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D.C. United Scouting Report: Toronto FC

D.C. United has been awful in 2013, a fact brutally underlined by the Black-and-Red's performance against MLS's other bottom-dwellers. Is there any way for United, with one eye on the US Open Cup final, to finally win a game over a team that's more or less as bad as we are?

Hey, a team that's just as sad and frustrated as D.C. United!
Hey, a team that's just as sad and frustrated as D.C. United!
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Ugh.

That's the feeling I get seeing "D.C. United at Toronto FC" on the MLS fixture list, and I know I'm not alone. If I were a neutral forced to watch this game, I'd watch this game with the same sort of attitude that Joel (or Mike) and the robots brought to the comically bad movies they were forced to watch on Mystery Science Theater 3000. As a United fan, I dread seeing my once-proud team once again fail to beat a TFC side that we've outplayed twice.

Still, when it comes to misery, TFC fans probably have us beat. This is a team that started life with a 384 minute goalless streak, and things haven't improved since. Several big names have been brought in with big plans to improve Toronto FC, and the money to make those improvements, has always been available, but things always go wrong. The plans aren't given enough time, or are unrealistic, or in some cases are simply bad plans. The big-name European players underachieve or get injured. The prodigal son returns home but becomes publicly disgruntled, forcing a move away. Aside from narrowly missing the playoffs in 2008 and 2009 (by four and two points, respectively), TFC is used to their season effectively ending in September.

So how has United not gotten a win over this team that is bad on paper, low on confidence, and short on the kind of experienced leadership that can squeeze every last drop of talent out of lesser players? The simple answer is that TFC plays the kind of soccer that we're bad at dealing with.

All year, United has been better - not good, mind you - against teams playing possession soccer and more modern styles of play. United has won games against smaller teams that emphasize skill on the ball and smarts over everything else (like RSL, New England, and Montreal), but lost to old-fashioned 442 sides like TFC. The Houston Dynamo, using that latter approach with actual good players, won both games against DCU by a combined 6-0.

The point is perhaps illustrated best by our 2-0 loss against the Portland Timbers. Caleb Porter's side generally plays up-tempo, attacking, high-pressure soccer with skillful players. Faced with a United team whose flaws are obvious, however, he fielded a flat 442 with what some announcing teams would call "two tall trees" up top. The Timbers stood off United and waited for the mistakes, while generally only looking to attack by going up the wing and firing in crosses. Naturally, it worked like a charm.

TFC will play a flat 442 and will emphasize wingers crossing to two central strikers. They are arguably the MLS team most dedicated to that style of play, and quite frankly Ryan Nelsen's available roster leaves him no other coherent possibilities. If United is going to maintain even the tiniest sliver of dignity and be a team that doesn't go 0-for-3 against Toronto, we're going to have to learn how to deal with a style of play that reached its apex in the 1990s.

Here's how TFC's 442 should look tomorrow afternoon:

839138_toronto_fc_medium

Here's the good news: This isn't TFC's best side. Club captain Steven Caldwell was red carded last week, and his replacement at center back is Gale Agbossoumonde. "Boss" was a highly-touted US youth international until a series of ill-fated loans in Europe, and it has been clear since he joined 2013 that he isn't as far along as initially hoped. In fact, Doneil Henry - his likely partner tomorrow - has come along faster despite spending his entire pro career subjected to the inconsistent coaching at TFC.

In any case, they're both very young and very vulnerable in terms of positioning and decision-making. If that sounds familiar, it's because they're basically a more raw version of United's recent Ethan White-Dejan Jakovic center back pairing. Their athleticism is beyond reproach, but the mental side of defending is where you beat them. United will need to keep both the ball and their players moving; eventually, they'll leave a gap or mis-communicate.

Right back is less certain. Mark Bloom - a recent loan signing from Atlanta Silverbacks - started last week over Richard Eckersley. Eckersley is the better player, but TFC is ready to move on due to his salary-cap busting wages. Given that Bloom is in town essentially on a long-term trial and the fact that the Reds are publicly saying that Eckersley won't be around next year, it seems like Bloom (or even Ryan Richter) should be given a shot at proving that he can contribute in 2014.

Further forward, there's another suspension that will hurt TFC. Young goal-scoring midfielder Jonathan Osorio is suspended after bashing the ball into the head of a helpless Kosuke Kimura when TFC lost to the Red Bulls. Combined with the injury-enforced absence of Matias Laba, the Reds will be fielding a second-choice central midfield. Darel Russell will step in to replace Osorio, but that's not a like-for-like swap. Instead of Osorio's box-to-box style, TFC will send out two true holding midfielders. Both Russell and Jeremy Hall will dutifully make the runs into the attack called for in this system, but those runs won't be subtle and neither player is much of a threat to create or score unless they're given more space than any half-decent side will give them.

Up front, Andrew Wiedeman has maintained a starting role in the past few games simply by staying healthy and clearing the low bar set by the other uninjured candidates to start at forward. He's nothing special in most regards, though he is a fairly decent finisher when he does get the chance to go to goal inside the box.

Alongside him should probably be Bright Dike, assuming their recent acquisition is ready for another start. The US-born Nigerian international was traded from Portland just as he was beginning to push for actual game action after recovering from a torn ACL. With Robert Earnshaw seemingly always questionable with one muscle strain or another (this week's it's his calf) and Danny Koevermans probably done for the year, Dike should start unless he's not ready to play 60+ minutes. If that's the case, Justin Braun is the only other player Nelsen seems to want to use up top.

Dike and Braun are similar players. Both are tall, hard-working, and at least moderately fast. Dike is just a better version of that sort of player. He's stronger, faster, and more coordinated than Braun, who sometimes looks out of control. Just as significantly, Dike does a better job of staying central than Braun, who tends to roam wide a la Kenny Cooper.

For United, Dike should - but probably won't - be the kind of player we're built to deal with. White has the strength and speed to match Dike, while Conor Shanosky towers over just about everyone in MLS. However, given the amount of trouble a similarly uncomplicated player like Dimitry Imbongo has caused us previously, I'm not optimistic. Hopefully the combination of two different players will help United do a better job than the redundant White-Jakovic did against Imbongo last week.

As such, we probably need to see United focus on denying service rather than winning the crosses in the box. On one hand, this should be straight-forward: TFC's wide men mostly stick to staying wide and looking to cross. Neither Bobby Convey nor newcomer Alvaro Rey really have the tendency to cut inside on the dribble, and both can struggle when put under immediate pressure. As always with Convey, the idea is to make the game mentally tough early and be physical without fouling. Getting him to lose interest and play within himself will essentially cut TFC's supply line in half. If we can't deal with Dike, we'll have to starve him of service.

Through the midfield, United will need to keep the ball moving very quickly. Whatever limitations Hall and Russell have going forward, they're hard workers who enjoy tackling and playing with a bit of an edge. If United is slow with the ball or stagnant off of it, TFC will probably be able to slow our possession game down to a pace that won't allow us to create anything of note. We've been all too familiar with United facing that problem, and the issue is just as much about staying mobile off the ball as it is decision-making and intelligence with it. Hopefully the crop of youngsters Ben Olsen will likely send out will attack this game with vigor, because if we can get past the TFC midfield we should be able to expose a weak back four.

As I touched on before, the way to trouble TFC's young defense is to present them mental challenges rather than physical. Agbossoumonde, Henry, Morgan, and Bloom are all fast, strong, and willing, but their problem-solving abilities aren't that high and they lack any sort of leadership at the back. Joe Bendik is also young for a goalkeeper, and while his shot-stopping ability is impressive, he's not the kind of organizer that can help get more out of this group. Without Caldwell to do the thinking and provide the leadership, this group can be unsettled and be caught taking too long to think things out.

United's attack, as a result, needs to offer up multiple possible methods of doing their work. Rather than giving TFC a predictable look that they can get used to, los Capitalinos need to keep the Reds guessing. On the plus side, that's possible with the potential for speed from Michael Seaton, the size and movement of Conor Doyle, and perhaps a shot at being a true #10 for Collin Martin. The more diverse United's attack is tomorrow, the more likely it will bear fruit.

On set pieces, United is going to have to rise to the occasion rather than meet our normal, disorganized standard. Who can forget TFC's goal on nothing more than a hopeful 70 yard ball into the box back when we first met? I know it haunts me in my nightmares.

Anyway, the addition of Shanosky certainly helps given that he'll be the tallest player on the field, but TFC will probably have more aerial threats on the field than United. In these situations, it's just as important to avoid losing individual battles as it is to outright win them. If United is able to simply avoid defeat in these man-to-man battles in the box, TFC players won't be able to get to the ball regularly, and when they do they'll struggle to direct their headers. Agbossoumonde, Henry, and Dike (or Braun) are all threats to look out for in particular.

Psychologically, United's second-choice players are a wild card. Shanosky and Seaton have spent most of the season playing for the Richmond Kickers, a winning team. That means they won't carry the burden of 2013 on their backs like most of United's regulars do. Guys like Martin have similar reasons to be optimistic: After all, getting playing time as a teenager for your hometown club has to be awesome regardless of the circumstances.

On the other hand, several players getting minutes will be veterans who may be about to play their last game at the MLS level (like Carlos Ruiz or Sainey Nyassi). This is where things could go wrong. Even with these players not being very good as a starting point, they're also working with almost no confidence. Perhaps they can relax for this meaningless game and just play loose and see what comes of it, but there's a strong chance they won't be able to shake off the problems that have dogged them this season. If that's the case, we could see United struggle whenever they're involved.

I perhaps shouldn't have said "meaningless" just then, because this game has some small amount of meaning for United. While TFC has absolutely nothing to play for, this DC team could use something positive three days ahead of the Open Cup final. A loss to the worst team we've faced all year in legitimate play ahead of easily the most difficult match of our entire season is not the recipe for success on Tuesday. Most United regulars won't see a minute at BMO Field, but any time a team tastes victory, it tends to breed confidence throughout the group. Similarly, losing usually leads to more losing, and this isn't a good time to have one more thing to feel bad about for United.

Toronto, on the other hand, will probably enter the game with a little anger. Caldwell's red card was quickly followed by a penalty shout that was turned down. The protests that ensued saw Ryan Nelsen and assistant coach Fran O'Leary sent off, leaving some confusion as to who will even coach the team for the day. They may not be composed, but it wouldn't surprise me to see them fired up and playing hard. A lot of times this season, simply playing hard has been enough to lift teams past United. Hopefully that's not the case this time around.

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