SPORTS

Toronto FC playoff hopes dealt a blow as Houston Dynamo hang on for the win

10/08/2014 09:44 EDT | Updated 12/08/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - Toronto FC's playoff push took a body blow Wednesday night. But star midfielder Michael Bradley is not ready to pronounce the patient dead yet.

Still, a 1-0 loss Wednesday to the Houston Dynamo, a team that has been road kill all season, wasted three valuable points.

Bottom line, Toronto no longer has games in hand and sits three points out of a playoff place with three games to play. It needs to keep its pedal to the metal and hope somebody above it slows down.

Coach Greg Vanney said sixth-place Toronto is still in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, just with zero margin for error. And Bradley, who had a fine night, left no doubt that his team won't exit without a fight.

"There's three games left, there's nine points on the table," said Bradley, levelling a death stare at a nearby reporter that would have done Godzilla proud. "If we take nine points, I'm pretty sure we're going to be right there. I think taking seven points gives you a really good chance.

"So until somebody tells me that mathematically we're no longer in it, every single guy in this locker-room is still going to be believing."

The loss was frustrating and painful, given Toronto's ample chances.

Houston was reduced to 10 men in the 55th minute when defender A.J. Cochran was sent off for dragging Luke Moore to the ground. Jermain Defoe, in his first start since Aug. 23, was foiled on the ensuing penalty by red-hot Houston goalie Tyler Deric.

"I believe if that goes in, then maybe it's a different game," said a disappointed Defoe. "We'd probably had enough time to get the second goal. But even after that the (Houston) 'keeper made some good saves.

"It was just one of those games."

While Houston had only lost one of its last six games, it was missing three starters to international duty and had leading scorer Will Bruin on the bench after sitting out more than a month with a foot injury.

Toronto outshot Houston 26-9, but led only 8-6 in shots on target. Defoe (seven shots, two on target), Moore (5-2) and Brazilian winger Jackson (4-2) all had their chances.

"I asked the guys to lay it out there, to play it was like their last game and I think we did," said Vanney. "At the end of the day, the game comes down to executing in the box. We just didn't do that today."

Giles Barnes' first-half goal, coupled with Deric's heroics, gave Houston a nervy win.

"It will keep us in the playoff race," Barnes said of the victory. "I thought the team was fantastic. A massive three points on the road. It was a great team performance with a man down as well."

The dropped three points were crucial for Toronto (11-13-7), which could have moved into fifth place in the East with the win. Instead Houston (11-14-6) joined Philadelphia within one point of Toronto.

All three are looking up at the Columbus Crew, who hold down the last playoff spot in the East by three points over Toronto.

The Houston game represented Toronto's game in hand on the five teams ahead of it in the Eastern Conference. Toronto has three games left — away to the New York Red Bulls, home to the Montreal Impact and away to the New England Revolution.

"My message to the guys was what we lost today was our margin of error for the rest of the season," said Vanney, whose record at the helm dropped to 2-4-1.

"We now have to go out and we have to win. That's it. ... For me, we've got to be almost perfect from here on out. That means if we play like tonight and finish our chances, maybe that's enough. But we've got to be more clinical when we get our opportunities."

Toronto, which entered the league in 2007, has never qualified for the post-season. But TFC has already set single-season franchise records for wins and points this season.

The game, TFC's penultimate at home in the regular season, was overshadowed by the Maple Leafs' home opener at the nearby Air Canada Centre. There were plenty of empty seats in the announced crowd of 18,269 on a chilly 10-degree night at BMO Field.

That snapped a streak of 15 straight sellouts (22,591) this season.

It was a rare road win for Houston, which came into the game with a 2-11-2 record away from home this season — only Montreal is worse at 0-12-3. But Barnes, an English forward, has been a thorn in Toronto's side all season with two goals and two assists in three games against TFC.

He gave Houston the lead in the 35th minute, taking a well-weighted ball from Kofi Sakodie down the flank and beating rookie defender Nick Hagglund, who went down with what looked like a well-timed nudge from the Houston forward, before beating goalie Joe Bendik between the legs for his ninth of the season.

"Should have been a foul in my eyes," said Vanney.

Hagglund and fellow centre back Steve Caldwell agreed.

The game turned controversial early in the second half, with a penalty no-call, followed by a missed penalty and red card — all at the Houston end.

Deric — in just his 11th MLS game, subbing for the injured Tally Hall — had a night to remember as Houston recorded only its second ever win (2-3-4) in Toronto.

"He was spectacular," said Vanney.

"Tyler is a monster," added Barnes. "It's unfortunate the way he got his chance but he is like that every day at training. So I don't expect anything less from him, any game, any chance he has to play. He is incredible, he is a great 'keeper."

Defoe, who saw 30 minutes action as a substitute last week in his return from a groin injury, was lively but his range-finder was just off.

"We all know he hasn't played a ton of games over the last two months," said Vanney. "And I think that's unfortunately what got him a little bit in this match, just sharpness really in and around the goal. "

Brazilian forward Gilberto, who was out last week with a hamstring issue, did not dress for Toronto after a late fitness test.

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