DC Faces Tough Test in Toronto

The new look DC United got some old results in their home opener two weeks ago and now has to head into Toronto looking to get back on track against a revamped Toronto team that was a whole lot more impressive in their win in Seattle.

DC United replaced seven starters this past off-season and unfortunately fell 3-0 to the Crew in an auspiciously bad beginning to their 2014 campaign to restore their respectability. Usually a trip to perennially inept Toronto would be just the cure, but where DC took small prudent steps forward in upgrading their roster, TFC went whole hog and splashed the cash with big time players right down the spine of the team, and those guys won their season opener for only the second time in their history in perhaps the most daunting place to play in MLS by beating Seattle 2-1.

Just for comparison, DC brought in Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola, both solid MLS veterans, to provide the scoring. TFC brought in long time premier league forward Jermaine Defoe and a veteran of the Brazilian league, Gilberto who will likely make his season debut for TFC tomorrow, to provide their scoring. In midfield, DC brought in Davy Arnaud, TFC brought in Michael Bradley. TFC revamped their defense as well as DC did, but those guys held a pre-season favorite in Seattle to a single goal on the road, while DC’s backline gave up 3 to a very lightly regarded Crew offense at home. And that’s not even mentioning their acquisition of the Brazilian number one keeper in Julio Cesar.

Bottom line is that TFC went big in the off-season while DC went less big and probably got the results they deserved in their first action this season. But one game does not a season make. TFC had more than a few shaky moments in Seattle and their roster is somewhat top and bottom heavy meaning that due to the salary cap they have the horses out of the gate for sure, but their depth drops off like the Marianas Trench, while DC has less expensive talent at the gun, but more options to play with off the bench which can change a match in a good way.

Looking critically at DC’s opening loss, DC played well in the opening minutes of the match when their outside backs bombed up the field and discombobulated the Crew for about 15 minutes. When pushing the play with numbers up, DC looked good. Unfortunately, a bad defensive mistake by Nick DeLeon led to giving up a very bad goal early on which put DC on the defensive. Then it looked like the heads went down and a few minutes later after a fairly soft PK awarded against them pretty much doomed the team to a loss.

When DC looked good, the wing backs were up and the midfield compressed so that DeLeon and Davy Arnaud were close to Luis Silva allowing for them to play the quick short passing style all of them excel at. Unfortunately after the two goals were ceded, the wing backs stayed home more, DeLeon and Arnaud drifted wide, Silva was isolated and hardly any balls made it to either Fabian Espindola or Eddie Johnson (EJ) for most of the rest of the match, not to mention the room that shift afforded to Higuain who burned DC all night.

However, the insertion of Lewis Neal changed the match in that he simply got his head up and bypassed midfield to look for EJ over the top and it nearly worked a couple of times and he also helped keep Higuain under wraps with a few choice body checks to make sure. Now, DC has had two weeks to work out their strategy against TFC, but the bottom line is that DC needs to impose their will on the game and for the most part that will has to be finding EJ going one on one, or getting behind defenses as much as possible, and it does no good for Espindola to run himself into the ground if there are not enough players upfield to take advantages of any mistakes he makes defenders makes with his pressure.

To me it seems simple, commit to bombing your wing backs upfield, play almost a 3-5-2 where Kitchen sits in front of central defenders Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke, compress the midfield since it is your weakest link right now, so flood it with numbers, and look to spring EJ or pounce on a mistake forced by Espindola’ pressure or simply cash in on some freekicks as that was another strength DC displayed. I would start the same starting XI with the caveat only that if DeLeon is not up to the job, Neal should replace him. Not as flashy a player as DeLeon, but he gets the job done more often than not and is much more a two way player that fits in with Kitchen and Arnaud better as long as DeLeon is not bringing his shooting boots or his defensive head to the game. I like his talent and upside, but if he’s not going to affect the game on the scoresheet, then he’s a liability right now.

Coincidentally, that is a good strategy to use against TFC. Toronto’s strengths are right down the middle and their wings were not very impressive. Flood the middle and help negate what Michael Bradley is going to do against most teams in MLS this year, collapse on Defoe and obviously eliminate mistakes which he will clearly pounce on ruthlessly. Counter attack against TFC’s relatively soft central defenders.

I expect DC to start the exact same starting lineup (unless maybe Neal does start over DeLeon) and I expect the same starting lineup for TFC. So former DC MLS Cup winner Ryan Nelsen will trot out Defoe, and former DC MLS MVP Dwayne DeRosario as forwards. In midfield, Alvaro Rey, Jackson Goncalves, and Jonathan Osorio will join future MLS MVP Michael Bradley, and along the backline it should be Justin Morrow, Steven Caldwell, Doneil Henry, and Bradley Orr, now that he’s back from injury, across the backline from left to right in front of Cesar in goal.

So, looking at the matchups, offensively, I like Arnaud and Sean Franklin going up against Rey and Morrow and Deleon or Neal and Cristian Fernandez going up against Jackson and Orr. I doubt Silva does anything against Bradley, but I think EJ and Espindola can find some space against Caldwell and Henry to finish chances provided from the outsides or from balls over the top.

Defensively, well it doesn’t look as good obviously. But, assuming Boswell, Parke and Kitchen play to their strengths which is positioning and smarts, they should win most of their battles with Defoe and Osorio who seem to rely more on craft and opportunism than outright physical domination. DC is also clearly hoping for the DeRo of 2013 to show up as opposed to the DeRo of 2012 who lit up his old teams to the tune of enough goals to secure an MVP trophy, but enough said about that.

If we’re looking at trends, DC has historically done well in TFC (who hasn’t?) but this is clearly not your father’s TFC team nor is it the DC of 2010 or 2013, or the improbable Eastern Conference champions of 2012 or the Supporter’s Shield or Open Cup winning teams of 2007 and 2008. I suspect trends will have nothing to do with this match, but it would be nice if they did as DC is 6-3 in BMO field outscoring them 11-8, and 10-5 over TFC lifetime outscoring them 35-25.

A DC victory is obviously a stretch. TFC is too talented in most starting positions, but an improbable win or a good solid well-earned draw could go a long way toward giving DC some momentum in the old team building department. It can’t have sat well that the new look team played like and got the results of the last year’s epically bad squad. A point, or soccer gods willing, a miraculous win in Toronto and there could be a whole lot of gelling going on in DC.

This team has potential, all they need is some results to point them on the right path.

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