Both United and Toronto are 0-1 in MLS with each team enduring a dismal 2-0 away loss to Eastern Conference opposition in their MLS debuts. While United looked pretty listless in Kansas City, Toronto was a bit more lively, but equally ineffective in Columbus.
No doubt DC United is looking forward to their first MLS game in RFK after a completely underwhelming first week of the season. Pegged by many to be best team in MLS this season, United has shown precious little of the flair and effectiveness expected considering the improvements made to the Supporters Shield winning side from last year.
Obviously, on paper DC United is clearly the superior team. But after the dual blows to their collective ego in the last seven days, plus the return leg against Pachuca looming Wednesday, the mentality of the team may be far more important than their skill.
However with the RFK faithful at their back this weekend, and one of the least talented teams in MLS coming to visit them, there is every reason to believe United will get back on track with a rousing display of soccer much closer to what was expected prior this past week.
An added boost to the old collective ego should be the return of Jaime Moreno to the lineup on Saturday. DC’s legendary Bolivian marksman has been out with a tweaked hamstring since the first Harbour View match, but has practiced well the past two days and likely needs to get some work with the first team if he is to be expected to have a positive effect in the Pachuca match.
Toronto can’t be happy to think that United should be able to field Moreno for likely the first 45 minutes against a defense that appears to be no better than the porous quartet they trotted out last season. The Red Patch boys did add Puerto Rican central defender Marcos Velez, which allows them to send the woefully inadequate Andrew Boyens to the bench. But that didn’t help them prevent two goals from a bare handful of chances by that motley Crew in Columbus.
Offensively, Toronto does seem to have found a bit more excitement in the attack, however. For one thing the team is almost fully healthy for the first time in their history, which means the crafty Cunningham, devastating Dichio and a much more svelte, Samuel are a decent rotation at forward that could be a handful in MLS this year.
Cunningham and Samuel started last week, and their speed was trouble for the Crew, however their finishing was not. Cunningham has always been a streaky scorer, and Samuel missed a PK badly, so that could mean Dichio starts against DC. But I think Toronto stays with speed as their best bet to crack United’s solid back four. Especially as Toronto’s midfield play was extremely erratic, and starved the forwards for much of their first game.
Edu and Robinson simply did not get up field enough to support their attack, and Hemming was a complete non factor on their right. Dunivant is decent on the left, but not really a threatening winger in MLS as he shoots and crosses like a defender caught too far up field, which is of course, what he is.
However, that brings up an interesting possibility for Toronto as they signed former French international winger Laurent Robert this week and he is available for the Canadians in this match after only a few days of practice with the team.
Robert is certainly a dynamic left wing with a thunderous shot and a deadly free kick, but he also has had a pretty turbulent career with stops at Newcastle, Paris St Germain, and most recently couldn’t crack the lineup for the dreadful Derby County. Still, Toronto had an opening for a head case winger after jettisoning Ronnie O’Brien in the off-season, so clearly they think that’s a priority position to fill.
Podcast buddy and Newcastle fan Randy Ruff might have captured the essence of this signing the best when he told me that, if the simple fact that Robert is forced to play in Canada because he has alienated everyone in France and England wakes him up, he has the talent to make a difference in Toronto. However, if not, he’s a head case of epic proportions. Still, I think no matter what, the dread Robert isn’t likely to have much impact this weekend. Likely he only plays some minutes in the second half if the game is close and TFC needs a Hail Mary.
In terms of tactics, Toronto tends to be a blue collar team that is direct in the attack, and when defending is certainly not shy of the hard foul whenever they see an unprotected shin. However, Harbour View tried being physical and DC smoked them unmercifully as the game wore on. Gallardo in particular is a lot tougher than expected and seems to handle such tactics with relative ease.
So, looking at the matchups, DC has some clear advantages going forward. Robinson and Edu had trouble controlling Eddie Gaven, and Gallardo is a few levels beyond that for sure. Emilio and Moreno (or Niell or Quaranta) against Velez and Marshall looks like a winner, and Fred against Wynne is completely lopsided for DC.
Defensively, DC looked pretty good against a Pachuca side that is an order of magnitude better than Toronto is, so it’s hard to see where Toronto can expect to find an opening to exploit. The only real fly in the ointment is that Namoff and Burch will need to see some rest in the second half in order to be sharp for Pachuca. I think we might see Mediate and maybe rookie Pat Carroll get some time in the second half of this match.
There’s also been some speculation about Wells being benched for his hideous mistake against Pachuca, and the team going with Carvallo in goal. Of course the team would say that it’s merely a rest for Wells, and Carvallo needs the work if he’s to be ready for the crush of games DC faces this season, blah, blah, blah. But no question about it in my mind, if Carvallo plays this game it will be a benching no matter what is said.
Personally, I can’t see doing that to Wells this early in the season, and especially not at such a fragile time. DC simply cannot be seen as being that close to pushing the panic button after a difficult loss in Mexico. A new goalkeeper added to the mix of a fledgling defense recently finding their form could be a disaster, and imagine if it doesn’t work. A stunning loss to Toronto could doom DC’s psyche for weeks at best, and maybe for the season at worst. It’s simply too big a risk.
Bottom line, I expect DC to come out hard against Toronto and show that despite the ugly results lately, they are well on their way to putting things in order. Rousing home crowd behind them, and a big incentive to pull themselves together and gain some confidence at this precarious time, playing against a team they’ve never lost to, just makes the arguments for a good solid win too compelling.
If Toronto couldn’t muster up any success with the backing of 3,000 fans in Columbus, and with the vaunted Trillium Cup in the balance, how could anyone expect success in RFK against a DC team they’ve never even tied, much less come close to beating? (Seriously, the Trillium Cup? Are you kidding me? A Cup named for the official flower of Ontario and Ohio? It even sounds like a nerd award given to the least objectionable team at the bottom of the table.)
Jokes aside, no MLS team has lost their home opener so far this year, as a matter of fact, six of the eight openers so far have been comfortable victories for the home side, and Real Salt Lake deserved to win as well if not for that Blanco miracle. I simply can’t see DC being the first home casualty of this season considering all the circumstances, and if both teams play as good as they are capable of playing.
However, if DC hasn’t found a way out of their collective funk, if Gallardo and Emilio still can’t tune into the same wave length, if doubt is beginning to creep into the minds of our defense, if another bad loss is chalked up this time to a motivated bottom feeder, then United’s expected path to glory this year could be meandering a long way off course.