It's a fact: D.C. United will get a lovely prize for finishing 19th in Major League Soccer this season. However, much like Butch in Pulp Fiction, there's this slight sting called pride, and no matter what Marcellus Wallace says, it's awfully hard to ignore. Getting off of the floor of the MLS cellar won't mean much in the long run, and it will hurt the Black-and-Red next year at the draft, but it will also mean we don't enter the discussion of all-time worst MLS teams (for what it's worth, we're probably still not as bad as the 2001 Tampa Bay Mutiny, who overachieved in picking up 14 points). There are some things you never want to associate with your club, and that's one of them.
As such, tomorrow evening's game against Toronto FC has a certain unwanted kind of importance. Neither team has any hope of making the playoffs; United's not-at-all magic number is in fact down to just 8 points lost by us or picked up by the Houston Dynamo. Still, no one wants to be the absolute worst, and no player wants to have his livelihood jeopardized by the stigma of being not quite good enough for the worst team in MLS, so there's something on the line. Anyone questioning that can just ask CJ Sapong how things are down in the minor leagues. You want free shoes, a team masseuse, and not having to play Friday and Sunday on a given weekend? Don't come in last place, son.
United has started to look a little better going forward recently mostly thanks to Luis Silva, a player TFC misused for all of 2013 before trading him away for what was probably less than his actual value (we'll probably never know for sure). While Silva didn't really fit into ex-United captain Ryan Nelsen's tactical plan, one could argue that the plan should have been changed instead.
On the other hand, for TFC fans anything resembling a plan that is followed for more than a couple of days is a kind of progress. Toronto hired former United president Kevin Payne to take that job as well as the role of general manager, and then ownership - the largely unpopular Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment - went even further in signing Tim Leiweke, the man behind David Beckham's move to the LA Galaxy. For the first time ever, Toronto has people at the top of the pyramid that have won something in MLS at some point.
While that is progress off the field, the results on the field have been pretty much exactly like every TFC season ever. The Reds give away late goals like candy on Halloween, the defense is still three players away from being playoff-caliber, the young players - bar Matias Laba and possibly Doneil Henry - are not really improving at all, the creative players don't actually create much of anything, and the star strikers get injured. Oh, and there's not much depth. There's a reason why United can still catch them despite how terrible 2013 has been around these parts.
TFC's struggles continued last week, when they were flattered by the 2-0 scoreline in losing to the Columbus Crew. As a team, Columbus didn't even have to excel to take three points; they just collectively played assistant for Federico Higuain, who Toronto never even came close to dealing with. As fans of a bad team, we've seen outings like this one from United, where you feel helpless from the moment the first goal goes in. Actually, now that I think about it, TFC looked a lot like United when we last went to Columbus. Maybe teams from diverse, sophisticated, international cities just don't like Columbus.
Shots at Ohio aside, the Crew provided a bit of a lesson for United. Robert Warzycha went against his normally conservative nature and fielded more or less the most attacking team he could play that still had four defenders. His 4132 included leading scorer Dominic Oduro at right midfield, converted forward Justin Meram at left midfield, and gave Higuain the freedom to roam as a second forward playing off of the similarly mobile Jairo Arrieta.
There are two lessons in there, actually. First of all, Columbus forced Toronto into focusing on defensive posture and staying organized, which are big weaknesses for TFC. By dictating the terms of the game, the Crew made sure that the proceedings were all about what the Reds are bad at. Second - and even more important to United - they took advantage of having a fluid, unpredictable forward pairing. TFC wanted to face a classic big man-small man pairing, and instead got Arrieta always attacking at diagonal angles and Higuain wandering in search of weak points rather than simply playing off of the highest striker.
This is great news for Silva and Dwayne De Rosario, who like Silva will probably bring a little extra to this game as he usually does against TFC. United's front line has shifted from one-note to a far more unusual set-up where De Ro has near-total freedom to wander around while Silva functions as the playmaker even while often finding himself further upfield than anyone else in black. If Higuain and Arrieta could confuse TFC with their movement, one would imagine that the Reds will be even more confused by United's pair of false #9s.
Before we get further into the strengths and weaknesses of Nelsen's TFC, we should take a look at how they line up:
It's a classic flat 442 for TFC, who are by far the most English MLS team in terms of style (and probably personnel, for whatever that's worth). The whole idea is for the defenders to get the ball to the central midfielders, who are to spray the ball to the wingers, who are to hit crosses. When this doesn't happen, one can expect the defenders to play long for the forwards. Occasionally, when things get really crazy, you may see the defenders pass directly to the wingers.
In terms of the players who may or may not start, one is injury enforced. Laba - arguably the lone bright spot for TFC since Robert Earnshaw stopped scoring goals - broke his big toe and will be out for at least a month. Laba is the best central midfielder of any kind that TFC has, and his ability to link the defense with the attack and shuttle the ball to more attacking players is something Nelsen simply can't replace by going to his bench. Instead, he'll be forced to choose between utility men Jeremy Hall or Darel Russell.
The main differences are that Hall is faster and better with the ball, while Russell provides more physical strength and adds what every soccer fan loves to see: Someone who can throw his elbow into the face of opponents. There are few dirtier players in MLS this season than Russell, so if he's starting, United's central players need to play quickly both to prevent TFC from settling in and for their own safety.
At left back, Ashtone Morgan appears to have held off the initial challenge from Swiss newcomer Jonas Elmer. However, Morgan is regularly picked on by opposing teams due to his poor decision-making and lack of positional sense, which sadly haven't improved at all since he signed his Homegrown contract. As Elmer has not yet played a minute for Toronto, I can't tell you much about him. What I can say is that, since he's coming off the Euro offseason and is unfamiliar with MLS in general, it almost doesn't matter which left back Nelsen chooses. In either case, United should feed Nick DeLeon down the right wing early and often.
Speaking of the right wing, TFC has had some uncertainty there since it became obvious that Jonathan Osorio needed to play centrally. New Spanish winger Alvaro Rey has yet to make much of an impact in his three short appearances. On the other hand, Reggie Lambe has had every opportunity to seize the job and has yet to do so despite a total lack of competition. In either case, United's starting left back should have an easier go of things than James Riley did while forgetting everything that everyone knows about Justin Mapp last week. Rey is the more polished player on the ball, while Lambe offers more out-and-out speed.
Back in June, when TFC won 2-1 at RFK Stadium and turned the farcical nature of this season up to 11, United largely had the better of proceedings but didn't create enough real danger to trouble TFC keeper Joe Bendik. That cannot be the case tomorrow. As Columbus showed, you have to be positive and aggressive against Toronto, and make this game a test of their ability to defend. That's a test the Reds will virtually always fail, and if you score more than one goal, you don't lose a game in which your opponent gets only one shot on goal.
United's last home game featured an unpredictable, dangerous attacking team in black, and that needs to be the bare minimum for this game. You don't beat TFC by grinding the game out...well, actually teams have done that too, but it isn't the highest percentage of success. What Ben Olsen needs to drill into his team for tomorrow's game is the importance of dictating the terms of this game. If this game is all about how TFC copes with waves of pressure from United, the Black-and-Red will almost certainly take three points. If this game is played too patiently, however, we open the door for TFC to spring the speedy Earnshaw on some long balls or find their wingers for some crosses. The more this game is a test of Toronto's defense, the better United's chances.
Defensively, United needs to be focused on Earnshaw. It's been a long time since the Welshman scored - actually, it was against United, which is just so typical this season - but he's still the major goal threat for TFC. Earnshaw's acceleration is his main weapon, as he's very good at getting separation in the first couple of steps when running in behind. For United, a mix of selecting the right angles to block Earnshaw's path and putting a body on him to disrupt those bursts forward before they really start is the recipe for success.
As TFC doesn't really have intimidating size up top - Jeremy Brockie is fearless and never stops working, but he's not exactly a physical marvel - the main worry when they're in possession is the early ball in behind. Earnshaw is obviously the main target, but Toronto will also look to put their wingers in behind for crosses. Bobby Convey is the most gifted crosser for the Reds, but he's shown time and again that he vanishes from games where defenders get in his face and make life difficult. Chris Korb needs to make sure Convey has to fight for everything, because in those situations Convey generally disappears.
TFC's months-long pursuit of new striker Maximiliano Urruti got a lot of headlines, but expectations of an instant impact are pretty low. He's one for the future, as they say, even though Payne says he was determined to sign him dating back to his time as United's president. We'll likely see him come off the bench for Earnshaw, who isn't quite 90 minutes fit after a weeks-long struggle with injury that only recently ended. If you want to focus on throwing Urruti off his game, maybe bring some cucumbers or dress as your favorite horror movie character (h/t to Duncan Fletcher of Waking The Red for that last link, a Q&A with Urruti that got some odd answers to very run-of-the-mill questions).
Osorio's late runs are also a threat worth noting. The rookie has 5 goals on the season, several of which have changed the result for TFC. He's the kind of buzzing, pesky player that is always near the ball and tends to pick up a lot of fouls by just arriving half a second earlier than his opponent. Given United's weakness on set pieces - both Toronto goals in June came via that route, in case you blocked that game out of your memory - it's important that United collectively keeps track of Osorio and adopts a proactive (rather than reactive) stance. If Osorio is busy chasing the ball and helping back, he won't have as much energy or opportunity to jump into the attack.
Psychologically, both of these teams are obviously damaged. With the playoff race a non-factor, both coaches are focused on improving and evaluating the players they have while setting a higher standard for the future. In recent terms, that means United will try to improve off of a not-so-bad loss in Montreal that largely came down to being unable to supply a good final ball and two defensive letdowns. For the Reds, it means improving upon a lifeless, pathetic showing against the Crew.
That can go two ways. Maybe United - who were far closer to actually playing winning soccer - can take what they did well in Quebec and let their frustrations over that close loss fuel a better showing this week. Or, maybe United thinks that the same level of play will just work this time because we were unlucky last week. That latter line of thought is problematic, because TFC has nowhere to go but up after last week's abysmal display. Toronto can't play any worse this week, and United should look to at least match the Reds in terms of how much better they are this time out.
In other words, the lingering memory from last weekend for United shouldn't be Alessandro Nesta's uncalled handball. It should be the unacceptable lack of focus displayed by several players moments after Conor Doyle's hard-earned equalizer that resulted in Marco Di Vaio's gamewinner. United should take the field tomorrow night angry about how they threw away a result last week rather than thinking that things will be fine if we just have a bit of luck. This week should be all about making our own luck.