Premier League club Aston Villa visit the Bayou City for the BBVA Compass Dynamo Charities Cup.

“I grew up in Scotland so I don’t think I ever played against Aston Villa. Massive team though, so it’s going to be a good experience. I think they’re one of the sleeping giants in England, it’ll be nice to test ourselves against a Premier League team. They’ve got a massive fanbase, a great stadium, a lot of history. There’s a lot of teams in England with a lot of history but they’re up there,” Driver said.

Before that prestigious occasion, the focus is on claiming a MLS win that the Dynamo know will only be achieved with a tighter defensive performance than they’ve produced in recent weeks. Last weekend a commanding position slipped away.

“Any game you go 2-0 up you think to yourself ‘this should be three points today’. We’ve got to cut those mistakes out,” said Driver. “I think we’ve showed we’ve got the quality going forward, we can score goals, we’ve just got to prevent the goals going in now. A few weeks ago we couldn’t score and were shipping goals, now at least we’ve got the goals. We’ve got to shop shipping goals and our season could quickly turn round if we do that.”

Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.