D.C. United fans are all surely still reeling after the horror show that was our attempt to stop the San Jose Earthquakes from scoring goals. Sure there was some bad luck, but United's defending at Buck Shaw was bad enough to concede five times. The scoreline was not a poor reflection of the game; even the normally secure Quakes were way below par in the back (save Jon Busch's robbery of Dwayne De Rosario's bicycle kick in the first half).
Speaking of shambolic defending, Toronto FC! They're an astonishing seven points behind every team in MLS right now, and have given up 16 goals in just seven games.They've conceded 3 goals in four separate games, including each of their last two outings in MLS.
Their CONCACAF Champions League upset of the LA Galaxy seemed to point to the Reds finally turning over a new leaf, and they were 45 minutes from taking down Santos Laguna in the ensuing semifinal (leading on away goals at the time). A strong fanbase, after suffering through five years of supporting a laughingstock, finally had something to crow about.
Unfortunately, that's where the fun stopped for TFC. Santos scored 4 goals in that fateful second half in Torreon, and from that point on 2012 has been hellish. They were the first team to lose to the Montreal Impact, and recently conceded a 93rd minute goal to lose to Real Salt Lake. Even when TFC does well - a 2-2 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium after 92 minutes is a thoroughly respectable result - they find a way to crush the hopes of their fans.
All that said, Aron Winter's side is improving, even as things like this are being written. Chicago essentially punished every big mistake TFC made, and the Reds come into tonight's game having done something totally out of character: Grinding out a road 0-0 draw in the first leg of their Voyageurs Cup match (Canada's Open Cup, basically) at Montreal. The Impact had more of the ball, had more chances, but TFC held on, showed some discipline, and got what they came for. In other words, they stopped playing like TFC.
You have to ask, though: Is this just another false dawn?
Much has been made of TFC's "343" (which at times was a 523, 541, or 433), but it likely won't be seen at BMO Field tonight. Instead, Winter will trot out a 433:
Unfortunately, TFC's struggles, their veteran-laden lineup, and their midweek game on turf make this as tough a starting eleven to predict as we've seen all season. Former United goalkeeper Milos Kocic - who has improved by leaps and bounds in the last 12-18 months - will start in goal, and both filthy cheat Torsten Frings and right back Richard Eckersley (held to only a sub's role against Montreal) are pretty sure bets. Reggie Lambe seems to have established himself as a starter during the injury-enforced absence of Nick Soolsma in the right forward spot.
Everyone else? Not so much.
Center backs Adrian Cann and Miguel Aceval appear to be Winter's first choice; with Cann that makes sense, but Aceval has been a walking disaster since arriving in MLS. The choice is complicated by the fact that Cann has only recently begun playing after tearing his ACL roughly 11 months ago, and just went 90 minutes on the awful-looking turf surface at the Big O. If Winter wants to rotate a new center back in, he may go for Academy product Doneil Henry over Ty Harden, who appears firmly in the doghouse these days).
Left back would normally be Ashtone Morgan, but one of MLS's most successful Homegrown players - he's already pushing to be first choice for Canada - played 90 against the Impact after a recent injury. If two games in three days is too much for him, Logan Emory will step in and challenge Nick DeLeon for craziest hair on the field.
Things are more complicated in the midfield and attack. At least one of Terry Dunfield and Julian De Guzman will start, but it's probably a toss up at this point. TFC has gained some defensive solidity by playing both of them - with De Guzman functioning as a bottom point - but that leaves their midfield relying on Frings to be the creator.
Given our defensive problems, I'd expect Winter to go for a more attacking team. That means playing an attacking midfielder, where he has multiple choices. If Danny Koevermans is indeed fit, it would allow Ryan Johnson to move back into a role Winter likes him in despite his being unsuitable for it. If Johnson is needed elsewhere - a distinct possibility, since he can play any of the forward positions - we could see rookie Luis Silva or the unpredictable Eric Avila.
Avila has apparently carved himself out a starting job for the time being after a sensational showing at RSL. Unfortunately for TFC, Avila has done this throughout his MLS career only to follow it up by disappearing for weeks on end. Still, he hasn't had time to ruin the goodwill he got last weekend, so he'll likely start on the left wing unless he's deployed centrally. If Avila plays attacking midfield, we'll see the dangerous Joao Plata...unless we see Johnson out left.
See what I was saying about this being a tough one to call?
Winter's TFC have held onto a (sadly?) outdated principle that out-possessing your opponent is nearly as good as actually outscoring your opponent. Generally speaking, the Reds are good at keeping hold of the ball and moving it around while waiting for openings. Unfortunately, the schizophrenic nature of their roster means they still have some players (Johnson and Plata, for example) that want to go forward at all times. This disconnect is a big reason why their attack can look deadly one minute and then look lost the next.
Eventually, that means trying to get the ball to a wide forward and isolate the fullback on that side. Daniel Woolard and whoever we play at right back are going to see a lot of people trying to run at them. Winning tackles in those situations is the ideal, but there's nothing wrong with forcing them into a backpass; being patient enough to only go for the tackle when it's a sure thing is going to be important. Otherwise, expect to see Lambe/Avila/Plata/Johnson scampering in behind and putting us in real danger.
Patience will be a huge key for United tonight on both sides of the ball. Against San Jose, our lack of patience was a huge problem with the ball as much as it was defensively. Toronto is addicted to possession, yet are also possibly the easiest defense to break if you can string some passes together. Chicago did this en route to a 3-2 win: Keep the ball, wait for a TFC defender to stop paying attention (it'll happen fairly quickly) and send someone through on goal. Relentlessly charging forward got us three goals against the Quakes, but mixing in some more thoughtful play will give us more openings at BMO Field.
Our pressure in the midfield will also need to be much better than it was against San Jose, where Khari Stephenson had all the time in the world as a deep-lying playmaker. United's midfield four can force a numerical advantage by being horizontally compact (think our games against Dallas and Seattle) and pressuring intelligently. That doesn't mean charging after anyone within 30 yards; it means working in groups to leave the player in possession with no options.
Eventually, a turnover will happen, and TFC is really bad at transitioning from offense to defense. Being quicker in that department will give us some high quality opportunities to pour forward and make Toronto pay. It will also cut Toronto's front three off from the team, and in soccer isolated attackers rarely get anything done.
Finally, my favorite category: Focus. The Reds are almost never very focused, and my guess is that they'll be mentally spent after actually playing like grown-ups in Montreal. Winter's pronouncements that "we were better" after every loss only underline the immaturity that has become a part of the fabric that is Toronto FC. Staying focused will be big defensively given the skillful players TFC has in attack, but it will also be important in other departments. Brain farts don't last forever in soccer; being ready and able to pounce is how you beat teams that lack the right mentality.
TFC will enter this game with some real desperation. They're already eight points behind in the race for a playoff spot, and they've got five playoff-free years on top of that. Their tie in Montreal was a positive step, but it doesn't really cover up the reality that they're already in must-win territory within MLS. United will have to be ready for what desperation brings with it: Desire, obviously, but also a frenetic sort of pace and an opponent that can be undone mentally by pretty simple things. De Ro's early goal Wednesday night didn't slow the Earthquakes down, but it would be devastating for TFC.
We talk about sweeping the leg a lot here on B&RU, and it's in games like this where it matters most. Making TFC think this is yet another loss will cause them to collapse; let them gain some confidence, and we have a real game on our hands against a team with plenty of attacking weapons. Last year's visit to BMO - a 3-0 win in which we were up 2-0 after 10 minutes - is the blueprint. Let's make this one easy on ourselves.