D.C. United takes on Toronto FC tonight; to preview the game, we talked to James Grossi of Waking the Red. His answers to my questions follow; if you want to see my answers, head on over to our sister site.
B&RU: All eyes are turned to the injured Italian: How much have TFC missed Sebastian Giovinco, and what role do you think he will play in the game between D.C. United and Toronto?
WtR: The absence of Sebastian Giovinco has indeed been a blow to the side. The Italian is one of, if not the, best players in MLS.
How important is he to Toronto's attack? A few numbers: Toronto FC have scored 103 goals over the last two seasons and Giovinco has been involved in 67 of those goals. A full 65% of TFC's goals have had Giovinco either score them or provide an assist. That does not included any goals in which he played a role, but was not officially recorded as having a hand. Any team missing such an influential player would suffer for their absence.
But such a staggering figure does overlook much of the progress that the team has made from last season to this.
They have shored up one of the league worst defenses, transforming themselves into one of the best – admittedly by sacrificing some of their attacking potency for defensive solidity. They have built the sort of depth that a long MLS season requires. And they have found ways to win when not playing their best, or when missing key pieces.
There is no arguing the premise that they are a more dangerous opponent when Giovinco is in the lineup – dude makes goals happen out of nothing, but in his absence, whether physical, as in the last few weeks, or in terms of production, such as when he struggled through a barren run earlier in the season, others have stepped up and the team has gotten results.
With three matches remaining, TFC has already equalled last season's tally of 49 points – tying their best-ever mark in MLS. And they only have eight losses, tied for third-best in the league – only Colorado and Los Angeles have lost fewer. TFC has it within their own hands to finish top of the Eastern Conference, while the Supporters Shield is possible, though it requires results elsewhere to go their way.
It has been the defensive revolution that has made the difference. Giovinco's role is to turn draws into wins, to score the goals that change games. This recent run of results at home is instructive in this regard. TFC has drawn their last three, all at home, matches that they will have wanted to win. Would they have taken more than three of nine points with him on the field? Probably.
As for Saturday, it's unclear what role, if any, he will play in the proceedings. As much as Toronto wants to challenge for the shield and secure a bye with a top-two finish in the conference, they have the luxury of not risking Giovinco if he is not ready to go.
Just today at training, Greg Vanney called it 'risk-versus-reward'.
They will need him fit and humming for a deep playoff run and his injury, a quadriceps strain, is a finicky one. To play him and run the risk of losing him for longer or for the more crucial matches ahead, would be foolish indeed.
With the international break, there seems little reason to bother rushing him back, though having him as an option on the bench is very possible.
B&RU: Clint Irwin started on Saturday, but Alex Bono took to the field midweek. Is there are competition between the two, or is Clint Irwin still the number 1 goalkeeper? Why the platoon this week, and who starts on Saturday?
WtR: The goalkeeping situation has been an interesting story to follow this season. TFC cut ties with both of their keepers – Joe Bendik and Chris Konopka – at the end of last season, leaving a massive hole to be filled.
They did have both Alex Bono, a draft pick, and Quillan Roberts, a homegrown prospect, but neither was expected to take on the full time starting role.
And it was a masterstroke to pluck Clint Irwin from Colorado. Who would have thought that the Rapids would be willing to move such a solid keeper? The rumours of Tim Howard returning to MLS that surfaced around the same time gave reason to why Irwin was expendable, but still, getting Irwin for some TAM and a few draft picks was a shrewd move.
Irwin started every game this season, including those in the Voyageurs Cup, before succumbing to injury, hobbled after a goal-kick in Orlando at the end of June.
Since then, Bono has barely put a foot wrong. Leaving aside the loss in which he replaced the injured Irwin, Bono has started 15 matches, winning eight and losing just twice. Again, leaving out the two goals he conceded as a substitute, he has allowed just 14 goals in those starts. That is starting keeper quality.
As such, when Irwin began to make his return, Vanney was left with a difficult choice. Go with the hot hand, or return to your declared number one.
Irwin played a few matches at TFC II to regain his sharpness, but when the time came, it was just a matter of finding the right situation to make the switch. The New York Red Bull game was a little too much to reintroduce a keeper, hence Irwin would wait until the Philadelphia match to get back in between the posts.
This triple-game week was always a good chance to make the switch, while the lack of rest between made it reasonable to let Irwin play and then go back to Bono for the midweek – a chance to see how Irwin's injury responded, while also not stressing his workload.
And heading into the final weeks and post-season, where anything can happen, it never hurts to have both keepers sharp and match-ready with fresh minutes on the mind.
As mentioned in the previous answer regarding Giovinco, TFC has the luxury of being cautious with returns and has larger goals in mind.
And as for which will get the nod on the weekend, Vanney has been very coy on this topic, he could go either way. But if Irwin is to be the keeper who leads them into the playoffs, expect him to start on Saturday.
B&RU: Now that Michael Bradley is back and healthy, what do you think is the best role for the captain and do you think that Greg Vanney is getting the most out of him?
WtR: Does anybody know what the 'best role' for Michael Bradley is?
There are two factors that contribute to this conundrum: his versatility and his willingness to do what is best for the team.
With the side in desperate need of not conceding as many goals as they did last season – a league worst 58 – Bradley has been deployed for most of the season as that deep-lying defensive midfielder. His primary role has been to sit in front of the back-four, provide that shield, and expedite attacks with his passing, whether long range or in combination, working the ball out of TFC's third. It is a role at which he has largely been majestic; TFC would not be the defensive team that they are without Bradley's contribution.
But the downside is that when thusly restrained, Bradley is not able to get into the advanced positions that allow him to make those marauding runs of which he is capable, provide that final pass, and get shots from distance on target. In many ways it echoes that risk-reward conflict previously discussed.
It is telling that Bradley only just scored his first goal of the season in the 3-3 draw with the Red Bulls on September 18, and that he did so with the side fighting back from a deficit, where he is naturally more likely to push forward.
In many ways this is that old debate between what is best for the player and what is best for the club. While the role Vanney has in mind for Bradley may not make the most of his prodigious skill-set, it may indeed be the one that is best for the club.
After all, what would be better: that Bradley score goals and have more than the four assists he currently does, looking a dominant midfielder in MLS, or that TFC win a championship. If one were to ask him, he'd most certainly choose the latter.
In a perfect world, one would hope that Bradley could do both. That he could be that defensive presence in the middle of the park, but also, when the opportunity arose, that he could drive forward to get more involved in the attacking third. Perhaps, if TFC had not had such a dreadful run of injuries and been able to field a consistent lineup for any stretch of the season, the relationships required to have either Will Johnson or Marky Delgado drop into that role when Bradley goes forward, would have been honed.
But given reality evolves separately, often very differently, to the way it is drawn up in the playbook, neither Vanney nor Bradley will have any regret about how the season has played out.
Lineup: Clint Irwin; (4-1-3-2, from R to L) Steven Beitashour, Eriq Zavaleta, Drew Moor, Justin Morrow; Michael Bradley; Marky Delgado, Jonathan Osorio, Will Johnson; Jordan Hamilton; Jozy Altidore.
Prediction: 2-1 Toronto FC. They will be eager to take the full three points and head into the international break on a positive note after the three home draws to close September. DC is a tough opponent, no doubt, but this TFC side has a forcefulness about them that should not be overlooked, despite what recent results have wrought.