For arguably the entire 2015 season, D.C. United has taken the field knowing they'd be somewhere short of their best lineup. In most cases, at least one - and usually two or more - key attacking player has been unavailable, leaving the Black-and-Red to try to find their way to a win without being able to play their very best soccer. The handful of minutes Fabian Espindola has been able to play have indicated that he's at his best, while Luis Silva's cameos have reminded us of what he can do when he's at his best, but neither player has yet made a major mark on this season.
Tonight Toronto FC will get to walk a mile in United's shoes, as they'll face a tough road game without two key players. Michael Bradley - fresh off a tremendous performance for the USMNT in their strange, delightful 4-3 win over the Netherlands - won't be within a thousand miles of RFK Stadium, while Jozy Altidore is supposedly out with a hamstring strain. I say "supposedly" because the Toronto Sun's Kurtis Larson is reporting that the USMNT target man is in TFC's traveling squad:
UPDATE: Jozy Altidore and Mark Bloom are with the team in D.C. Unclear what role, if any, either will play tomorrow. #TFC— Kurtis Larson (@KurtLarSUN) June 5, 2015
In all likelihood it's one week too early for Altidore to return, but TFC's not flying him to the District just to hang out. It could well be a situation like Silva's on Wednesday, where he might be able to give the Reds 10 minutes if the game hangs in the balance but otherwise won't play. We won't know for sure until lineups come out this evening.
The definite absence of one star and the likely absence of another has left ex-United defender - what is it with TFC and ex-United defenders? - and current Toronto head coach Greg Vanney with a conundrum. On one hand, the 442 diamond they've been playing has gotten results; on the other, it doesn't really work without Bradley. Jonathan Osorio could move up to the top point in the diamond, but that would leave a new hole on the left, as TFC's other options are all true wingers rather than outside-in "wide" midfielders.
Let's start with what I think is slightly more likely (a feeling bolstered by Waking The Red's lineup guess), which is a standard 442:
There are some sure things regardless of what Vanney does, and they're mostly in the back. Joe Bendik made the bench last week after a layoff due to a foot injury, but Chris Konopka retaining his spot appears to be the most likely outcome. As they tend to do, TFC fans are very excited about Konopka, just as they were very excited about Bendik. In my view at least, both are merely standard MLS goalkeepers. I will say that both have decent size, so lofted crosses) as opposed to driven service) are probably a bad idea.
Across the back, Vanney has found that necessity is the mother of adequate defensive play. Justin Morrow is a left back by trade who has filled in centrally, but TFC has used him on the right for about a month. Initially a lack of options saw him played there out of desperation, but he transitioned smoothly. More importantly, Ashtone Morgan - after about two solid years of looking like he had not learned a thing since first signing a pro contract in 2011 - stepped in on the left and actually looked competent. Vanney now has no reason to switch Morrow back to his normal spot, as the potential right backs are all liabilities compared to Morgan's current standard.
Centrally, Damien Perquis has been...well, pretty decent I suppose, but he hasn't quite lived up to his resume in my book. Still, by TFC standards he's about as good a center back as they've ever had. All that really means is that he's not going to do anything too transparently dumb. Steven Caldwell has been out for months with what was supposed to be a short-term achilles issue, and while Nick Hagglund took some of those starts the job has recently fallen to Eriq Zavaleta. Zavaleta is inexperienced despite having been in MLS for three years now, and it's fair to say this is the first run of starts he's had as a pro.
The midfield is where things get iffy. In this 442, Jackson will stay wide and use his speed to try and get in behind. It's never very complicated with Jackson, but if you lose focus for a moment he can make his limited skill set count. Osorio would be out on the left in this set-up, but he would be cutting inside regularly. Osorio is a clever, creative player, but he still struggles at times with disappearing from games. Forcing him to stay wide rather than cut in will help make sure that happens today.
In the middle, Warren Creavalle is likely to get the start alongside Benoit Cheyrou. In this formation, Creavalle's job will be to cover most of the ground and hunt the ball down, while Cheyrou will function as a deep-lying playmaker. Harassing him and limiting his influence will be key, because he's been very good for the Reds without garnering a lot of headlines.
Speaking of very good, Sebastian Giovinco has been playing tremendous soccer for several weeks now. The suspicions that a player of his size would struggle with MLS's physicality turned out to be wrong. Giovinco, it turns out, knows how to find space. Much like Mauro Diaz or Javier Morales, the former Juventus man is smarter than the big lugs trying to bash him to bits. That means he'll be roving around looking for pockets rather than trying to always attack from one general area. United is going to need to be extremely smart about knowing where he is and what he's up to at all times. Furthermore, zone 14 - that middle portion of the field just outside the 18 yard box - needs to be unplayable for TFC. Otherwise, he will do things like this:
He'll be partnered by Luke Moore, who is a decent all-around player. Moore doesn't have Altidore's back-to-goal capabilities, but he has a good first touch and he's smart enough to know that on this team, his job is to assist Giovinco however he can.
If TFC opts for a diamond, Osorio will tuck inside, Cheyrou will drop deep, Creavalle will play the right-center role, and in all likelihood Homegrown player Jay Chapman would get a shot as the #10. If United were a bad team, I think Vanney would go for it, but that isn't the case. It may be a look they go to, though, if the flat 442 isn't working.