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Toronto FC vs. D.C. United preview: Behind Enemy Lines with Waking the Red

In the interest of previewing tonight's Eastern Conference Relegation Bowl, we swapped questions and answers with our Ontarian counterparts. Topics included all the usual suspects: Luis Silva, Dwayne De Rosario, Ryan Nelsen, Matias Laba and Keyser Söze.

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Happy United Day! And... happy bottom-of-the-table clash day, too. D.C. United can't climb out of the cellar tonight, but they can gain points on Toronto FC, he team immediately above them in the standings. So that means this game is super important... right? Anywho, I exchanged a few questions with Kristin Knowles of SB Nation's Toronto FC site Waking the Red to get ready for tonight's (not really at all) big, big, huge match-up.

Questions for Waking the Red

1. Down here, we still have a lot of love for former D.C. United MLS Cup-winning captain Ryan Nelsen, and one of Kevin Payne's first moves upon moving north was signing the former center back as his head coach. Now that you've had the better part of a season to get a look at him, what are the hallmarks of Nelsen's team, especially compared to past TFC managers like Aron Winter and Paul Mariner?

Ryan Nelsen is first and foremost a defender - it's how he plied his trade as a player and it's the first thing he looked to solidify with TFC. However given injuries and missing pieces early on in the season it didn't seem as though much had changed. In the past couple of months as he's had a more consistent set of defenders (and ones that he prefers) at his disposal, that part of Toronto's game - barring some horrific gaffes - has been the best part of Toronto's game. They've stopped panicking at the end of games and seem to be playing as a unit. The players seem to (for the most part) respect him and from a training standpoint - according to observers and the players themselves - he's got a much better handle on things as compared to Mariner and certainly to Winter. So a hallmark for Nelsen's team would be hard playing, defensively minded and not overly spectacular.

Has he won everyone over? Not as of yet. There's still some questions about his ability to get the team playing more fluidly and obviously they don't score a lot of goals as the 'whip cross into short strikers' method really hasn't been working - it makes you wonder what they practice in terms of scoring drills. And of course there's been a few questionable subs and his ongoing support (with minutes and starts) of Reggie Lambe and the post-game positivity gets to be a bit much. However, I think he's been easily a better coach than Winter and a far less polarizing one than Mariner. I hope he's given the opportunity to work with better players and keep molding the team.

2. With the news this week that defensive midfielder and Designated Player Matias Laba will be out for several weeks, what effect will that have on the Reds' gameplan?

Other than the screams of dismay from fans, teammates and the coaches? This obviously couldn't come at a worse time for TFC. Laba has been one of the few bright spots in the lineup this season. His ability to win the ball, break up opposition attacks and keep things tidy in the midfield has been a big reason for keeping Toronto in a lot of games that earlier in the season they would have lost, or been beaten far worse. I could go on listing his contributions but that would just make me want to weep in the corner. It's going to be close to impossible to replace his presence in the midfield. Expect Nelsen to employ some combination of Jeremy Hall and Darel Russell - there's even a possibility that Kyle Bekker may see some time if they decide to go the "try out the kids" route for the remainder of the season. All in all it's going to put a big cramp in any plans that Toronto had in finishing the season on any kind of high note and continuing to develop what should be the core of the team going forward. Good times.

3. I almost forgot! Happy Relegation Bowl! With United 7 points behind Toronto with 10 games remaining for both teams, are you at all worried about dropping into the Eastern Conference cellar that United has occupied since spring?

What, us worried? I'd love to say that we're supremely confident of retaining that dubious bit of real estate in the sub-basement but with the loss of Laba and still no one on the team that reliably put the ball in the net? I'd say start expanding the cellar - we're pretty easy going roommates, we promise not to hog the covers. Seriously, it's going to be a rough last couple months I fear and 7 points can vanish quicker than Keyser Söze.

Projected lineup: Joe Bendik, Richard Eckersley, Steven Caldwell, Doneil Henry, Ashtone Morgan, Jeremy Hall, Alvaro Rey, Jonathan Osorio, Bobby Convey, Jeremy Brockie and Robert Earnshaw.

Score prediction: I don't think this is going to be pretty for either team, let's go with 2-2.

Questions for B&RU

1. I'll just get this one out of the way: How're you enjoying Luis Silva? No need to thanks us too much - but should you stumble across a spare striker or anything that'd be great. He's obviously done well since heading down to DC - is he the difference maker that you need going forward?

Luis who? Oh, that guy who scored in each of his first three appearances for United and assisted in his fourth (Saturday will be his fifth)? Yeah, I think he might turn into a useful part someday. As for spare strikers, we've got a gently used Pajoy you can have for a song, and an aging fish that might interest you.

In all seriousness, Silva brings something that United was sorely missing this year: creativity in the final third. The book was out very early in 2013, and the way to beat United was to let D.C. push numbers into the attack - as long as you stay good positionally, we won't score on you - and then counter at speed when the inevitable turnover comes. Meantime, our own counterattack was nonexistent (along with everything else involving the word "attack" - except maybe when preceded by "panic"). With Silva - and other additions like Conor Doyle, Jared Jeffrey and a non-brooding Dwayne De Rosario - we have a presence that can unlock defenses and a guy whose teammates now know that if they make a good run it will be found, and they'll have a scoring opportunity. The team's not all the way there yet - not even close - but adding Silva makes them a much better team than they were before the trade.

2. And speaking of former TFC players - DeRo seems to be finding his footing of late. Is this a mirage or has he finally gotten over the issues that have plagued him for much of the season?

I think this goes back to your first question in a big way. Even though Anglophilic tradition dictates that a smaller, shiftier player like DeRo must be paired up top with a big target forward type, that's never been how the Canadian international has played his best. Instead, he's at his most dangerous when he can combine with another creative player who manipulates defenses with passing and off-ball movement. Before trading for Silva, United only had one of those guys, and it was DeRo himself. With Silva on the field with him, DeRo has come back to life, allowing his younger colleague to bear some of the creative burden (and attention from opposing defenses) he's been carrying by himself. At 35, DeRo's obviously not going to be on an upward trajectory in terms of ability, but he should still have a year or two left in the tank, and playing with guys like Luis Silva is how you get the best out of that remaining time.

3. I have to ask about the stadium - do you think it will become a reality this time around or is this just more smoke and mirrors?

I honestly think this time is different. At Poplar Point back in 2007, there was a backroom agreement, but nothing public, and the then-new (since-ousted) mayor walked away after years of negotiations between the team and his predecessor. In Prince George's County a couple years after that, the cart was put squarely before the horse, and both the team and county government went public before anything, including an economic impact study, had been started. This time, the announcement came when Mayor Vince Gray and D.C. United Managing Partner Jason Levien put pen to paper on a term sheet that obligates the District of Columbia to assemble the land in the stadium site by year's end and limits the city's financial contribution to the project. Unlike some past plans, D.C. United will be funding the entire cost of the actual construction, and the city will retain ownership of the land (leasing it to the team for the useful life of the building). With discussions begun with all (or nearly all, depending on the legal status of one parcel of land currently owned by a scrap yard) stakeholders, I'm optimistic that it'll get done this time. Whether it's all done in time for the 2016 is another question.

4. What do you see as the major issue with DCU this season? Has Olsen's luck run out? Injuries? The same curse that's visited TFC?

I don't think it's the same thing that's plagued TFC, which to my mind has been consistent upheaval and changing course mid-rebuild. United's problem to start the year was almost exactly the opposite: they were too content to sit on the progress they'd made last season. Sure, some pieces were brought in, but none of them were the types of players who could push the team to take the next step. Rather than adding guys to the team's core and improving the top line talent, the team looked to bring in depth players and projects, which at this point was clearly the wrong decision. Brazilian Young DP Rafael Teixeira de Souza and Panamanian international Marcos Sanchez both joined this winter and are already gone, as is another Brazilian Raphael Augusto. Canadian Kyle Porter also joined and has started the majority of games this year, but he's a guy who is probably best used as a substitute or spot starter at the MLS level.

Which brings us to injuries. Chris Pontius has been hobbled much of the year - and largely ineffective the rest of it - coming off an MLS Best XI 2012. Nick DeLeon, DeRo and other starters have also missed time to injury this year. Back-ups Lewis Neal and Marcelo Saragosa have seen next to no time on the field or pushing starters in practice due to injuries of their own. That said, the team wasn't good enough coming into 2013, even at full strength. That's been addressed some with the recent acquisitions I mentioned earlier, but they won't mean much in the long run unless Ben Olsen and Dave Kasper (or whoever holds their positions going forward) have taken the lesson to heart that it's never enough to rest on your laurels.

5. Predicted score and starting lineup.

United will run out something like a 4-4-1-1 of Bill Hamid; Chris Korb, Dejan Jakovic, Daniel Woolard, Dennis Iapichino; Nick DeLeon, Perry Kitchen, Jared Jeffrey/John Thorrington, Kyle Porter; Luis Silva; Dwayne De Rosario. We could also see Olsen experiment with a way to get Conor Doyle onto the field either at left midfield for Porter or up front for either Silva or DeRo.

I'm probably jinxing things, but I think United win this one by a couple goals. Bill Hamid keeps the clean sheet, and United scores in each half to win 2-0.

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