Let’s start with the bad news: If D.C. United were to lose to Toronto FC tonight, results elsewhere could see the Black-and-Red stuck in eighth place in the East, and as many as four points below the red line. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but in MLS teams don’t tend to make up substantial gaps very quickly. Four points outside the playoffs with fourteen games to play is not a comfortable position to be in.
On the other hand, United is making moves. Lloyd Sam has been brought in to help generate more chances on the wing, while the pursuit of a striker capable of boosting one of MLS’s lowest-scoring offenses has seen the Black-and-Red add Patrick Mullins (who traveled with the team to Toronto). There’s a chance that United has more allocation money to keep making moves within or even outside MLS, but in the meantime, they’re going to have to get the new guys on track quickly and start collecting points.
A month ago on Filibuster, your faithful author declared that United should be able to get five points out of the four-game road trip that ends with tonight’s game. Some wonderful goalkeeping in Utah and a mostly decent road performance in Ohio have offset a dreadful outing in Pennsylvania, and United has a chance to hit that realistic goal tonight. However, they’re going to have to be as good or better than they’ve been away from RFK Stadium all season to make it happen.
Key player: Steve Birnbaum
With Jozy Altidore apparently fit enough to play in this one, United has to worry about a far sharper TFC attack than the group that failed to turn a two-man advantage in San Jose into anything beyond a disastrous loss. We’ll go into more depth about what Altidore means to Sebastian Giovinco and TFC’s offense, but suffice it to say he’s hugely influential as a target man.
Birnbaum and the rest of United’s defense will need to mitigate that influence as much as they possibly can. Keeping Altidore from playing quickly when he posts up will help, as will being mentally fast enough to avoid having to go in shoulder-to-shoulder against a guy who has the strength to turn those challenges into great opportunities. United needs the entire back four to anticipate well enough that they’re getting position on Altidore, or at least getting into a spot where he can’t move the ball quickly back to Giovinco or an onrushing midfielder.
Most likely, Birnbaum will end up with the largest portion of responsibility on that front. Stopping a good striker at the professional level is a team job rather than something teams put on one individual, but Birnbaum is probably going to be seeing a lot of individual moments battling with Altidore. He’s going to have to win the majority of those - be it aerial duels, chasing down through balls, or otherwise - if United is going to prevent TFC from solving their attacking woes.
Location: BMO Field (Toronto, Canada)
Kickoff time: 7:30pm Eastern
Available TV: NewsChannel 8 and regional affiliates (check the link for the over-the-air alternate channel in your area)
Available streaming: MLS Live for those outside the blackout radius
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
Our gamethread will be posted one hour before kickoff.