Whisper it, but D.C. United might just be turning this train to hell around. We won a game against a moderately competent Philadelphia Union side - playing arguably their best eleven, no less - in the US Open Cup. We scored three goals in doing so. Dwayne De Rosario, with the hat trick, may be about to get back on track on a consistent basis. Late yesterday, we shed some dead wood.
I'm not telling you that it's not all good, of course. That Philly win saw all three subs enforced by injuries, and each player (Chris Pontius, Ethan White, and James Riley) will not play today. We are still likely to see Lionard Pajoy on the field due to lack of options. We're one John Thorrington hamstring strain away from losing the newfound speed with which our midfield moves the ball. Nonetheless, things might not be so bad that you wish you were dead.
So here comes Toronto FC, the perfect team for United to get our first win in MLS since
the days of the Noid March 9th. It's not just about TFC also struggling - we'll get to that in a minute - but rather United's utter dominance over the Reds over the years. In 15 matches all-time, United has gone 10W-2D-3L against Toronto FC. At RFK Stadium, United has averaged over 3 goals per game against the Reds (22 goals in 7 games). It was in the bowels of RFK that a nearly-in-tears Danny Koevermans declared TFC "the worst team in the world" after United handed Toronto a pretty much typical 3-1 defeat last May.
All that said, TFC is still ahead of United in the standings because everyone is ahead of us in the standings. History in terms of years may point to a decisive DC victory, but history in terms of the last few months says otherwise. However, the Reds are actually on a worse run of MLS form over each team's last six games. Granted, 0W-2D-4L (United) is not a whole hell of a lot better than 0W-1D-5L (TFC), but it is still technically better.
What happened up in Ontario? Namely, the goals have dried up. Toronto scored seven goals in their first five matches, but in the aforementioned six-game run they've scored just three. It's also worth noting that this awful run was hardly the same level of talent as United was facing. While Portland, KC, and Dallas were on the DC fixture list, the Reds were against the murderer's row of Columbus, San Jose, and Colorado. Toronto's record over their last 27 MLS games is an astonishing 1W-9D-17L.
It is worth noting that Toronto's last result was a 1-1 draw with Philly in which the Reds had Henry sent off but still took the lead, so they might not feel quite so horrible. However, their biggest issue - late goals conceded - came up, so maybe it didn't actually relieve much misery.
I bring up the late goals because it's a worse problem than you can imagine. Here's a list of late, result-changing goals TFC has conceded in 2013:
- Jack McInerney equalizes in the 91st minute (6/1 vs. Philadelphia)
- Chris Wondolowski scores an 81st minute game-winner (5/8 @ San Jose)
- Edson Buddle game-winner in the 86th minute (5/4 @ Colorado)
- Tim Cahill answers a Jonathan Osorio 83rd minute equalizer with an 89th minute winner (4/27 vs. NYRB)
- Warren Creavalle gives the Dynamo a draw with virtually the last kick of the match in the 94th minute (4/20 vs. Houston)
- McInerney again, this time even later, equalizes in the 93rd minute (4/13 @ Philadelphia)
- Jose Villarreal answers a different Osorio goal in the 79th with a 92nd minute equalizer (3/30 vs. LA)
That's seven (SEVEN!!!) goals after the 80th minute that have cost Toronto FC points. Three of those goals came in stoppage time. This list doesn't include Juan Agudelo ending any hopes of a TFC comeback with a 92nd minute to give the Revs a 2-0 win. Obviously we feel pretty awful this season, but TFC fans might still have us beat in recent misery. Feel free to walk away from this article for a minute if the list has made you question whether the world is a good place.
Ex-United captain Ryan Nelsen, hired while still an active player with Queens Park Rangers, and ex-United president Kevin Payne have tried to put an end to a historic culture of losing that has left TFC as MLS's non-Chivas laughingstock. Unfortunately, it hasn't quite taken yet. A big part of that is that they inherited a horribly mismanaged salary cap that has prevented many additions. Guys like Richard Eckersley - a decent MLS right back, nothing more - are making All Star-level salaries. Their effort to free up cap room has meant accepting some sideways moves in terms of their starting lineup to make it easier to cut loose bigger earners (most recent example: six-figure earner Terry Dunfield just got released).
There's also a distinct lack of the kinds of things you see on any winning team, where competition for a spot is cutthroat and guys that take a starting job hang onto it like grim death. For Toronto, what happens instead is that everyone is always playing their way out of the lineup. You move up only because the previous starter moves down, in other words. As such, this is a tricky eleven to predict (though whether it's a 442 or 4411 just depends on the positioning of Luis Silva):
Lots of question marks here, as it is with any team down in the pits. The entire back four is a problem due to a variety of issues. Henry's red card in their previous game and an injury to Danny Califf mean they're out, while the well-traveled Darren O'Dea is questionable with an illness.
Essentially, the two certain starters are Steven Caldwell as a center back and Ryan Richter at one fullback position. Everything else depends on who actually ends up starting. Richter is probably going to end up at right back, but Nelsen could choose Darel Russell there and move Richter to the left. Left back should likely go to Ashtone Morgan after a long spell on the bench, but it could be O'Dea (if he recovers), Richter or Logan Emory as well.
Centrally, O'Dea is also a candidate to play, which would push Caldwell to the right-center role. If O'Dea can't play or is preferred at left back, Gale Agbossoumonde more or less has to start (which would mean Caldwell to left-center back).
Obviously this level of confusion is a positive for United. There is no continuity at the back for the Reds, and with Morgan only just emerging from the doghouse on the left and Richter not even a natural right back (as we know from his many, many trials with DC), stretching the field and playing at speed should pay off time and again. Not only would this mean our wingers up against weaker defenders, but it would expose a new-look center back pairing that isn't getting much cover from the midfield. The win over the Union showed what one- and two-touch soccer can open up for the Black-and-Red, and there's no reason to step away from that.
The other issues are the wide midfield positions. Bobby Convey is almost certainly a starter on the left, but in the last game played extensive minutes on the right. I'm not really sure why, but it is worth remembering. If Convey is played on the right, Osorio or Reggie Lambe would come in on the left. If Convey starts where you'd expect him 99% of the time, Osorio has a slight edge on Jeremy Brockie and Lambe right now at right midfield.
In any case, this is a midfield United can out-think and out-muscle. Jeremy Hall and Matias Laba are busy players in the middle, but Perry Kitchen will have a substantial athletic advantage over both of them. Even Thorrington will be slightly larger and stronger. More importantly, though, is the fact that Laba is just 21, while Hall is only thirteen games into his first season being used in a central position. There's an experience advantage here that a sharp DCU side should be able to take advantage of by simply thinking more quickly and coming up with better ideas in both directions than their TFC counterparts.
The flank players won't add much, either. Convey is notorious for hiding from games that get difficult, so United should make sure to get in his face and make his life hard. It's not about being overly physical as much as it is making sure Convey knows he's in for a battle. Keeping his crossing ability bottled up is vital, because the Reds don't have too many other notable skills coming out of the midfield.
On the right, Osorio provides a more interesting challenge than Brockie (basically just a hard-working forward who gets put wide because he's not a goal threat) or Lambe (who has speed and the occasional flash of skill, but little else). The TFC academy product has scored three goals this season, all of which temporarily gave Toronto a lead or pulled them back level. He's mostly been a sub in central midfield, but recently has been used on the right to add a creative spark to an otherwise pedestrian group.
Osorio's real skill is a knack for unbalancing defenses with his movement. Centrally he had success making late runs into the box, while as a right midfielder he likes to pinch inside and run at people or find a quick 1-2 to get in behind the defense. Fortunately, we're likely to see Alain Rochat at left back, who should be experienced enough by now to deal with a player like Osorio both 1v1 and in communicating well enough that United midfielders and center backs can be ready to help out.
Robert Earnshaw's ability to run in behind is the major Toronto threat for United, and unfortunately we've had problems with players like that this year (see: Dominic Oduro). The positive news is that in recent matches, the pressure on the ball United is managing through the midfield makes it really difficult for players to size up the kind of through ball that Earnshaw thrives on. Winning that central midfield battle will go a long way to making sure that's the case again tonight.
When TFC gets the ball wide - and they will on a consistent basis - they're still going to look to play the ball on the ground more often than through the air. Earnshaw is fast and busy, but not particularly big, so low crosses are more his speed. Of course, if they do go for the more traditional aerial cross, Earnshaw's speed and leaping ability make him a deceptively tricky player to beat to the ball. Getting a body on him early will help, because he's not going to push through someone like Brandon McDonald. Making sure these crosses aren't coming in without intense pressure will probably do even more to make sure we keep the previously on fire Earnshaw cold (he hasn't scored since April 13th).
Luis Silva poses a different kind of problem, though his confidence at the moment is a bit shaky. Silva can be very creative on the ball as a passer and on the dribble, but of late he seems to be having issues with getting himself into positions that allow that creativity to amount to anything. Especially if he begins dipping back into the midfield, the Black-and-Red need to make sure he's always under pressure and having to play it safe. If he starts to face goal and isolate center backs on the dribble, we're going to have problems.
Finally, there's the psychological aspect. Despite TFC's dismal performance, they do not get blown out. They haven't given up more than two goals all season, and only one of their losses has been by more than one goal. This is a team that plays teams even for long stretches, and when they aren't even they at least tend to hang around. That's a tricky thing for United, who just got some confidence back but could now end up frustrated if TFC doesn't just show up to die in the early going.
United will need to assert control in the opening stages while not losing their way if being the better team doesn't immediately result in goals. While the Reds seem like a good match-up for United at this point in the season and in terms of personnel, it's crucial that the team stays humble and focused against a team that generally holds teams to one goal on the road (oddly, they have no shutouts, but away from home they've only conceded two on two occasions). United shouldn't be overconfident given our offense, but they also need to maintain poise if Toronto plays us even.
Tying New England and beating Philly are all well and good, but RFK has been a house of horrors for DC fans this season, while the final 10+ minutes has been where TFC's nightmares are born. Obviously it would be nice to just go out and score our traditional three goals on Toronto, but while the Reds are bad, they aren't the team you crush. Staying disciplined and confident in the gameplan, even if it takes a while to work, is the way you end up in the position to either score a late goal against TFC or just win without needing a memorable late strike.