Preki angrily confronting an official? Well I never... (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)
DC United's season of sadness continues tonight at BMO Field, where we'll take on Toronto FC. For a United side in desperate need for any shred of good news, this is not a positive. TFC has lost once at home in 12 MLS matches (winning 6 and drawing five). Throw in the CONCACAF Champions League and the Canadian Championship, and that record becomes 9-6-1 and includes wins over Cruz Azul and Honduran power CD Motagua. In other words, this is one of the toughest fixtures on United's 2010 slate at a time when we could really use an easy one to build our confidence.
Predicting what Preki will do as a coach is usually pretty difficult, beyond knowing that his teams will play a physical style of soccer that emphasizes defense first, second, and third. Looking at Toronto, there are three things that should be dominating Preki's thoughts heading into tonight's game. Find out what they are, and how they'll play into TFC's lineup tonight, after the jump:
1. Toronto trails San Jose by 5 points for the final MLS playoff spot. This is despite having played 2 more games than the Earthquakes. Things are getting desperate for TFC in MLS. This is a club that hasn't ever played an MLS playoff game of any kind. Adding to that pain is the fact that, with a shot at a playoff spot in their final game last season, the Reds were humiliated 5-0 at New York. The club's owners went out and got a successful MLS coach and have signed two Designated Players, and you can hardly argue that they've gotten a return on that investment. This is one of MLS's high pressure markets, and patience is wearing thin. Anything but a win over DC would be seen as a disaster.
2. Toronto is in the midst of the busiest portion of their schedule:
9/4 - at FC Dallas (1-0 loss)
9/8 - at Chicago Fire (0-0 tie)
9/11 - home vs. DC United
9/15 - at Real Salt Lake (CCL)
9/18 - at Houston Dynamo
9/21 - at Cruz Azul (CCL)
9/25 - home vs. San Jose Earthquakes
9/28 - home vs. Real Salt Lake (CCL)
10/2 - at Seattle Sounders
That's nine games in exactly five weeks (a rough average of one game every four days). United fans are all too familiar with this kind of workload and the slow decline in quality it forces on your team, especially when you have first-choice players missing. TFC currently has striker Chad Barrett, defensive midfielder Amadou Sanyang, winger Fuad Ibrahim, and center back Emmanuel Gomez all listed as out on their injury report, while striker Maicon Santos is coming back from a twisted knee and is probably not fit to play more than a half. Furthermore, right back Maxsim Usanov is out suspended. That leaves Preki with just 16 fully fit field players to call on, and that's including recent academy signing Doneil Henry. United fans won't have too much sympathy given our endless injury list, but that's beside the point. Preki is too short on players to make a legitimate run in the league and the CCL, so he'll have to choose one competition to use his best available team in.
3. TFC has not scored a goal since August 21st. If you include their 1-0 loss at Arabe Unido in the CCL, that's a stretch of 401 minutes. Sure, they were unlucky not to get at least one penalty kick this past Wednesday against Chicago, but if that's all you have to say for yourself after being shut out four straight times, you're still not doing enough. Preki has been more than willing to rotate his attackers in an effort to find a scoring combination, but the problem is as much with his whole lineup as it is with his forwards. If Dwayne De Rosario is being rested or is unavailable, Preki regularly sends out a midfield comprised of hard-working, defense-first players and selects stay-at-home outside backs on top of that. When Dan Gargan, a right back filling in at right midfield, is your most enterprising midfielder aside from DeRo, you have big issues.
The lack of attacking ambition throughout Toronto's squad is as big a problem as their inability to finish, but I have strong doubts about whether Preki will see fit to change things.
With those factors in mind, I expect to see the following team for Toronto:
I've purposely listed that as a narrow midfield. Martin Saric and Nick LaBrocca will play quite close to De Guzman, leaving De Rosario as the only midfielder to go forward on a regular basis. We could also see Gargan pushed up to right midfield, which would see Nick Garcia take his spot at right back and, more than likely, Saric going to the left with LaBrocca on the bench. If Mista, who has recently struggled with an injury as well as possibly butting heads with Preki, isn't fit then it'll likely be Jacob Peterson or Santos starting up front with O'Brian White.
There is also the possibility of TFC fielding a 4411, which would see Saric and Julian De Guzman in central midfield, Peterson and LaBrocca on the wings, and White up front on his own with De Rosario underneath. However, I think the 4312 is much more likely.
The key for United is going to be the simple act of having some faith. As I was typing this post, recently promoted CF Hercules went to the Camp Nou and defeated Barcelona (with Messi, Villa, Xavi, and Iniesta) 2-0. In soccer terms, that's like scaling Mount Everest. No disrespect to Toronto, but going to BMO Field and winning is, by comparison, like having to walk up the escalator at the Dupont Circle Metro stop. Sure, it'll be difficult, but it's far from impossible. If we miss the first real chance of the game, there's no reason to immediately lose morale, abandon the things that worked well enough to create that chance, and begin waiting to give up a goal. With that attitude, we might as well start shooting on our own goal.
Another must for Ben Olsen's charges will be to keep the ball moving quickly. The first thing anyone notices about TFC is that they apply tons of pressure on the ball at all times. However, the teams that succeed against them are able to escape that pressure by simply connecting their passes. The play of Branko Boskovic, who does well playing one- and two-touch soccer but has struggled in MLS whenever he hangs onto the ball, will be crucial.
In applying this approach, we also need to take advantage of Toronto's narrow alignment. When we attempt to enter the attacking third, we need to do so by playing diagonal balls to the wing from central midfield. If the TFC midfield gets sucked in, we'll be able to get Andy Najar the kind of 1v1 isolation that he thrives on down the right while opening up spaces for Santino Quaranta to exploit on the opposite side. Najar should cause Ty Harden plenty of trouble with his speed, but it'll only work if we can isolate the two of them repeatedly.
On defense we need to avoid the calamitous mistakes that have characterized our recent play. There's no tactical approach that solves that problem; it's just a matter of focus and attention to detail. This season has made it painfully clear that we can't afford to be casual about the little things, because that's what has killed us more often than not.
Finally, we'll need to keep track of De Rosario. He's been looking somewhat tired and frustrated lately, but that doesn't mean we are absolved of having to worry about him. De Rosario is still one of MLS's most dangerous players, and over the years has done pretty well against us. If we can force him into backpasses and cut out his looks at goal, we'll go a long way toward something other than another loss.