On Saturday afternoon, D.C. United are finally back in action against the newly reconstituted Toronto FC. In order to get the lowdown on our friends from the Great White North, we turned to Duncan Fletcher of Waking the Red to preview Toronto FC.
Questions for Waking the Red
B&RU: As I'm sure you know, most USMNT fans have had a crush on Michael Bradley for awhile now. Without having any of that baggage, what do you think of him so far?
WtR: It's definitely a different perspective we had here. The vast majority of TFC fans weren't watching him at Roma, and might have caught the odd USMNT game here and there but weren't that involved. Compare that to Matias Laba, who Bradley is more or less directly replacing and TFC fans know first hand he's a very good player whereas most fans in the US wouldn't really be that aware of him. So for TFC fans there was a genuine debate to be had as to whether it was worth the upgrade, whereas US fans seemed to think it laughable to even compare the two. For me personally, I knew Bradley was a good player, that's what everyone was telling me, but it was all very theoretical, I was definitely in wait and see mode.
So far, it's looking like a good deal, His first pre season games showed off his passing skills, and later in pre season we saw how he can dominate the defensive midfield area with tackles and interceptions and seemingly just knowing where the ball was going to be and getting there. When things got real in Seattle, he was every bit as advertised, controlling the middle of the park, harassing Sounders everywhere and playing a big part in the 2-0 lead. In the second half he was less noticeable, but that's because the Sounders had adapted their plans, going down the wings a lot so as to basically play around him. In conclusion, he's very very good, but don't worry USMNT fans, we'll ruin him before the World Cup, we're TFC, it's what we do.
B&RU: If there is going to be a downfall for TFC this season, it will have to be their defense. How do you expect them to play this season, given that there were not major upgrades there?
WtR: There were minor upgrades at both full back positions, Justin Morrow coming in from San Jose at left back and Bradley Orr coming over on loan from England. That should help out a bit but there are two factors that the defence really hinges on. One is the health of Steven Caldwell. He came last season and brought some order to the chaos, and is the experienced player that will hold the back line together. All the other positions have backups that aren't a huge drop off, but if TFC have to replace Caldwell for any length of time, they're in trouble.
The other is the development of Doneil Henry. The 20 year old has got the physical talents to be a dominant centre back, especially after putting on a lot of muscle over the off season, it's the decision making side of the game that remains a question mark, when to jump into the play to try make a tackle and when to cede possession for the sake of maintaining positioning, that sort of thing. He's been in and out of the lineup over the last 3 seasons and you can see the improvement but it remains a work in progress, though having Bradley Caldwell and Julio Cesar surrounding him can only help with that. In the game against Seattle, he played a very good general game, but both Seattle's goal and their best other chance came after Henry had tried to do a bit too much and failed. Mentioning Cesar, having him back there can only help the defence feel more confident and relaxed.
B&RU: What does it feel like to actually have the eyes of the league on you and your team this year?
WtR: Definitely a bit weird to think we're not the laughing stock to be taken for granted now but that people are genuinely interested in our games. Whereas last year there was sympathy and you'd see quite a few 'I hope it works out for TFC, their fans deserve it, I'm pulling for them' type of comments, I think the grand scale of our business over the off season probably extinguished that sympathy and moved us into the 'fuck those guys' glamour club category. The rest of the league can't properly hate us though as they're very invested in Michael Bradley playing well leading up to the World Cup. It's a weird dynamic, and I feel like we've kind of cheated our way there by spending rather than steadily building to that point and I'm a bit uncomfortable all of a sudden being a supporter of the obnoxious rich club (if it helps, my other team is currently in the 8th tier of the English pyramid and I'm a part owner. Out bona fide that!), but after 7 years, I'll live with myself.
Questions for Black and Red United
WtR: DC embraced the MLS veteran this off season bringing in a lot of experience to help out their promising youngsters. Who's going to have the most influence on the season?
B&RU: I think that Jeff Parke is the veteran who is going to have the most influence on this season, for good or for bad. Even more so than Bobby Boswell, Parke having a good season is the key to D.C. United's defense; the two of them looked slow and unfocused in the game against the Columbus Crew, and it showed. Ideally, they will use their soccer smarts and aerial ability (both things that D.C. United defenders haven't had recently) to dominate the box. If they can't, it will be a long season for D.C. United and a quick debut for Steve Birnbaum.
B&RU: Luis Silva has had an up and down preseason and regular season so far. After ending 2013 as the co-leading scorer, Silva was thought by many to be a shoe-in to replace Dwayne De Rosario in the central attacking midfielder role. While the beginning of his preseason was disappointing, he played much better in the Carolina Challenge Cup, only to regress again in the first game of the regular season. He obviously has talent, but needs to work on becoming more consistent to truly realize it. Nana Attakora did not play in any preseason games, as he was nursing an injury, and did not make the 18 for the opening match against the Columbus Crew. With United spending a first round draft pick on Steve Birnbaum, Attakora has slipped to fourth on the depth chart and it may be awhile until we see him.
WtR: a) What went wrong vs Columbus? b) Presuming you won't be so kind as to send your b team up here again, who's going to be the key players to getting things back on track and stopping the mighty TFC juggernaut, what do you see as the key matchups?
B&RU: Everything. But if you want me to be more specific, the key breakdown was that the midfield couldn't possess the ball or prevent Federico Higuain and the whole Columbus Crew midfield from running rampant. They also couldn't get the ball to Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola, and so were forced to pump long balls over the top. Nick DeLeon and Perry Kitchen are going to have to be two of the key players in both connecting the midfield to the attack, as well as in harassing Toronto FC's midfield. The more advanced central midfielder, likely Silva but possibly either Davy Arnaud or Jared Jeffrey, will also have to put pressure on Michael Bradley and try and force him to spread the ball wide.