After losing the season opener 3-0 and squandering any optimism D.C. United fans might have built up during the offseason, the Black-and-Red can be forgiven for seeing their second game of 2014 as being a bit more important than a normal March game. Even though the "there are new faces, it'll take time for this to be a cohesive team" line makes logical sense, United were taken to school by a Columbus team also trying to gel. Everyone involved with the club should demand an improvement over what we saw on March 8th.
However, let's take a second to think about what this game means to our opponents, Toronto FC. On Filibuster this week, our guest Kristin Knowles touched on what this game means to long-suffering TFC fans. You know that existential pain you feel just from being a United fan these days? Up in Toronto, that's just how things have always been. In fact, our 2013 - horrible in the league, but somehow playing our four best games of the year in the Cup - was pretty close to par for the course at BMO Field, save for just how horrible we were in MLS play.
This is a club who once had their star striker fight tears while defending his assertion that TFC was, at the time, "the worst team in the world." We have the luxury of identifying our hellish seasons by just saying "2013" or "2010" (or, for us old-timers, "2002"). For TFC fans, the years are all pretty much the same. In 2009, the Reds lost 5-0 on the final day of the season and missed the playoffs by one point as a result. Sound nightmarish? For Toronto FC, 2009 is their best season of all time.
So imagine that's how bad things have been as a fan of your local soccer club, and then the crazy offseason TFC had occurs. Toronto brought in the best American currently playing soccer and a striker who was still scoring goals for a team near the top of the English Premier League and Brazil's starting goalkeeper and their other, less glamorous signings - guys like Justin Morrow and Gilberto - also made sense. If this winter had seen TFC do any one of these things alone, it would have likely been the best offseason in club history. To do it all at once? You can forgive TFC fans for having short-circuited.
There are games that might not be vital that still mean a lot to the culture of a club, and tomorrow's match has all the signs of being one for TFC. Throw in a 2-1 win to start the season at Seattle - TFC's first time ever winning their season opener - and you have a lot of reasons to expect this to be a particularly tough trip to Ontario. Oh, and to top it all off, the forecast is for snow, wind, and temperatures around 40 degrees. Sounds like fun.
All these challenges are in place, and we haven't even touched on what TFC is good at. At Seattle at least, what the Reds did well was to stay organized, stay composed (save for the occasional temper flare-up from Jackson), and be very effective in picking the right moments to take risks. This was a cagey, street-smart performance from a club normally associated with being naive as a group and lacking soccer IQ individually.
Despite the plaudits that were thrown around on social media and elsewhere, TFC didn't go into Seattle and run the Sounders off the field; instead, they simply took what was given to them. When Seattle got loose with the ball or took risks positionally, the Reds would high-press. Virtually every time, it was Michael Bradley leading the move. While it's tempting to give arguably the smartest player this country has produced all the credit, the fact is that the rest of TFC's players still had to react quickly to join him, and they did so regularly.
In the end, Toronto produced quick, high-speed raids based on turning the ball over and pushing it high up the field - assuming there wasn't a giant channel to send Jermain Defoe into - in a hurry. TFC had little interest in keeping possession; they went to Seattle to play on the counter, and the Sounders made it very easy to do so by spotting them two goals thanks to catastrophic errors from Marco Pappa (for a look at what Pappa did wrong on the first goal, check out Greg Lalas on MLSsoccer's Anatomy of a Goal; the second goal requires a bit less explanation).
However, it's not entirely clear that this wasn't simply what Ryan Nelsen wants his team to do on the road. We have no TFC home game to scout, which is the kind of thing that makes this the most difficult part of the season to write these pieces. The smash-and-grab TFC from last weekend was not the team United played in the foggiest fog that ever fogged during the preseason, for example. My guess is that Nelsen will stick with what worked in Seattle until his team has settled in, but we could end up seeing TFC become a positive team at home and a negative one at home.
Questions of style aside, it is easy at least to guess how they'll line up:
The only spot that's at issue is right back, where Mark Bloom had a strangely quiet game despite Seattle having over 67% possession and spending 70+ minutes trying to come from 2-0 down. Bradley Orr was brought in on loan from Blackburn with the assumption that he'd be the first choice right back, but Nelsen might have a hard time removing anyone from his eleven after last week's showing. Still, it's worth noting that TFC didn't seem to want Bloom to spend much time on the ball (a trend that continued even when he pushed up to right midfield for the final 25 minutes, with Orr coming in at right back).
The back four is improved over last year's, but is still rather vulnerable. Steven Caldwell has proven to be a pretty good organizer, and Julio Cesar's vast experience certainly helps in that department, but there were still times where they looked confused against the Sounders. I noticed several instances where Caldwell ended up going a long way to do Doneil Henry's work. The veteran Scot didn't appear to trust Henry to read the situation correctly, and while that's defensible - Henry is a great athlete, but he struggles to read the game - it left TFC looking a bit chaotic at the back.
At left back, Morrow is a substantial upgrade over Ashtone Morgan. While TFC's players were very conservative positionally, Morrow is probably the most comfortable overlapping threat Nelsen has at his disposal. At home against a team that plays a more narrow midfield than Seattle did, I expect to see him jumping into the attack more often. That's not to say he'll overlap as often as Sean Franklin does for United, but the Black-and-Red can't simply ignore this threat because it wasn't there last week. Morrow has pretty good speed, and he's better at hard, low crosses - you know, for short, fast strikers like Defoe - than he is at the more traditional cross designed to be headed in by a target man.
In the midfield, Bradley is the main story. For United, maybe the single best way to disrupt TFC's gameplan will be to sever the connection between Bradley and the back four, who all look to pass his way first and second before going elsewhere. No starting defender for TFC passed to another target more than they passed to Bradley last week, and that was despite Seattle having a 3v2 advantage in central midfield. Even if TFC sticks to the defend-and-counter scheme that worked in Seattle, they're going to want more than 32.3% of possession, and that means they'll be trying to find Bradley all game long. United's front five will need to put in work to make this as difficult as possible for the Reds, or there will be a lot of defending to do.
Back to that 3v2 advantage the Sounders failed to put to good use for a second: United has to make the tactical advantage we should have in the 4132 count. With our wide midfielders taking up more narrow positions than TFC's - both Jackson and Alvaro Rey want to be pure wingers - we really need Davy Arnaud and Nick DeLeon to make sure central midfield isn't just Perry Kitchen and Luis Silva going 2v2 against Bradley and Osorio. They failed to help much against the Crew's central trio, and Federico Higuain had a great game as a result. Tomorrow, United really needs to see Osorio and Bradley forced to play the ball wide or backwards early in moves forward. Otherwise, we'll lose the midfield again, and the Crew showed us what happens to teams that lose the midfield.
On the flanks, both Jackson and Rey would prefer to play on the right, and Nelsen swapped them three times for the 65 minutes they were both on the field. That'll be standard all season for TFC, so look for that as early as the 10th minute (last week, the first switch came in the 14th minute and was maintained through the first half).
The challenge each player offers is different. Jackson is physical and very, very direct. He wants to play vertical soccer as soon as possible, and will be very risky with the ball to do so. That should lead to turnovers, but Jackson's bull-rush style can be hard to cope with over and over again. There's also his temper, which was just as evident in his debut for TFC as it ever was in Dallas (though at least this time, he didn't try to fight a teammate). Of course, when he's on the right he'll be going at Christian, so this game may end up hinging on whether our red card magnet dives in on a tackle or their red card magnet lashes out after a tough challenge.
Rey isn't quite as fast as Jackson, and he's definitely not as strong. What makes him dangerous is his ability on the dribble; few players in MLS are capable of the kind of close control he is while on the move. Last year's disaster at BMO Field was primarily orchestrated by Rey, and if anything he looks like a sharper, more fit player in 2014. If I were Nelsen, I'd actually line Rey up on the right all game long and test whether Christian can avoid fouling.
Up top, you might notice that I didn't drag Dwayne De Rosario - yes, we have to worry about the De Ro Revenge Game on top of everything else - underneath Defoe as a withdrawn forward. In Seattle, TFC actually played with rigid right forward/left forward roles most of the time. I don't think they'll be so inflexible this time out, but it did look like Nelsen wants both strikers to start high, and both will then check to the ball when the time is right. It actually worked quite well on the first goal, where De Ro's decoy check pulled Chad Marshall into no man's land; Defoe ran the massive channel this opened up, and finished with aplomb.
Jeff Parke and Bobby Boswell will need to be extremely sharp in both their reading of the game and their communication. We all know full well that De Ro has lost a step or two, which has in turn left him with less space to put his skill to work. However, right now he's just a complimentary piece getting time because Brazilian DP Gilberto is injured (he's listed as doubtful for tomorrow). De Ro's job is to not lose the ball and help make space for Defoe, whose finishing ability is as good as anyone in MLS.
Speaking of Defoe, you have every right to be worried about him. Seattle didn't give him many looks - take a look at how little he actually did on MLSsoccer's chalkboard - but the two shots he took on the day were both goals. If United leaves gaps at the back, he will find them and with his speed, we'll be in a lot of trouble.
Keeping smart possession will help prevent TFC from mounting many attacks, but it's even more important that United keeps TFC from getting in behind. The Reds want to play through balls whenever possible, so early pressure in the midfield will be crucial. Similarly, United's play in transition against Columbus was horrendous, and if we don't see a significant improvement in that department Toronto is going to have a lot of joy.
Going forward, United would do well to give TFC a taste of their own medicine. Toronto's back four tried an offside trap several times against Seattle, and the results were very shaky. Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola have a speed advantage over TFC's defenders - particularly Caldwell and both potential RBs - and one way to keep TFC from sending numbers forward on the break is to make them more worried about stopping our through balls than they are about jumping into the attack.
Getting down the flanks will also be important. In particular, I think Bloom is not an MLS caliber starting right back, and we happen to have both our more attack-minded wide midfielder (DeLeon) on that side and a forward who does his best work drifting left and attacking the right back (Espindola). Last week Ben Olsen seemed to order Espindola to stay near EJ; this week he really needs to let Fabi be Fabi, because his natural instincts dovetail perfectly with TFC's biggest weakness.
I mentioned how possession will help limit TFC's chances to feed Defoe, but it will come with other benefits as well. TFC wants to play a high-tempo sort of game; if United can dictate a slower pace by controlling the ball, we should see the Reds look pretty uncomfortable. In particular, possession will expose the cracks in their defense, and both Jackson and Rey don't really want to spend much time tracking back. It won't be easy given how effective Bradley was at making central midfield a no-go, but United's wide midfielders are perfectly capable of keeping the ball and connecting passes.
In the end, this is going to be a difficult game for United. With Defoe on the field, United will need to play nearly lapse-free soccer. It's sort of like being in a boxing match with someone who doesn't have the fastest hands or the most finesse, but does have knockout power. With Defoe up top and Bradley and Osorio able to pounce when the time is right, we just have to let our guard down for a moment to end up face down on the mat. United's challenge isn't so much to play spectacular, breathtaking soccer as it is to simply get the little stuff right over and over again.