D.C. United will visit Canada's first MLS side, Toronto FC, this Saturday night in search of their first road win of the season. While no MLS season has ever been made or broken by a game in April, it seems safe to say that this match - in an Eastern Conference that may well be entirely up for grabs - may prove vital down the road for both sides. Both fanbases are starving for a playoff berth, and both clubs will view the other as the kind of team you get results against if you want to make it into the postseason.
In the preseason, the expectation was for Toronto to use 2011 as a first step of many towards finally building a good team. However, Aron Winter's Reds have quietly gone unbeaten since their season-opening 4-2 loss at Vancouver. While that four-game streak includes underwhelming home draws with lowly Chivas USA and an LA Galaxy team playing the second of two road games in four days, it also includes the under-the-radar fact that TFC has conceded just two goals over that same stretch. Toronto's defensive players may not be impressive names (Stefan Frei excluded), but they are adapting to defending out of the 433 a bit more quickly than expected.
Read on for Toronto's likely formation, as well as a look at their strengths and weaknesses.
Winter has been rather unpredictable in picking his squad; injuries, a search for the best combination of players, and the Dwayne De Rosario trade have all played a big factor in that. Seventeen players have already started for TFC, and the changes don't appear likely to stop this weekend. Winter named the same eleven against Chivas and at San Jose, but then made three changes to play the Galaxy this past Wednesday. As a result, there are lots of potential variables in the Reds' formation:
Starting in the back, Nana Attakora has struggled with his focus and with the high volume of passes required from center backs in Winter's Ajax-style possession game. As a result, he has been excluded from the lineup twice, and yanked after starting on two other occasions. Still, I am expecting Winter to start him because he knows that Attakora, still very young at 22, is only going to improve in this system by playing games. Winter may also have little choice, as right back Dan Gargan has also struggled badly with the passing requirements of his role. New signing Richard Eckersley might help at right back down the road, but this game will probably be too soon for him to play a part. If Winter does opt for Gargan, look for Ty Harden to start ahead of Attakora centrally.
The midfield is a bit more settled, as Tony Tchani has proven to be a good fit since arriving as part of the De Ro deal. Jacob Peterson, who had spent his entire MLS career playing as a wide midfielder, has performed adequately in the right-center midfield role. It's not that this is Peterson's calling as a player; it's that TFC doesn't really have anyone that can play this position naturally, and Peterson has been the best fit of those available thanks to his strong work ethic.
The one question mark is Julian De Guzman, who is coming back from a lengthy recovery from knee surgery. De Guzman started for the first time this season against the Galaxy, but was subbed out after 65 minutes due to the fact that he's still building his match fitness. As a result of having to play four days later, I would say that De Guzman is a 50/50 proposition to start against United. Left-sided utility player Gianluca Zavarise or newly-minted captain Maicon Santos are the likely replacements if De Guzman is kept on the bench to start. If Santos is the starter, look for him to further upfield than his midfield partners.
Speaking of Santos, he missed the LA draw due to an illness, which meant another new loan signing, Alen Stevanovic, played as the center forward against the Galaxy. However, with Alan Gordon still questionable with an adductor strain and the aforementioned short rest between games, it seems likely to me that Santos will get the start centrally if he's at all ready to play. That would push Stevanovic out to the left side of the forward line, where he's a more natural fit. Gordon could still play, however, which would open up the previously-discussed possibility of Santos playing in the midfield. Right forward is much more straightforward, as Javier Martina will almost certainly get the start there.
Martina is probably the player that worries me the most, as he brings speed, skill, and an elusive presence to the right wing for the Reds. Marc Burch has had arguably the best stretch of his career to start the 2011 season, but this will be a big challenge for him. Martina has a healthy advantage in terms of pace, and his ability to drop off the front line to find the ball and run at people means that he may well isolate Burch from time to time. However, as SB Nation's TFC blog Waking The Red says, he's prone to disappearing from matches. Burch will need to be positionally strong and win this battle by using his head and forcing Martina to play sideways or backwards, while also staying tight enough to prevent Martina from facing goal.
On the opposite flank, Stevanovic can be said to play "from the left" rather than "on the left." The young Serb is a tricky dribbler and does well in mixing his runs, but has only just arrived and has yet to really get used to his teammates. There are times where he really looks like he's on an island, though he had something of a quick rapport with Danleigh Borman overlapping. Chris Korb will need to show more of his quality 1v1 play, and could also cause Stevanovic some problems by getting forward often. Against San Jose - who deployed Jason Hernandez at right back, a role he filled very conservatively - Stevanovic found some leeway to cheat forward because there was not much defending for him to do.
While the two wide forwards could provide a threat, there are some significant weaknesses in Toronto's current team. Borman can run all day, but his constant overlapping only papers over the fact that he's not a true defender. If Andy Najar gets the start, as seems likely, it would be a very good idea to look for him early and often.
There also appears to be a certain amount of hesitancy throughout the defense and midfield in getting their tackles in. Quick ball movement has created chances against the Reds on numerous occasions, and with Charlie Davies and Josh Wolff as our likely forwards, I like our chances attacking down the middle. It doesn't have to be any more complicated that a quick one-two, as even TFC's fastest center back (Attakora) can't keep up with CD9.
Perhaps most importantly, Toronto is coming off of a tiring Wednesday night game against the Galaxy, while DC will arrive well-rested. Our midfield has had issues with being dangerous enough in creating chances, but one department in which they've gotten high marks is playing with energy and commitment. It seems highly unlikely that TFC will be able to match United in that regard, so playing quickly and applying high pressure should give us a marked advantage. In fact, if D.C. applies this approach correctly, we could see a reversal of our late capitulation in Colorado, where it could be the Black-and-Red preying on a spent opponent.
About that high pressure, United would do well to really get after Toronto in their defensive third. Winter's system requires his defenders and even Frei to be comfortable with the ball, and as we saw in the Carolina Challenge Cup, the transition is a long way from being complete. While Adrian Cann has always been a comfortable passer, players like Attakora and Gargan look like they'd have been better off playing in Toronto's old English (not Olde English) style of play. Both players treat the ball like a ticking time bomb, and as such Ben Olsen's squad can look to funnel play their way and force them to be the person that has to pass the ball out of the back. This would most likely give D.C. at least a couple of cheap, easy chances following a turnover.
Ultimately, Toronto's recent four-game unbeaten/three-game winless streak looks more half-empty to me than half-full. While they are clearly progressing, there's still a long road ahead for Winter and co. Even if they were well-rested, I would be expecting United to get their first road result of 2011. I love how United matches up with TFC, and when you factor in the midweek game for the home team, a win should be well within reach for D.C.