D.C. United faces Toronto FC in what is, by definition, a middle-of-the-road MLS playoff game. They’re the fourth and fifth seeds in the Eastern Conference, and the league’s inexplicable choice to refuse to re-seed teams after this first round means that the winner of this game is intentionally set up to face the team that finished atop the conference in the regular season. There’s a solid argument that finishing sixth is actually better (you get a home game if the seventh seed also wins, and you can put off facing the top seed until the conference final), perhaps a reward for springing what is more likely to be perceived as an upset.
The difference between these two teams, ultimately, is virtually non-existent as far as the standings go. United and TFC both had the exact same 13W-11D-10L record that screams “yeah, better than average I guess.” The Reds get to host this game due to their +5 goal difference on the season, which is just one better than United’s over the course of 3,060 minutes of soccer. Both teams have been uneven, as well, going through a long stretch of really poor form before getting their act together recently. Sure, stylistically they’re very different teams, but while their paths may diverge, they’re pretty much getting to the same place at the same time.
Nonetheless, most places picking their playoff brackets have TFC winning this game. Here’s a betting site that gives the lower-seeded Red Bulls better odds of upsetting the Philadelphia Union than they give United of advancing past TFC. Here are videos of Jimmy Conrad and Pablo Mastroeni both going with Toronto, and five of the six non-Conrad brackets shown here agree (shout out to Calen Carr, the lone “MLS dot com” holdout).
That’s not exactly encouraging, but it also seems a bit out of line with the realities of two teams that are separated in the standings by one measly goal. In the face of those expectations, here are three reasons that United can get past Toronto.
The Black-and-Red have kept their last five opponents from scoring, setting an MLS record in the process. Ilsinho’s 36th minute goal back on August 24th was the last time this team has given up a goal, a shutout that spans 504 minutes. If that continues for one more game, United’s worst-case scenario will be going to penalty kicks, in a season where they’ve converted every single spot kick they’ve had, with the best goalkeeper in the league on their side.
On top of that, despite their good form down the stretch, TFC has just 1 shutout of their own in their last 14 games. They give up chances to everyone, and that 14-game set includes failing to keep a clean sheet at home against non-playoff sides like Orlando, Houston, and Cincinnati (three teams that, like United, didn’t reach the 50-goal plateau).
United’s 6W-5D-6L road record is the third-best in MLS this year, and they’ve feasted on teams that get careless at home. They’ve emerged from away games with 1-0 wins on two different occasions, most notably doing so in Portland, against a badly-in-need-of-points Timbers side, just over a month ago.
It might be too much to ask for United’s defense to carry them all the way to MLS Cup, but scraping a goal while posting one more shutout on this remarkable run? That sounds an awful lot like the D.C. United we’ve been seeing for the last month or so.
Altidore is injured
TFC is famously the kind of team that cycles through formations regularly, but in recent weeks Greg Vanney has leaned on a 433 (or, when they want to get conservative, a 4141) that builds his attack around Juzy Altidore. However, the USMNT striker went down with what looked like a painful quadriceps injury on Decision Day, and was scratched from Gregg Berhalter’s Nations League squad as a result. That included a competitive international fixture at BMO Field.
Just yesterday, Vanney referred to Altidore as “day-to-day,” and admitted that he was coming up with plans for facing United without the veteran target man. Everyone’s putting on a brave face, but the situation sounds an awful lot like the one we saw with Ola Kamara ahead of DCU’s trip to play at Red Bull Arena. Kamara ended up coming through a full training session that week, but still ended up in street clothes on game day.
Additionally, US Soccer is definitely not in the business of cutting American clubs a break at the expense of the national team. The fact that Altidore was deemed unavailable for both matches during this FIFA window bodes very well for United. If Altidore were even able to give them 10-15 minutes, Berhalter would have kept him aboard.
Altidore has been in excellent form this season, but only when he’s been healthy. His 11 goals and 7 assists are fine numbers on the season, but he put that together in just 22 games. That’s a 22 goal/11 assist pace over a fully healthy 34-game season, which would have arguably put Altidore in the “who’s the MVP runner-up?” discussion with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Josef Martinez.
Sure, TFC is capable of playing well without him, but there’s no hiding that him missing this game is a huge blow to Toronto’s chances. As Vanney appears reticent to use stand-in Patrick Mullins outside of fairly desperate circumstances, we’d most likely see Alejandro Pozuelo deployed as a false 9, with a different wide forward stepping in. The option of playing direct would effectively be off the table for the Reds as a result.
United actually has a change-up this time
In years past, the Black-and-Red entered the playoffs with one system of play in mind. The 2014 and 2015 teams were going to play one formation, and they were going to try to grind the game to a pulp. In 2016 and 2018, United was trying to play a wide-open game, betting everything on their in-form attackers to just outscore their opponents.
The problem every time is that someone along the way figured out how to get the better of those plans, and there was nowhere to go from there. As such, United has advanced just once (a 2-1 knockout round win over the Revolution back in 2015) in their last four trips to the postseason.
We know Ben Olsen’s Plan A right now: a 4231 that starts the game in a mid-block, and some really high pressing in the first few minutes trying to poach an early lead. If that doesn’t work, United will back off, eventually settling into a low-block, grind-it-out approach.
However, 2019 is different, because United has played some significant minutes out of a 3421, and to a lesser extent in a 541 or 343. They can high press (especially with the current Ulises Segura - Paul Arriola - Lucas Rodriguez midfield), or they can sit deep and become a purely counter-attacking team. For maybe the first time since they could shift from conservative to Branko Time back in 2012, they actually have the option to shift gears.
That’s a huge difference, because in most of their playoff appearances under Olsen, there’s been nowhere to go once the opponent has solved the first approach. Generally, once things start to go wrong, we’ve been left hoping that just trying Plan A with more vigor will somehow work, or that Olsen would come up with something on the spot. That latter option is obviously going to end up being something rudimentary, like sending a tall center back up top, and rudimentary doesn’t often pan out once the postseason arrives.
We haven’t seen United deploy a third center back in a while, but the fact that they can do so now, or that they have Kamara and Luciano Acosta as potential wild cards off the bench, makes them a more difficult team to plan for than in the past.