Since Fabian Espindola was injured in Montreal and suspended for retaliating, D.C. United has had to grapple with the question of how to replace their one undisputed star. Perhaps the key is to convince Nick DeLeon that every match is a road game in Canada? For the second straight away trip - both to our neighbors to the north - DeLeon scored a goal at a crucial point in the game, and D.C. United eventually went on to win 2-1 over Toronto FC.
The similarities between the win over the Impact and today's victory over TFC ends at that DeLeon goal. The Black-and-Red ran rampant in Quebec, but tonight spend virtually the entire first half bending but not breaking. Toronto boss Ryan Nelsen sprang a tactical ambush, fielding a 4231 instead of the 442 he'd trotted out all season long. Making things more difficult for DC was the return of Michael Bradley from World Cup duty for the United States.
Nelsen chose to field Bradley in a very similar role to the one he held with the USMNT in Brazil, and it contributed to a first half that the Reds dominated. Bradley pressed United's central midfield, disrupting any attempt at possession from the visitors, while Luke Moore - normally a striker - and Jackson repeatedly got into dangerous positions making runs from their wing roles into the center channel. Adding to the confusion was Jermain Defoe, who consistently pulled Bobby Boswell out of position with his off-the-ball movement.
The overall effect was a bit like what United's attack does to teams when Espindola is available. Ben Olsen's side spent nearly the entire half scrambling defensively. Bill Hamid had to make his first clutch save in the 21st minute after Collen Warner waltzed through a giant hole in the midfield to send Defoe in on goal. Eight minutes later, Bradley Orr's stepover froze DeLeon and Davy Arnaud along the left, allowing him to send Justin Morrow into a dangerous spot. Morrow's low cross was just inches from the reach of a lunging Defoe, who surely would have scored if he made any contact.
At halftime, Nelsen cut his old club some slack. The 4231 that had so confounded DCU from the start was changed back to TFC's normal 442, with Orr coming off for Dominic Oduro. Toronto was looking to increase their attacking options, but what they ended up doing was giving United some breathing room in the midfield while simultaneously becoming the team United had spent all week preparing for.
DeLeon would push United into the lead in the 54th minute with a goal largely of his own creation. He and Silva applied some timely high pressure on Toronto center back Nick Hagglund after the rookie was put into trouble by a poor ball from Morrow. Having popped the ball loose, DeLeon held the larger Hagglund off while surging into the box before shrugging him to the ground. DeLeon then cut the ball back, sold a feint to Warner that left the midfielder on the ground, and struck a precise shot into the lower left corner.
Warner, at least, would get a chance to redeem himself. For the third time in the game, he slotted Defoe in behind Boswell, who struggled all night with the runs of the English star. Boswell recovered to prevent Defoe from going to goal, but no one was in place to stop his pass back to the onrushing Jackson. The Brazilian's blast should have been held by Hamid, but he spilled a juicy rebound that the rest of United's defense simply didn't react to. Moore was on hand to poke the ball over the line on the hour mark.
Nonetheless, United started to take control of the game thanks in part to TFC - who played mid-week and were down a man for the last hour - simply running out of gas. Those tired legs saw United win a few corners, and in the 69th minute one paid off. Substitute Lewis Neal delivered a driven ball to the top of the six yard box, where Kitchen arrived to thump a header down and past Joe Bendik. TFC's decision to defend the corner zonally was a major factor, as captain Steven Caldwell misjudged the flight of the ball while Hagglund didn't see Kitchen's storming run until too late.
There was still defending to do, as United blocked a pair of 72nd minute shots and later had Sean Franklin to thank for Morrow - who frequently escaped marking when he overlapped - not being able to get a shot away from a promising position in the 81st.
Eddie Johnson made his mark on the game late on. In the 86th minute, Steve Birnbaum blocked a Defoe effort, and United broke out. Conor Doyle - like Neal, a substitute - playing EJ in behind with no one between him and Bendik in the Toronto net. Johnson chased down the pass and was clearly going in alone on goal, but Hagglund grabbed him by the arm and pulled him back. Referee Dave Gantar initially gave Hagglund only a yellow card, but after roughly 90 seconds of consulting with the assistant referee that flagged the foul (and possibly the fourth official via headset) he correctly changed his decision to a straight red card for denial of a goal-scoring opportunity.
It felt like the game would end as a contest with that, but TFC created some danger in stoppage time. First, Moore spun away from Arnaud to hit a long-range effort just wide of Hamid's right post. Then, in the sixth minute of time added on, Hamid had his biggest moment. A hopeful cross from the right by Warner to the back post found rookie substitute Dan Lovitz wide open, but the left winger's running volley was denied by the reflexes of Hamid.
With the win, United moves back into sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference on 28 points. Given that this game marks the halfway point for United's season, it's worth pointing out that the Black-and-Red are right on pace to match 2012's 56 point total, which was good enough for 3rd overall in MLS (and 2nd in the East).
Five quick thoughts:
- Birnbaum came up big time and again defending inside the box. He had at least four blocked shots that I can recall, and won several headers under pressure. He was among the many players who failed to react to the rebound on Moore's goal, but aside from that he continues to live up to the lofty expectations placed on him at the Superdraft.
- Boswell, on the other hand, struggled badly with Defoe all night. Sure, Defoe is an elite striker, but it was still unsettling to see Boswell doing pretty much whatever the former Spurs man wanted.
- After a very uninspiring start to the season, DeLeon now has 2 goals in 3 games. There is no direct replacement for Espindola, but Nicky D at least is taking his share of the weight.
- Silva failed to make much of an impact for the second game in a row after destroying, er, the Impact. Meanwhile, Neal and Doyle both came in and made big plays off the bench. Could we see Rolfe pushed up alongside EJ next week and one of those two starting at left midfield next week?
- I can't emphasize how much TFC controlled the first half. It's important to remember that most coaches would not have made the grave error of changing tactics that were working superbly.