DC travels to Toronto for tricky tilt

Red hot TFC hosts recently resurgent DC United with both teams coming off big wins over Eastern conference rivals in the mid-week.

League leading DC United extended their lead in the Supporter’s Shield race when they topped the abysmal Chicago Fire 1-0 on the road mid-week playing pretty much their B side, but DC will be looking for their A team to keep the ball rolling in Toronto. However, TFC might well be the most feared team in the league right now coming off a big time 3-1 rout of Montreal at home for their fourth win in their last five matches. A game in which Sebastion Giovinco furthered his argument for MLS MVP and which saw all three of their designated players score a goal for the first time in MLS history.

In the third of a wicked stretch of 5 matches in 12 days the last 4 of which are on the road, United coach Ben Olsen took the chance to rest a ton of his starters when facing the last place Fire in Chicago. The gamble paid off when the Fire played like a last place team allowing reserve Conor Doyle to strike a venomous volley to win it late in the match. Regular starters Fabian Espindola, Chris Rolfe, Nick DeLeon, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, Taylor Kemp, and Chris Korb all were rested or played very little in Chicago which means those A players should all be available to start in Toronto. It appears Olsen will be without Sean Franklin and Chris Pontius again however.

Toronto coach Greg Vanney has had little of the same schedule congestion since they are long since bounced from the Canadian Championship (Canada’s version of the Open Cup), and having already endured a long stretch on the road while BMO field was revamped earlier this year. So while TFC is indeed at the end of 3 games in 8 days, it’s their first such stretch for them all season and all of those games have been at home to boot. Considering TFC is set to lose Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Jonathan Osorio, and Ashtone Morgan for the Gold Cup, I have no doubt all of those guys play this last home game before they leave, especially as Vanney’s defense remains dinged up with projected starters Steven Caldwell and Mark Bloom still out as they have been most of the year.

With all that in mind, I think it very likely Olsen starts Espindola at forward and continues to tinker a little bit with a true 4-5-1 lineup that he has been using out of necessity lately, but might very well be a key to shutting down the explosive TFC as well as taking advantage of their relatively weak central defense. The makeup of that five man midfield should be interesting however. No question Chris Rolfe and Nick DeLeon start at the wide positions and it is equally certain that Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud will play centrally, but that third attacking midfielder/second forward slot is up in the air a bit. Team second leading scorer Jairo Arrieta has been starting quite a bit lately and should probably be considered an A player at this point, but he has to be gassed considering the minutes he’s played the past two weeks. As for Luis Silva, the only thing he has shown coming back from injury lately is his inability to play midfield at all, or even be very effective as a second forward, so I doubt he starts either. I think Olsen pulled Facundo Coria first from the Fire match with the idea he starts underneath Espindola in this match as the point man of that central midfield trio.

Starting in DC’s defense will almost certainly be Kemp and Korb bookending Kofi Opare and either Bobby Boswell or Steve Birnbaum. I think Birnbaum gets the nod both to keep the aging Boswell from playing on that turf and giving him some rare time off, but also to give a boost in confidence to Birnbaum who has been taking one for the team lately playing out of position as right or left back. Birnbaum is a competent defender no doubt about it, but he has not looked comfortable playing a wide role and he deserves a vote of confidence by playing him in his natural role in the center. Opare almost has to start given the speed and physicality of Altidore, and Luke Moore as well should he play. Birnbaum is a good complement to him especially in the air to combat the long balls and crosses TFC like to put into the box. Boswell could do it too of course, but Birnbaum has that bit of still youthful athleticism over Boswell’s smarts. Of course none of that matters if Bill Hamid in goal keeps dismissively slapping away shots like a water buffalo twitching away flies on the Serengeti.

TFC will use a 4-4-1-1 similar to the formation they used to break DC’s long home unbeaten streak three weeks ago, but this time Bradley will be available and Altidore will be healthy. Altidore almost certainly starts at forward with Giovinco in that second forward role. Osorio, Benoit Cheyrou, Bradley, and likely Warren Crevalle should start left to right across midfield for the Reds. Possibly Vanney uses Jackson instead of Crevalle to be more dynamic in the attack, or even Collen Warner to be more defensive, but I think those options will be used off the bench depending on the situation. Morgan, Eriq Zavaleta, Damien Perquis, and Justin Morrow should be the defense going left to right in front of goalkeeper Chris Konopka.

So. Looking at the matchups and styles, DC has their work cut out for them even if their A players bring their A game. DC’s five man midfield should go a long way toward shutting down Giovinco who killed them in that loss earlier this year as well as providing some cover for DC’s wing backs Korb and Kemp who can get caught out from time to time. In particular Rolfe has shown the endline to endline effectiveness Olsen demands from his wide players and he should be matched up with Osorio both to negate the Canadian’s attacks, but also to force him to defend which he doesn’t really want to do. DeLeon has been the second best wide midfielder for DC this year. Not as dynamic or precise in the attack as Rolfe, nor as timely or consistent in defense either, but he is active on both sides of the ball and will pop up in the attack from time to time, as well as get in the way defensively if nothing else. Certainly enough to outplay Crevalle and hold his own against Jackson or the teeth rattler Warner.

But this game will be decided right down the center of the field. Opare and Birnbaum or Boswell can certainly handle Altidore at least as well as anyone in the league can handle the best forward America has right now, especially if Arnaud, Kitchen, and Coria can maintain some sort of control over Giovinco, Cheyrou and Bradley. Admittedly that’s a tall task, but DC has shown they can be stingy so it’s possible. Still, no matter what, you gotta figure those guys get one at minimum and two goals more likely, so DC has to figure to score at least two to pinch a draw.

Which is where Espindola, Rolfe and the clever Coria come in going against TFC’s suspect defense. Perquis and Zavaleta scare no attacker in the league and Espy is easily wily enough to force a mistake or punish a missed assignment from either of them all by himself. But if Rolfe and Coria can combine with him often enough to keep Bradley way back defending, it helps DC’s defense as well as maybe turns possession in DC’s favor which will allow Kemp and DeLeon to pressure Morrow and Morgan respectively, DC might well get those two goals they will need. Cheyrou bossed the midfield and didn’t allow that from DC last time, but Coria could be the wild card in this one. Definitely a tough task and maybe even unlikely to boot, but certainly possible.

Which is good because the intangibles don’t favor DC at all unless you consider ancient history or hope the soccer gods get involved. As mentioned, TFC is hot coming off their fourth win in the last five matches, but they have also won three of their last four at home, two out of the last three by 3-1 scorelines. TFC is a respectable 3-2-0 at home having outscored visitors 8-6 altogether in those 5 matches and only being shut out once. TFC did lose 0-2 to NYCFC at home recently, but an early PK in that game, a lack of Altidore for most of the match, and a mighty performance by Josh Saunders in the nets for NYC had a lot to do with that. Also, while DC did eek out that win in Chicago, they remain 3-4-1 on the road having only scored 5 goals and given up 7 in those 8 matches. DC is 12-7-3 all-time versus TFC and 7-4-0 in BMO field, but most of that came in the early bad old days of TFC. DC has lost to TFC 1-2 earlier this year, and lost 1-2 last time they visited BMO field as well. The last visit before that in 2013, a C team got crushed 1-4 in Toronto three days before DC won the US Open Cup title in Salt Lake.

So, there you have it. Toronto should be favored for sure, but DC has shown they are a tough out and can grind out points in tough spots, especially if Hamid puts on his cape, so maybe a draw is within reach in this one. DC’s has seen red cards in Vancouver and NE boost them to four unlikely points on the road. They have seen stunning goals from out of the blue in Orlando and Chicago scrape out wins in games against weaker opponents. But they have also squandered points in Orlando, Portland, Philly, and got thumped in NY. All those games they kept tight however, and at least once a year DC drops a 0-3 clanger somewhere on the road and I can’t help thinking this will be it. Usually, the clanger comes in Seattle, LA, RSL or someplace else in the West, a 2-5 loss in SJ comes to mind as well. But every once in a while it comes in the East. Chicago, Columbus, even Houston when they were in the East have all dropped big ones on DC. United has yet to really lay an egg on the road this year and despite the A team, I think this might well be it.

Still, with a four point cushion on Seattle and Vancouver, even a loss keeps DC in the league lead until at least next week (but the Sounders and ‘Caps both have two games in hand), and DC holds an even tighter grip on the East with a 10 point lead on NE (who have one game in hand). However, every team in the East holds games in hand on DC, who have played more games than anyone in the league. Toronto holds a whopping five games in hand and Montreal a mind boggling six games for example.

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