DC United, riding a team record 20 game home unbeaten streak hosts TFC, who is undefeated in their last three on the road and is even hotter than the best team in the East.
DC United is cruising away with the Eastern Conference at the moment, but the hottest team in the East could very well be Toronto FC who have 13 points in their last 5 games while DC has garnered a mere 10 in the same span despite a home winning streak. It really is a tale of two cities as DC has played 9 of their 15 at home where they have yet to lose in almost a year, while TFC have played 8 of 11 on the road including their first 7 on the road while their home stadium was renovated. However, after a rough stretch early on, Toronto is undefeated in their last 3 on the road and facing a DC team that has seemingly forgot how to lose in fortress RFK.
OK, so here is where I usually discuss who is missing and why they are important, but you know what, apparently it is not important. I don’t know what deals DC coach Ben Olsen has made with the devil, but he apparently can’t lose in RFK no matter what lineup he trots out there. A center back as left back, your most dangerous player suspended, forwards as midfielders, midfielders as forwards, backup goalkeepers at the last minute, playing three holding central midfielders together, etc. Not to even mention the still extensive injury list. Doesn’t matter, apparently DC will find a way, even if it means the soccer gods have to pony up a PK to make it happen like they did against Philly.
First of all, let me say I have been pretty hard on Olsen for his player management and tactics so far this season, but there is no denying the fact this team is night and day different when Fabian Espindola is on the field. All of a sudden, DC’s attack has teeth when Espy is on the field when it is pretty much gumming their food without him. Olsen has had him for three games and he’s had 1 goal and 2 assists and got an opponent sent off in those three games, all of them wins. Without him, it has been scoring by committee, Arrieta first, then Pontius when he broke down, Rolfe picked up when Pontius folded, Kitchen even tossed his hat in the ring for a game, now back to Arrieta, but Espy was the straw stirring the drink in his goals in the 3-1 win against Chicago last time out.
What I would say in my defense is that hopefully Olsen has noticed that Arrieta is very crafty and needs a crafty guy to work with, that Conor Doyle is not a forward and should play in midfield, that Miguel Aguilar is not a left mid, that Nick DeLeon might well be a better forward option than a starting midfielder, and most important of all that he has options tactically with this team if he uses guys in ways that highlight their strengths and hide their weaknesses. Doyle case in point. The guy is not a forward. Doesn’t stretch the defense, not particularly physically gifted or deadly in the box to warrant playing him up top, but whoa nelly, his work rate and first time passing ability is killer in midfield. I have been killing DC players who dribble head down into turnovers, but Doyle hits a first time ball damn near every time and connects on most of them. However, even if he doesn’t connect he scares the bejeezus out of defenders because he does it all the time. Defenders love to defend dribblers in MLS. There’s no Messi’s out there. Nobody is all that scary off the dribble, but hit quick passes regularly and you get every defenders attention right quick.
DeLeon is an active guy in the sense he defends like the old saying about a lazy dog, “well a burglar might well twist an ankle stepping over him”. However he attacks like the dickens, which in midfield more often than not means dribbling into trouble. As a forward though, he stretches defenses in a way Doyle will never do and is crafty enough to work with guys like Espy, Arrieta and Rolfe and even better get behind defenses to put the fear of god into them opening room for others to come in underneath. Aguilar on the left, dribbles into the defense and often into trouble much to the relief of the opposing right back. On the right he stretches people and terrifies the left back who has no help except the sideline. But Espy is the straw that stirs the drink. He can create absolute havoc all by his lonesome that nobody in MLS wants to defend and I will go so far as to say that as long as DC has Espindola and Hamid, Olsen will be in the running for coach of the year.
OK, so if we are discounting whoever Olsen starts because we know they will do the job, then let’s see what TFC is planning to do to DC in RFK. Toronto normally plays a 4-5-1 hybrid where Sebastian Giovinco plays so high up it could be a 4-4-2, but without Jozy Altidore who is out injured and who stays high, Luke Moore and Giovinco will alternate pressure and it really is a 4-5-1, especially as Michael Bradley will be out after beating Holland with the Nats today. Look for Warren Crevalle, who scored a goal last time out versus San Jose to slide inside to a holding role while former Dallas attacker Jackson pulls the wide right duty.
So, TFC will likely play Moore as a lone forward with Giovinco playing very close underneath and not defending much if at all. In midfield, I expect they will play Jackson, Crevalle, Benoit Cheyrou, and Jonathan Osorio right to left. In defense, they will almost certainly play Ashtone Morgan, Damon Perquis, and Justin Morrow in the back, but who will pair with Perquis in the middle is interesting. Eriq Zavaleta maybe perhaps earned it with his play of late, but Nick Hagglund is now healthy to help reinstate Tornoto’s devastated central defense.
Giovinco has a goal or an assist in 9 of 11 games he’s played in this year and the fact TFC has only played 11 games to DC’s 15 it is important to note. Anyway, he is obviously the danger man, and I gotta mention in the old Ben Olsen rabbit’s foot category, if Jozy was playing in this game; uh yeah, DC not favored except for home form that is almost like black magic. But, like LA earlier this year, DC catches a break and won’t face Jozy and the Ant.
Be that as it may, TFC will seek to flood Giovinco with the ball centrally to let his magic open up DC. Now, DC should be able to block that with any combination of Kitchen, Halsti or Arnaud. So TFC coach Greg Vanney should be looking to exploit some issues on the outsides of DC’s defense. The wildly attacking Jackson and the very under-rated Osorio could cause lots of problems for Kemp, Korb, Birnbaum or whoever on the left side of defense, as well as Franklin or whoever on the right.
With that in mind, and assuming Kemp and Korb are out again, Birnbaum is interestingly a good option out wide left. He won’t get beat down the line or inside, he is a threat on set pieces, and he’ll make some noises on offense at least as good as Korb when DC has sustained pressure forward. With Franklin on the right, then DC should be able to button up shop and make it tough for TFC to score.
On the offensive side, TFC is vulnerable down the middle in central defense, and out wide with Jackson and Osorio who defend like they are forced to scrape something off their shoe after a walk in the dog park. Don’t get me wrong, both are fast and physical, but neither really stands up an attacker. Guys like Rolfe, DeLeon, and Coria all have good shots to best them and steam in straight at Morrow and Morgan as outside backs, neither of which are all that frightening either. If DC can hold TFC defenders back on their heels for any length of time, crafty guys like Espy, Arrieta, et al. will score.
Given TFC’s history, even the intangibles favor DC despite the current records being a bit skewed. DC has only 10 point in their last 5 games while TFC has 13 over the same span, and TFC has also gone 2-0-1 in their last three on the road, but DC has gone 6-0-3 at home so far this year and hasn’t lost in RFK since last June. However, it’s important to note DC has played 9 of 15 at home heading into this one while TFC has played 8 of 11 on the road. DC owns the all time record versus TFC at 12-6-3 and the record in RFK against TFC at 5-2-3. DC also hasn’t lost to TFC since
So there you have it, DC should win and probably will avoid a loss, but you never know. The referee is Jair Marrufo and I’ll just leave it at that.