We've had half a year to get used to the idea, but it's still strange to say that tonight's game between D.C. United and Toronto FC is a big one in the Eastern Conference. Ryan Nelsen's side haven't actually been great this year, and they've dealt with a very unsettled lineup throughout the season, but by the established standards at BMO Field they're probably the best group in TFC history.
That's not to say they're in particularly good form at the moment. Their last wins over playoff-caliber teams came in May, and over their last seven games they're 1W-3D-3L. The issue by and large has been putting together a complete 90 minutes. TFC can look like a legitimately good team for 30 or even 45 minutes - witness the first half of their 2-1 loss to KC on the weekend, or how they had us on the ropes in our last trip up to BMO - but usually follow those spells by conceding goals and generally sloppy play in the attack.
Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is how TFC got themselves in real trouble twice last month against the Houston Dynamo, a team that recently has barely been able to put their pants on and get out the front door (much less play competent soccer). At home against the Dynamo, the Reds find themselves 2-0 down after 30 minutes before roaring back to win 4-2. Down in Texas, they coughed up two goals in the first 26 minutes.
On the other hand, they're capable of some excellent play as well. Against KC Saturday, they were up 1-0 and hit the post twice by halftime. Even as KC came back, TFC managed to put them in some dangerous spots. Matt Besler picked up two yellow cards, and Jackson missed some sitters when the game was tied 1-1. Sporting didn't have their very best team on the field, but their crucial players were all out there.
As a United fan, what concerns me is whether Toronto has learned their lesson from any of this. When we last saw TFC, Nelsen came up with a tactical surprise in the form of a 4231, and United seemed baffled by it. Some emergency defending kept the score 0-0, but the advantage was clearly coming from the 3v2 advantage they had in central midfield. United didn't know where the pressure would be coming from, nor were they able to anticipate the slashing runs of wingers Luke Moore and Jackson.
So what did Nelsen do? He removed a central midfielder, pushed Moore up top, and went to the 442 that he's sent out in every other game he's been a head coach for. The idea, I suppose, was to add Dominic Oduro in an effort to overwhelm a team that was on the back foot. However, the actual consequence was to give United the game they had prepped for all week, eliminate the midfield numbers advantage, and become predictable. After five minutes, it was clear that United was far more comfortable, and the 2-1 win reflected how the second half went.
It's not just a coaching issue for TFC though. For the number of experienced veterans on their roster - not just Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley, but guys like Steven Caldwell and Dwayne De Rosario as well - there is a significant tendency for individuals to have wild fluctuations in their play. We're not talking game to game; we're talking half to half, or even minute to minute. TFC is an erratic team in a lot of ways, and teams like that don't tend to do well on the road. There's a reason they haven't won on the road since April 5th.
The Reds have only lost three road games, however, because of their identity as a team. Nelsen has built MLS's most enthusiastic adherent to the idea of sitting deep and playing on the counter. Plenty of MLS teams play like that on the road, but TFC does it in most games regardless of venue. Between the fact that they're so used to playing that way and the number of speedy attackers they have, they're a tricky team to host.
I mentioned Nelsen's 4231 ambush from our previous meeting, but since he hasn't bothered with it since I suspect we'll see Toronto's normal 442:
TFC will be missing three starting defenders tonight, which is great news for United. Caldwell and right back Mark Bloom are injured, while Doneil Henry is suspended due to yellow card accumulation. Caldwell is TFC's answer to Bobby Boswell, and they don't really have anyone who can fill his shoes as an organizer.
Nick Hagglund and Bradley Orr are essentially Nelsen's only options to fill in at center back. Both players have had good moments, but Hagglund - a rookie - has looked pretty raw in terms of his positioning. Orr, meanwhile, was brought in to be a right back but turned out to be too slow, and has had his best games in central midfield.
If that sounds promising for United's attack, it's because it is. In all likelihood, TFC will be defending deep and defending often, and it would be a major disappointment if United failed to generate chances by attacking them. Toss in a probable debut for Warren Creavalle - who had been in poor form all year with Houston before being traded - in Bloom's spot, and the need to take advantage is made clear. United has been great at punishing teams for being short-handed this season, and tonight needs to be more of the same.
At left back, Justin Morrow is the clear starter, but TFC has another road game in Montreal on the weekend. At some point, he'll have to rest, so we have to consider the possibility of Ashtone Morgan getting a start. Nelsen has a tough choice to make tonight: Start Morrow to help this otherwise makeshift back four, or prioritize making sure his Reds take three points over the Impact.
Out on the right side of midfield, Oduro was a big factor for TFC on the weekend. His ability to speed past everyone on KC's left side drew both of Matt Besler's yellow cards in the match, and in general the Sporks seemed unable to stop Toronto from switching the point of attack out to MLS's #1 fan of Papa John's. Nelsen may opt to rotate here as well, but his options aren't extensive. Jackson and Luke Moore can play on the right, but they both went 90 against KC as well. Jonathan Osorio is the most likely choice if Nelsen rests Oduro, but I'm expecting to see the Ghanaian from the start.
It's a similar situation on the left, but as Jackson was recently questionable with a tight hamstring I think we're more likely to see him get a rest. If Nelsen wants to stretch things out, he could go with rookie Daniel Lovitz, but I would be surprised if he didn't opt with Osorio instead. Moore is also a possibility.
Osorio also figures into the discussion in central midfield. Bradley will start, but Nelsen may want to rest Collen Warner for this weekend's game against his old club. Nelsen could also go with Kyle Bekker, but Bekker tends to function as a deep-lying playmaker who can be soft defensively. On the road, that seems less likely, but Nelsen doesn't have a wide range of options. With Osorio possibly needed on one of the wings, I'm thinking we're more likely to see Warner get another start.
Up top, Defoe will return from suspension, but his partner is almost a toss-up. Moore would start if Nelsen were selecting his team in a vacuum, but he doesn't have that luxury. I think we have a 50% chance of seeing Moore, a 35% chance of seeing Gilberto, and a 15% chance that De Ro is sent out against his old club. We know plenty about De Ro's history in those situations, and he should be fresh enough for a start given that he only made a cameo against Sporting.
The major issue with facing TFC is the threat Defoe poses. He's still pretty fast, and his ability to time his runs is elite; his 11 goals in 14 appearances is no mistake. The best way to do that is to control the rest of the field and deny service, similar to how United mostly shut down Cubo Torres.
Torres doesn't play the same way as Defoe, but both players need their midfield to pick them out. Given the fact that guys like Oduro and Jackson aren't particularly inventive and struggle to see openings early, the key is to make sure Bradley never has time on the ball.
For United, that means making sure the midfield battle is between two teams rather than between a series of individuals. As good as Perry Kitchen is, we don't want to see him going 1v1 with Bradley over and over. However, if United can stay cohesive and work as a unit, TFC will struggle. TFC will have the two best players on the field, but playing a collective, thoughtful game will serve to emphasize the fact that United's eleven will be better than Toronto's. We need to see a cohesive, structurally sound United both with and without the ball.
The start of every soccer game is important, but tonight it means a bit more than usual. United needs to be aggressive early for two reasons. First, it's never good to let an unfamiliar back four settle into the game and gain confidence. The Black-and-Red need to get after these guys early and make sure the game seems very fast for them. Letting TFC dictate the pace early would be leaving fruit on the vine in this case.
Secondly, we have to remember that TFC is on the road after a game on the weekend while we're well-rested thanks to the lack of regulars used against Fulham. If the Reds are doing a lot of defensive running early, they will get tired in the last half hour, which opens the door for United to bag some goals. The idea here is that Toronto will arrive with less energy to expend than normal, and United's goal should be to make them use it up early.
That said, there's being the aggressor and being over-aggressive. TFC's preference to sit deep and hit on the counter is designed to punish teams that send too many numbers forward. Turnovers in a game like this are even more problematic than usual, especially if the ball falls to Bradley or if the giveaway happens while United's outside backs are moving into the attack. TFC doesn't want to create a sustained attack so much as they want to break forward with numbers when the opportunity presents itself. United needs to be careful on the ball and send numbers forward intelligently rather than simply sending them whenever possible.
Bradley is also critical in terms of when TFC forces these turnovers. Toronto doesn't often apply high pressure; rather, they're extremely selective about picking the most opportune moments to do so. Of course, by "they're" I really should say "Bradley is," because it's pretty much left entirely to him to do the team's thinking on these matters. To their credit, TFC's players are well-drilled about following Bradley's cues. It was Bradley's selective pressure that, more than anything else, helped TFC beat United back in March.
While trying to avoid spending too much time playing through central midfield would certainly help keep Bradley from forcing turnovers, United isn't built to simply avoid giving the ball to Kitchen or Davy Arnaud. It will be very important to see a focused, attentive United make sure their passes are truly good rather than simply "good enough." No putting your teammates in a bad spot by hitting a pass to their weaker foot, or leaving them to stretch for the ball. There's a difference between simply accurate passing and actually making things easy for the person you're passing to, and United needs to meet that latter standard to mitigate Bradley's ability to generate turnovers.
In the attack, United should be able to cause problems from just about every angle. TFC's wide midfielders aren't known for their defending, and this back four is vulnerable everywhere (save possibly Morrow 1v1, but then Nick DeLeon prefers to cut inside and combine anyway). Eddie Johnson has a clear advantage in speed, strength, and leaping ability over Hagglund and Orr, and the gaps Luis Silva loves to exploit will be available.
As fans, we should also expect a lot from Chris Rolfe tonight. He should have no problem outfoxing Creavalle and anyone else that lines up at right midfield. Dipping into the middle, he should also be able to pull Hagglund into bad spots.TFC will want to force Rolfe to lay the ball off for Korb, but I'm not sure they have enough soccer IQ to do so.
On set pieces, TFC has some size but tend to be disorganized. Without Caldwell and Henry, they're also missing two of their better players in this department. Their midfield and attack is comprised of smaller, faster players as well, so while they might have someone in place to mark Boswell they will struggle to deal with guys like Johnson, Birnbaum, and Kitchen. It's no mistake that United's winner in the previous meeting was Kitchen slicing unmarked through a seam in the defense. This is a very promising avenue of attack against a team that will want to sit deep and defend inside their own box.
At the other end, TFC's collective speed makes them a bit of an oddity. It's not so much big players soaring to win headers as it is flashing runs at the near post looking to glance the ball on goal or towards the back post. United should use their advantage in strength to block these runs while staying attentive when it comes to weak-side runs.
The bottom line here is that United has already beaten a stronger TFC eleven in Canada, and tonight's circumstances are strongly in favor of the Black-and-Red. This isn't a must-win, but it's the kind of game that Shield and Cup contenders do tend to win. We're at the point in the season where United is no longer going to surprise teams, and it's often where we see teams reveal whether they're serious contenders or simply overachieving. This one's basically a litmus test, as well as a great chance to snag three points before we truly get into the meat-grinder that is our August schedule.