Let's just get this out of the way: Toronto FC is a bad soccer team. They're dead last in MLS. In fact, they're so far behind that they would need to take two wins and a draw from their final three matches just to get into 18th (while also needing Chivas USA to lose their remaining games).
Things are bad on the banks of Lake Ontario. Dogmatic head coach Aron Winter resigned after his side lost nine straight to open the MLS season (funnily enough, Winter's final two matches in charge were 1-0 home wins, one of which allowed them to win the Voyageurs Cup and qualify for this season's CONCACAF Champions League group stage). Paul Mariner has gotten some measure of improvement out of TFC since then, going 4W-7D-10L, but the bulk of those good results came during a 3-4-1 spell from late June to mid-July. Since the start of August, the Reds have taken just three points from ten games, and those points came in ties rather than a win.
Injuries have torn Toronto apart. The club's two key players - handballing cheat Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans, who memorably called his side "the worst team in the world" following their 3-1 loss at RFK - have both been out for quite a while. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei, strangely benched by Winter, has been out with a grisly lower leg fracture that came with a side of torn ankle ligaments.
These three aren't just high-quality players, or even merely leaders; for TFC, these three were the only people capable of covering up the many flaws in this side. Frings offered soccer IQ leaps and bounds higher than anyone else in the squad; Koevermans was mostly deadly in front of goal, scoring 9 goals in just 16 appearances (and 17 in 26 for his brief MLS career!); and Frei is the club's best goalkeeper, capable of bailing out his usually shoddy defense. The quality of their replacements - rookie Aaron Maund, journeyman Quincy Amarikwa, and former United GK Milos Kocic - underlines just how damaging their absences are.
All that said, it would be ridiculous for DC to overlook their hosts just because they're bad. At BMO Field, TFC routinely plays teams with far more quality very close. The Chicago Fire and Sporting Kansas City both only escaped with one-goal wins, with KC having to wait 83 minutes before scoring. Mexican powerhouse Santos Laguna needed two goals from the 90th minute on to win 3-1 in CCL play. They may be lacking in talent, but for the most part they haven't stopped playing for pride.
Going back to the coaching change, Mariner's biggest move has been to install a back-to-basics 442. In his own way, Mariner is as dogmatic as Winter in that he scorns unusual formations or complicated systems. Normally going from Winter's approach to Mariner's would be a big problem, but for a Toronto side that lacks in many departments, keeping things as simple as possible was probably wise (even if Mariner isn't exactly convincing the fans in T-Dot).
In any case, here's how they should look:
Despite TFC's horrendous defensive record, there are no real questions in the back. Freddy Hall, known the world over due to his work with the Bermuda national team, will start in goal unless the personal matter keeping Milos Kocic off the field is resolved. Hall is a respectable shot-stopper, but can struggle with his decision-making and timing. United should look to put him under pressure by getting balls into the box and generally being more aggressive with the ball than they were in Portland.
The midfield similarly should contain few surprises. Terry Dunfield and Maund will play in a double-pivot system similar to ours when Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa start together. The speedy Reggie Lambe will slot in on the right, and Ryan Johnson should be on the left. The only question for Johnson is whether he's needed up front, as Luis Silva has been carrying an injury and was removed at halftime in their 4-1 loss at NYRB. Silva isn't on the injury report, but MLS teams have been known to bend the truth on that front. The final spot in the side will go to Amarikwa if Eric Hassli - questionable with an ankle sprain - isn't fit to play.
Going forward, TFC often suffers from players having to do things on their own rather than attacking in a cohesive unit. Normally we talk offenses trying to isolate fullbacks; TFC tends to isolate their own players, making it easy to shut them down. While things sometimes turn out well (you should definitely take a moment to watch Johnson's ridiculous goal that put them in front in North Jersey last weekend), all too often TFC attacks end in a crowd of opposition shirts.
The dangers in the run of play mostly come from Silva and Johnson. Both are comfortable enough swapping positions, and Silva's ability to drop in underneath and be a creator is why he was such a prized draft pick this past winter. That said, Silva doesn't just play underneath; United will need to watch for his runs into the box, which can be rather crafty. He's also notched a few gritty goals as well, so any Black-and-Red defender expecting an easy time reaching a loose ball should reconsider.
Johnson, on the other hand, is well-known for his rough-and-tumble style of play. The Jamaican never stops running and thrives on physical play. Playing down the left, he'll offer a difficult challenge for Andy Najar due to his powerful build and the fact that he tends to throw himself into people rather than try to avoid them. Johnson may lack in technical ability, but he still gets the job done and provides a decent goal threat crashing into the box whenever the ball comes in from the opposite flank.
Dunfield is another blue-collar player being asked to offer a bit more these days, and unlike most TFC players he's responding. The former Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder never stops working, and he holds the more attack-minded role in their double-pivot. Dunfield can fool people with his rather erratic first touch and the fact that he doesn't look particularly fit, but United must show him plenty of respect. If we can track Dunfield's runs into the box and force him into passing under pressure, TFC will lose the central midfield battle. If we fail to do that, though, the Reds will be able to mount attacks and we'll be in a more difficult game than we should be on paper.
When United goes forward, there are a lot of ways to cause problems. Hall and Morgan are both attack-minded fullbacks, and neither has spent that much time learning how to pick their spots getting forward (Hall was a very attack-minded winger in his college days at Maryland, while the promising Morgan is still only 21). To compound things, Hall is not a very strong 1v1 defender; he usually has to rely on his speed to recover after getting beaten, rather than simply not getting beaten.
If United can spring a counter following a turnover, the first looks should be down both flanks. This is a match that just begs for a consistent use of the wings to attack, and the spaces will be there for us to exploit. Even when there isn't a huge gap, we have the quality on the wings - particularly if Chris Pontius is back on the left - to beat both outside backs 1v1.
The middle isn't that much stronger. Darren O'Dea looks like an adequate defender, but it's unlikely that he's the answer to TFC's never-ending search for a truly good center back. Eckersley isn't really a natural in the middle, and his years at right back seem to have given him an urge to cover too much ground. Most center backs tend to spend the majority of their time in a small area of the field, but Eckersley is pretty easy to lure out of position. Everyone in the United attack needs to be on the lookout for moments when Eckersley gambles, because he often arrives too late and leaves a huge gap.
Ben Olsen should also urge his troops to play at a high tempo. TFC had a rough schedule last week, having to go to LA (a 4-2 loss to the Galaxy), El Salvador (a 3-0 win over a CD Aguila side that is the worst CCL team I've ever seen), and "New York" (a 4-1 loss to Thierry Henry and some other dudes). Sure they've had a week to recover, but there are several ways a quick pace could cause the Reds problems: They could be tired, they could find themselves thrown off by the lack of a mid-week game in the same way that we have been a few times this season, and they could simply be so low in confidence that a fast start could take the wind out of their sails early. There's no need for United to let Toronto feel like they're in this game or that they're capable of playing at our level.
The word of the day for tomorrow needs to be "professional." United needs to do what winning clubs do against losing clubs, and that means avoiding the trap of playing down to a team that would kill to have our even our current, De Ro-free level of talent. TFC is being called on to make their fans proud again, which should mean they'll be motivated. This isn't a walkover.
Simple things like avoiding turnovers, defending as a unit, and pressuring in the midfield will go a long way in this game. There's also no reason for United to play with fear on the road: Our last three visits to BMO have all been shutout wins (yes, even in 2010). Playing with confidence and getting the basics right should provide a platform for a win that any playoff team would expect at this point.