Fresh off a rousing 2-0 win in San Jose, their first win in San Jose this century, DC United must shatter another long record of futility and get their first back to back wins in over two years by collecting the full three points on a woeful Toronto that is barely above the basement in MLS.
June of 2009. A full and appalling 25 months ago was the last time DC had a two game winning streak, and if they harbor any serious hopes for getting back into the playoffs for the first time since 2007, they simply must defeat Toronto FC tomorrow night.
United is in perhaps its most crucial stage of the schedule, the time when they simply must beat the teams that are below them in the standings, and TFC certainly qualifies. The win in SJ was a lively start on such a run, but those glorious 3 points will be wasted unless DC can find a way to play, and more importantly, win at home where they have been just short of dreadful this year.
RFK is normally a fortress for the Black and Red, but not so this year. DC has not won at home since beating Seattle back in early May (0-2-4 at home since that game). Overall, DC is a shocking 2-3-5 at RFK so far this season, being outscored 17-13 to boot. Worse, just when it seems United has righted the ship and begins scraping together some points this season, they drop a four goal clanger that hurls the RFK faithful right back into the dumps of despair.
So, while it might seem a bit soon to be talking of must win games, the opposite is true. If United fails to thump a dreadful TFC team, then DC simply cannot be considered a contender for a playoff position. In a bizarre twist of fate, DC’s sterling road form has the team a mere four points behind the faltering Red Bulls and the streaking Sporting KC for the last playoff spot. But, if fails to drop TFC, that four point chasm could easily become insurmountable in the stretch run to come.
Especially if DC fails to beat a Toronto team that is going through a serious roster upheaval, and will be travel weary having been to Nicaragua and back this week as they scraped by Nicaraguan League winners, Real Esteli to climb their way into the CONCACAF Champions League proper.
TFC has added some big names the last few weeks such as Torsten “Handball” Frings and the Flying Dutchman, Danny Koevermans, but that has not translated into much success in MLS so far. They did manage a 2-2 tie in Portland last week that the Timbers simply gave them a point, but prior to that were on a four game losing streak having been outscored a shocking 12-2 and shutout three times, which has firmly entrenched them at the bottom of the table.
Predictably, Dutch coach Aron Winter has struggled to replicate the Ajax system in Toronto with the stiffs he inherited and has been steadily rebuilding the roster on the fly all season long. TFC has used a stunning 35 different players so far this year, and goalkeeper Stefan Frei, and defenders Ty Harden and Danleigh Borman are likely to be the only three players on the field tomorrow who were on the field when DC beat TFC 3-0 back in April.
Given TFC’s travel and this being their fifth game in 18 days counting CCL games, it’s tough to say who starts for them, but given their need for points to salvage their dismal season, I do expect pretty much their top lineup. Which means Koevermans, Joao Plata, and Ryan Johnson as forwards, with Frings, Julian DeGuzman, and Nick Soolsma in midfield, and a defense of Richard Eckersley, Andy Iro, Harden, and Danleigh Borman going right to left.
DC’s Ben Olsen has some tinkering to do as both starting forwards, Josh Wolff and Charlie Davies missed DC’s last match and have only recently returned to full training. Dwayne DeRosario ably filled in and filled the nets in that 2-0 win in SJ, but I suspect at least one will return to the starting lineup and push DeRo back into midfield. Also, DC will be without Super Sophomore Andy Najar who got red carded (a bit harshly in my opinion) and is suspended for this match.
So, looking into my crystal ball, I think Olsen goes with Wolff and rookie Blake Brettschneider as forwards, Chris Pontius (who had two goals in DC’s earlier 3-0 win over TFC), DeRo, Clyde Simms, and either Austin Da Luz or Brandon Barklage to replace Najar in midfield. The defense is almost certainly Perry Kitchen, Dejan Jakovic, Brandon McDonald, and Daniel Woolard in front of Hamid which has been the backbone of DC’s resurgence defensively.
So, looking at the matchups is a bit dicey given TFC’s frantic 4-3-3. But, they way they have interpreted that system lately has been to play Plata and Johnson as almost wing forwards, keeping only Koevermans up high, usually stranded with nothing to do but flail around ineffectually. However, the diminutive Brazilian Plata is quite a dangerous threat up that left side, and the battering ram, Johnson brings a bit of honest physical effort that has caused DC some problems this season.
At any rate, the key defensively will be for Kitchen to shut down Plata on his own as much as possible, for anytime Plata gets loose and pulls a central defender wide, DC’s defense will be in trouble. If Plata stays contained, Jakovic against Koevermans and former teammates, McDonald against Johnson are good matchups for DC.
Offensively, things look pretty bright for DC. TFC’s defense is their Achilles heel as Harden and Iro might just be the two worst starting center backs in the league, certainly the worst pairing in the entire league. Wolff, DeRo, etc. should be able to find room to roam and cause nightmares for Frei if they get themselves isolated on TFC’s weak central defense.
However, the Englishman, Eckersley is a very good player and could shut down Pontius if he’s slightly off his game. It’s also a shame Najar isn’t on the field as then beating the weak defending Borman on the other side is a slam dunk, but Da Luz or Barklage is a less promising situation. So, if those two guys are shut out allowing Frings and DeGuzman to blank DeRo, then it becomes a slugfest and DC is in a battle they don’t want to fight. Pontius, and Davies off the bench again, may well be the key in this match as well.
And for once, the trends actually favor DC pretty decently. United is 7-3-1 over TFC lifetime, 3-1-1 in RFK although the last two times TFC visited they pulled off the win and the tie (DeRosario scored the tying goal at the death of the 3-3 tie in 2009, and scored the final two goals in their 3-2 win in the last game of last year, btw). Granted, DC has hardly been frightening at home and had a pitiful loss to NE last time out, but they have tied Philly, Houston, Colorado and Dallas here too. Even better, TFC is winless on the road in MLS so far this year at 0-7-5 being outscored a whopping 27-8 being shutout 6 of their last 9 road matches. TFC also boasts the worst defense in MLS having given up 43 goals in 24 games for a whopping -22 goal differential.
So there you have it. DC can win and should win. For pity’s sake, a two game win streak shouldn’t take more than two years to replicate, and a proud franchise like DC United should not be flailing away their playoff chances for the fourth straight season by dropping points at home to the skells of the league. TFC tomorrow is an imperative three points, and then Vancouver next week becomes a lot more likely three points which will go a long way towards boosting the team’s chances heading into the stretch run.