It’s been over four months, and it feels like much longer, but D.C. United is returning to action this morning, with a completely bizarre early kickoff against Toronto FC in what is the MLS is Back Tournament opener for both sides. Way back in the Before Times, United opened the season with two underwhelming performances, and will return to play facing a TFC side that is likely the class of the Eastern Conference (and is the team that ended D.C.’s 2019, to boot).
Key player: Edison Flores
Ben Olsen told media members on Thursday that United has worked on simplifying some of their play to get Flores the ball more often. That makes a lot of sense, as Flores looked dangerous when he was able to get involved in United’s early games, but was unable to truly take over due to a lack of touches.
Broadly speaking, we can say this about Julian Gressel and Ola Kamara, too. United wasn’t able to get this trio really going back in March, but there were flashes (particularly between Flores and Gressel) to believe that they can become dangerous enough as a group to trouble even the league’s most difficult foes. But we’re focusing on Flores because he’s also very likely going to have a defensive role of note, as TFC has Michael Bradley fit and available at the base of their midfield.
Harassing him to throw off Toronto’s ability to control the tempo is just as vital to United’s hopes, and no one will have more to do in that regard than Flores. It’s a tough job, but that’s how it is playing against one of the best teams in the league.
Location: Field 18 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex (Kissimmee, FL)
Kickoff time: 9:00am Eastern. Yes, for real.
Projected D.C. United starting 11: (4231) - Bill Hamid; Russell Canouse, Frederic Brillant, Steven Birnbaum, Joseph Mora; Felipe Martins, Junior Moreno; Julian Gressel, Edison Flores, Ulises Segura; Ola Kamara
Bench: Earl Edwards Jr., Donovan Pines, Oniel Fisher, Chris Odoi-Atsem, Mohammed Abu, Moses Nyeman, Kevin Paredes, Federico Higuain, Yamil Asad, Griffin Yow, Erik Sorga
Olsen is allowed to dress up to 23 players per game for MLS is Back, but with a 25-player roster and three injuries, sorting out a match roster is easy. Olsen himself told us on Filibuster that Emmanuel Boateng has a “short-term” injury, while the Washington Post’s Steve Goff reported yesterday that Chris Seitz is the only other player in a similar boat.
As for the starting lineup, Olsen has alluded to possibly wanting to approach games differently from the 433 we saw to start the season. Our guess at what that means? Gressel out on on the right in a more familiar role, Flores into the middle full time, and more of a mid-block/selective high press than the higher line United tried to draw back in March. Finally, while Asad is among the team’s best eleven, we’re doing some reading of tea leaves to guess that it’ll be Segura to start instead.
Projected Toronto starting 11: (433) - Quentin Westberg; Auro, Omar Gonzalez, Chris Mavinga, Justin Morrow; Marky Delgado, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio; Pablo Piatti, Alejandro Pozuelo, Tsubasa Endoh
Jozy Altidore is almost certainly going to be given the game off as he builds up his fitness after spending some of the break elsewhere, while potential replacement Ifunanyachi Achara (a rookie out of Georgetown) is done for the year with a torn ACL.
That probably leaves Greg Vanney with the option of either playing the 433 with Pozuelo as a false 9 (like we saw in the playoffs) or perhaps the 442 they used to start the season. If it’s the latter, look for former DCU striker Patrick Mullins or youngster Ayo Akinola to partner the Spaniard up top.
Referee: Fotis Bazakos
Available TV: ESPN 2, ESPN Deportes
Available streaming: WatchESPN, ESPN 3, ESPN Deportes+
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
What do we have to say about it?: I mentioned Filibuster, and here’s the show. Olsen talked about United with us, before we brought Kristin Knowles to tell us more about TFC. Yesterday, I wrote about where the team is at heading into this one, with quotes from Olsen and Canouse.
Our friends at Waking the Red put together this summary of where TFC is at right now, in case you want to get more familiar with what’s going on up there.
What are you drinking?: This game kicks off at 9am, so coffee. A cup in the first half, and a cup in the second half.
This is the place for all your pre-game, in-game, and post-game discussion. Welcome back, y’all!