Yes and yes. D.C. United is once again playing Toronto FC. The venue has changed, but the opponent remains the same. If you're starting to feel like you're in Groundhog Day, that's because you apparently are. It could be worse; Bill Murray and Chris Elliott are pretty awesome.
If you think this is getting repetitive, imagine how TFC fans feel: United was their last MLS opponent. They've had Voyageurs Cup matches since - a 2-0 win in the second leg at home to knock out the Montreal Impact, and a 1-1draw in Vancouver that was very nearly an invaluable 1-0 win until Eric Hassli did this - but it's still back-to-back league games against the Black-and-Red.
Lest we start to feel overconfident about facing a team that's lost all eight of their league games and just capitulated at home against us, it's worth noting that TFC has a good record in recent years at RFK. The Reds have somehow managed 3 goals in each of their last three visits to the District (two 3-3 draws and one 3-2 win in Jaime Moreno's final game for the club).
In general, these games have been bizarre. A perfect example came last season: TFC got an early red card for Bill Hamid, a goal when the referee would not let us complete a substitution for no apparent reason (leaving us down a center back when the goal was scored) and still ended up only managing a draw against Dwayne De Rosario, who played that game entirely by himself.
Toronto's uptick in results since we last met has me thinking that our win at BMO Field might have been the breaking point for their players. Since then - and an obligatory "clear the air" meeting - they've managed to win a game while down a man for 65 minutes against a half-decent Montreal side, and they didn't win in Vancouver only via a ridiculous goal. They even managed that result against the Whitecaps without Torsten Frings, who did not travel to DC either.
In other words, this isn't necessarily the same sad-sack group we strolled past in second or third gear a couple of weeks ago.
The absence of Frings means we won't be seeing any 343, or even the "433 at kickoff, 343 within 45 seconds" that we saw when United visited BMO. This will be a straightforward 433:
So, question marks next to virtually every field player. What gives? Well, TFC just played late Wednesday night - the game ended at midnight EST - on turf in the first leg of a cup final. They're going to be emotionally tired and physically exhausted. On top of that, they also have to fly from DC back to Toronto for the 2nd leg of the Voyageurs Cup final, a game that is truly make-or-break for their season. Think about it: In MLS, they're pretty much sunk as it is. Lose the Voyageurs Cup, however, and they also a) win nothing this year and b) have an autumn in which they have no games of any significance.
On the other hand, Aron Winter doesn't have a bench like ours. Certain players are just going to have to play in both games, because guys like Keith Makubuya and Oscar Cordon don't play much (I had to double check to be sure that Makubuya, an Academy product, was still on the roster). Julian De Guzman, for example, seems like a pretty solid bet to start, even as he'll undoubtedly be called upon to go 90 Wednesday night (and went 90 in Vancouver).
In the back, Richard Eckersley should be fresh after being suspended for the game in Vancouver. He should line up at right back, but could be given some center back duty if Adrian Cann or Doneil Henry need to rest. The more likely replacements for those two, however, are rookie Aaron Maund and Ty Harden, if Winter lets him out of the doghouse. Winter says Miguel Aceval won't travel, so unfortunately for us the error-prone Chilean won't be around to help us out.
If Eckersley does slot in centrally, look for Jeremy Hall to play right back again. Out on the left, Ashtone Morgan could be given a rest; the replacement would be Logan Emory. If you see a dude with crazy big hair that isn't Nick DeLeon, that's Emory, and we should be attacking him all night long.
The midfield should consist of Terry Dunfield, Eric Avila, and De Guzman, but this is where things are less certain. Dunfield could be rested in favor of young utility man Matt Stinson, and Luis Silva could start over Avila. Avila's spot could also be swapped with Ryan Johnson, who has played the attacking midfield role for TFC in the past.
The Reds could also flip that midfield and play with a bottom point. In that case, it would be De Guzman in that role, and Dunfield more likely to start. Hall could push up to be the other central midfielder, or you could see Stinson or Johnson there.
Up top, I think we'll see Nick Soolsma on the right, as the Dutchman appears to be OK after a hamstring strain. Reggie Lambe has done well in his absence, but a) Soolsma was the starter early on when both were fit and more importantly b) Lambe has been playing a lot lately while Soolsma has been out.
Danny Koevermans also made a return from injury as a sub in Vancouver, and I expect him to start in the center forward role thanks to having fresher legs. Finally, I think Johnson will play left forward over Joao Plata, but that's hard to say for certain. Johnson will probably start given that Winter sees him as indispensable; if you don't see Johnson at kickoff, TFC is punting this game for the Voyageurs Cup.
Speaking of Canada's answer to the Open Cup, it looms large over tonight's game. Toronto will be spent from the previous game and the travel (long flight there, longer flight to DC), and they have the biggest game of their season on Wednesday.
That means that, despite also having played Wednesday and having injuries to deal with, United is at a distinct advantage. Pushing the tempo early is a must. If we can take charge early - faster than we did against the Rapids - we would a) worsen TFC's confidence and b) leave them chasing the game right when they start to really be fatigued. More than anything else, it is vital that United starts well and at a good pace rather than feeling things out.
The talk in Toronto is that they'll be trying to apply high pressure, unlike their timid display when we last met. This would help TFC in some ways, since they basically invited us to take control of the game last time out. However, they have sometimes appeared disjointed, and you can't play high pressure soccer unless everyone is on board.
If, for example, the forwards pressure as a group but someone in the midfield doesn't make the equivalent step up, your pressure is easily broken because you leave a giant gap for someone to receive a pass. In the 433, that could lead to something like United's entire front six in possession with only five TFC players between us and the goal.
Conversely, United should be looking to apply some pressure of their own. TFC does not have much skill on the ball in the back, and the players who are comfortable on the ball can lose their composure easily. De Guzman is their best option at shuttling the ball from midfield to attack, but he will likely be preoccupied with his defensive duties. Guys like Dunfield and Stinson aren't sharp enough passing the ball to fill that role, so another suffocating display in midfield will probably result in plenty of turnovers in the middle third.
United had to rely on an astute tactical move at BMO to move up a gear. De Guzman and Frings did a great job of compressing De Ro's vertical space in the first half, and United's attack slowed down. The solution was simple: Branko Boskovic entered for Lewis Neal, De Ro moved up front, and Chris Pontius moved to left midfield. De Guzman's man-marking job was rendered moot, Pontius played a bit more wide, and De Ro was still heavily involved as a wandering forward.
I'd recommend doing that again, particularly as we're coming off a pretty good Boskovic performance on Wednesday. Putting De Ro closer to goal in this situation - with defenders who lose focus and can be hassled into mistakes - should also pay dividends, especially if Ben Olsen opts to rest Pontius again or wants to use him on the left wing. Adding more skill on the ball would allow us to play at the high pace we need to emphasize TFC's lack of energy.
Defensively, we once again need to prepare for a wing-heavy attack. Eckersley (or Hall) will come forward on the right, and Morgan (but probably not Emory) will do so on the left. The wide forwards also tend to get plenty of the ball since the central players tend to lack the vision (or in Avila's case, patience) to play through the middle.Centrally, that means more of what we've seen lately: Being focused enough to read the play, and determined enough to go in and win the ball when it comes in.
We'll also see some attempts to isolate our fullbacks 1v1. If Soolsma is on the right, look for more low crosses than anything else. Johnson will try to bullrush his way around defenders, Plata will look to attack on the dribble, and Lambe will look to use his pace and hit higher crosses. If we see Avila on the left wing, look for him to always try to cut inside; in our last game, he eventually abandoned playing on the left altogether as TFC's 343 shifted to a 3412.
Ultimately, this game is a classic sweep the leg situation. TFC is so low on belief that merely avoiding defeat is seen as a huge positive; their best player will not play; they just played a huge game on turf on the other side of the country; and they play another huge game in three days. The deck is stacked in our favor, but it could all go wrong if we don't take advantage. Jumping all over Toronto from the opening whistle, combined with continuing our stretch of straight up outworking our opponents at RFK should be enough to halt the streak of TFC coming here and actually getting results.