D.C. United begins the 2019 MLS playoffs in Ontario, where they’ll take on Toronto FC in a winner-take-all contest. United is in a strange place, as there are arguments that they’re both a hot team (unbeaten in 5, 504-minute shutout streak) and a hot mess (a season-ending fiasco against 9-man FC Cincinnati). That latter side of the coin is why this game is happening in Canada rather than on Buzzard Point, as United slipped behind TFC on goal difference, MLS’s second tiebreaker. After 34 games, the margins were that close.
However, despite two teams that expected a lot of themselves having everything on the line today, there is potentially much more to this game for United. This could be Wayne Rooney’s MLS farewell, and it may also be the last we see of Luciano Acosta. United is also considering their options on two starters (Bill Hamid and Lucas Rodriguez) as well as another important player (Leonardo Jara), all of whom are on loan.
In other words, there is real pressure for this group — once thought of as potential MLS Cup contenders — to overcome a rocky season and fulfill their potential.
Key player: Wayne Rooney
Could it be anyone else? If this result goes TFC’s way, today will end Rooney’s time in MLS. It’s an odd scenario to be in for all involved, and it hasn’t been helped by multiple suspensions and an illness giving this stretch run a stop-start feeling. Rooney appears to be sincere when he talks about wanting to keep his time here going all the way to MLS Cup, and he surely knows that to do that, he’s got to produce today.
If there was ever a display of what United loses without Rooney, it was last week’s unreal struggles to generate better looks against 9 players. That’s what happens when your attack revolves around one player being your chief goal threat, your best creator, your provider of hold-up play, and your set piece delivery. United has found goals hard to come by all season long, so Rooney (who has either scored or had the assist on 19 of D.C.’s 42 goals this year) is going to have to be at his absolute best for the Black-and-Red to advance.
On top of all that, Rooney is also the smartest player United has in terms of defending from the front. Disrupting TFC is a challenge, and it’ll be Rooney leading United’s defensive structure. If he can help make Toronto predictable (most likely by preventing easy passes to Michael Bradley), United’s job is going to be a lot easier.
Location: BMO Field (Toronto, Ontario)
Kickoff time: 6:00pm Eastern
Projected D.C. United starting 11: (4231) - Bill Hamid; Russell Canouse, Frederic Brillant, Steven Birnbaum, Joseph Mora; Felipe, Junior Moreno; Ulises Segura, Paul Arriola, Lucas Rodriguez; Wayne Rooney
Bench: Chris Seitz, Donovan Pines, Leonardo Jara, Luciano Acosta, Emmanuel Boateng, Quincy Amarikwa, Ola Kamara
All signs point to just one change: Rooney, back from the suspension that kept him out against Cincy, should replace Amarikwa in the starting lineup. Birnbaum appears to be set to start after missing a couple days of training as his wife gave birth, and the rest of the team has been set for over a month.
The real issue is how Ben Olsen plans to make use of his weapons off the bench. If United turns to Kamara, does Rooney drop into the midfield, or does Kamara try to replicate his 14-goal 2018 season on the left with the Galaxy? And if United really needs a goal, how does the picture change when Acosta comes on?
Projected Toronto starting 11: (433) - Quentin Westberg; Auro Jr., Omar Gonzalez, Chris Mavinga, Justin Morrow; Marky Delgado, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio; Tsubasa Endoh, Alejandro Pozuelo, Nicolas Benezet
Jozy Altidore’s status is the big question here, and it looks like his status is completely up in the air. He could start, he could make the 18, or he could be in the stands. His absence wouldn’t just harm TFC in terms of the quality of their lineup, either, as Greg Vanney appears to favor an indirect approach featuring Pozuelo as a false 9 rather than trying to maintain a physical presence up top (despite having the the option in the form of Patrick Mullins).
We’re figuring that Altidore is in uniform, but that the Reds don’t play him from the start. That probably means a start for Benezet, but it could also be Endoh on the left and Nick DeLeon on the right.
It bears mentioning that Vanney is among MLS’s most regular tinkerers in terms of formation. While TFC has played a 433 or 4141 in each of their last 8 games, they’ve played enough games in a 352 or a diamond 442 that we can’t completely rule out a surprise.
Referee: Allen Chapman
Available TV: Univision, TUDN
Available streaming: DCUnited.com (in the DMV only, and that link takes you right to the video), Univision Now, TUDN En Vivo
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
What do we have to say about it?: Further ruminations on United’s lineup are here, we outlined the factors that United will have to lean on if they’re going to get a win, and spent an entire episode of Filibuster specifically on this game. We’ll have the return of Opposition 11 for you later today as well!
What are you drinking?: Spaten Oktoberfest, and then depending on how the game goes, we’ll see what follows.
This is the place for all your pre-game, in-game, and post-game discussion. VAMOS UNITED!