No doubt United is aware of their current status at the very bottom of the table in the East now that TFC has won two games this past week while DC was idle, and it wasn’t like TFC beat up on slouches either. They absolutely pounded the Fire for their first win and showed some lovely grit and determination to close out the defending MLS Cup Champs from Houston this past Wednesday.
Still, those efforts may well leave Toronto a bit drained as they are finishing a stretch of three games in 7 days with this match against United, while DC has had two weeks off since their win over Chivas. The time off has certainly helped United get healthier and happier with Fred on the mend and more time to train Gros in their shiny new 4-4-2 lineup, but it will be interesting to see which of TFC’s veteran leadership answers the bell for this match after their two emotionally draining matches this past week.
Both Jim Brennan in central defense and Carl Robinson in central midfield have been key elements to give TFC the confidence and leadership they needed to pull themselves out of the 0-4 hole they were in, but neither of them is a spring chicken and how well they or their replacements play against United could well decide the match.
Since changing to a 4-4-2 with the addition of Wynn and Goldthwaite, TFC has looked markedly better in handling pressure defensively, and show much more precision in the attack which along with their over the top fan support has led to their flurry of wins. But United has also trotted out the 4-4-2 in their last two games for a win and a tie themselves. Something has to give in this match and United better treat this like a Cup final or they could well find themselves in a hole they can’t climb out of with a ladder.
Looking at the matchups, you’ve gotta love the idea of Moreno and Emilio going up against Boyens and Brennan. Boyens has quite simply been the worst central defender to play in any MLS game outside of Salt Lake City this season. I can’t believe he will shut out Moreno, much less Emilio too, especially if Brennan isn’t there or is too tired to bail him out.
In addition to that, Gomez versus Robinson in central midfield could swing the match dramatically as well. If Gomez can find a way out of the fog he’s been playing in since the last Olimpia game because Robinson is too tired to control the ball the way he did to frustrate DeRo and the Dynamo, then United’s attack should have a huge edge right down the heart of the field.
However on the outsides, DC has been lacking all season and that has to change if Toronto does manage to clog the center of the field. Fred should be back starting on the right and I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if he can’t outplay that wild card Welsh that Toronto has attacking that side of the field. Welsh is no doubt a lively sort, but he consistently makes the wrong decisions with the ball except when Ronnie O’brien banks it off his head, and while Goldtwaite proved to be a handful against his old team, Namoff should negate his attacks easily enough, so the right is a tossup at worst if not an outright edge for DC.
But, how DC handles the left will be interesting. Ronnie O’Brien is a dynamic force and DC no longer has Dema to get in his head. With Wynn flashing up that side of the field as well, DC could well be in trouble if they trot out Olsen in front of Gros. Josh is a wonderful athlete and has the heart of a lion, but he’s not a very good defender, and he’ll have his hands full containing O’Brien by his lonesome, much less covering for Olsen getting beat for speed by Wynn.
To slow down that right side of their attack, it might behoove Soehn to make Olsen the fifth straight veteran to miss a start this season. Erpen, Carroll, Moreno, and Emilio have each found themselves on the pine to start one of the past four matches. I think Olsen might well be a good candidate for this match as he’s a warrior for sure, but somebody with legitimate attacking flair has to be out there to keep Wynn and ROB in check. I’d vote for Casal as he’s proven to be troublesome and his play has led directly to two of United’s six goals this year, however Moose, deRoux, or even Kpene could easily fit the bill as well.
As for United’s defense, obviously Boswell and Erpen can’t afford any mistakes as that pesky Esky will be looking to punish any miscues in revenge for his being traded away this past offseason. That, and that beast Dichio should be back from his suspension for chewing on CJ’s hand. He’ll be a load for Boswell to deal with, but I can’t help feeling that Bobby is going to relish the challenge and keep him at bay for the most part. No doubt it will look like a couple young rams butting heads for most of the match, but I think Bobby rises to the challenge in this one. Boswell just seems to relish the physical battles a lot more than the cerebral pursuits, and these two will certainly be closer to Aussie rules than chess.
The last piece to the puzzle is Carroll matching up with Maurice Edu in the center of the field. Since Robinson has showed he will hang back and orchestrate rather than push forward, it’s fallen on the first pick in the draft out of Maryland to make the dagger runs out of the midfield for Toronto. Edu scored the decisive goal in Toronto’s win over Houston and he’s had plenty of other chances barely miss in other games, so he’s going to be a slippery fish for Carroll to control. In this match, Brian simply cannot afford to be late covering for his deep runs (or Erpen and Boswell must be lively to help out), or Edu could prove to be trouble.
Carroll has yet to show he can play the lone central defense role in the center of a 4-4-2, but this could be a good chance for him to learn on the fly. There’s no better team to play against to show what he can do in that lone disruptor role. Robinson plays more of a safe possession game, and Edu is a rookie, so if Carroll doesn’t clearly control his area of the field, then that’s a bad omen for Brian if United continues in it’s diamond four midfield.
United has never lost their first away game against an expansion team, and they’ve averaged a two goal win the first time they’ve played in an expansion city, so DC has a bit of history on their side. They beat the Fusion and the Fire 2-0 and 3-1 in 1998, and they beat the Chivas and RSL 2-0 and 3-1 in 2005, so if the form holds this should be a 2-0 win for United. However, with a lot of time on my hands this week, I noticed DC has been pretty horrible in their sixth game of the season historically. United is 2-6-3 in sixth games all time, including an appalling 0-5-1 away record in sixth games of the season.
Still, the unavoidable fact of this game is that United virtually has to win the game just to keep pace, much less make up ground. A loss would put DC five points adrift of Toronto for fourth place in the East with only the Crew within striking distance three points ahead of us. Not only that but the ugly parallel to 2000 will rear its beastly head again. DC was 1-4-1 after the sixth game that season and would have the exact same record this year if they lose in Toronto, so any thoughts of a loss are simply unacceptable.
United is beyond feeling good about making a point with a valiant tie on the road. Nothing less than a win can be tolerated. Toronto is an expansion team that only recently learned how to score goals and close out games, and is coming off a emotionally draining week. The third game in seven days might well blunt the rabid crowd support up there as well. This is a game United must win if they expect to regain the swagger they entered the season with.