Tomorrow's game against Toronto FC might be a look into the future for D.C. United. The Reds are six games into an eight-game road trip to start the season due to BMO Field being renovated. In 2018, United may face the same problem; after all, we're less than two years away from the move to Buzzard Point, and ground hasn't been broken yet. TFC's tour of North America may be a preview of something the Black-and-Red have to endure down the road.
Former United defender Greg Vanney's team can feel hard to predict. Vanney tinkered a lot with his formation last year based on injuries, inconsistent form, and simply trying to make changes to adapt to opponents. That has not changed in 2016, as TFC has by my count used four different formations (433 twice, and once each for 442, 4231, and 4321). However, Jozy Altidore's return from a lingering injury to start last week against New England is what provoked the change to 442, and that appears to be Vanney's preference at the moment in terms of getting his best eleven on the field.
We can get into the other formation options later, but let's operate under the assumption that the empty bucket is what United is most likely to be facing tomorrow evening:
Offseason acquisition Clint Irwin was already well-respected before his move, but has exceeded expectations thus far. He's been able to keep Toronto in games early, which is critical on a team that has long had a penchant for starting games slowly. Irwin's main strength is his pure shot-stopping ability. He's good coming off his line when someone is played through, and he's athletic enough to get to shots in the corners. One thing that is often overlooked with Irwin, though, is his footwork and positioning. They aren't as bad as they used to be, but they aren't great. United may catch him a step out of position, or needing an extra split-second to spring towards the ball for a save because his feet aren't set.
TFC's long journey towards being a competent team finally found the right path last year by focusing on adding solid MLS defenders (a simple concept, but the idea only made it to Toronto last year). This winter, they kept at it in adding Steven Beitashour. The American-born Iran national team defender is solid all around. He doesn't have any eye-popping quality, but he also has no real weaknesses. He has decent speed, he's gritty, his positioning is sound, and he's a respectable crosser of the ball. After watching Vancouver struggle at the position this season, it's baffling why they let Beitashour go.
In central defense, Drew Moor was another offseason acquisition (and the one that solidified TFC's first-ever back four that does not have some glaring weak point). Moor has shown some versatility over the years, playing every defensive position as well as defensive midfield, but central defense is his home. He has added some leadership and composure to a defense that needed it, and though he's 32 he still has the quickness to be a good emergency defender. However, Moor can be pulled upfield at the wrong moment, and United will want to draw him out of position while sending a runner into the space he's abandoned.
His partner will probably be Damien Perquis, the French-born Polish international. However, there is talk of rotation due to the grind of an eight-game road trip, and Perquis only had 25 appearances last year due to a couple of stints on the injury report. If Vanney wants to rest the former Real Betis defender, he has a slew of options. Josh Williams is the most experienced choice, and is also the only other center back on the team with an appearance in 2016. He was recently out with an illness, but that has likely passed. Nick Hagglund would be next on the list.
Perquis, though, remains likely to start, and it's important to watch him and Fabian Espindola. Perquis has taken a "kick him until he's dead or enraged" approach to defending Espindola, and the last time they faced each other some very permissive refereeing let Perquis get what he wanted out of that strategy. Espindola wasn't injured, but he was angry enough that he lost focus and faded out of the game. Tomorrow, he'll have to stay composed, because Perquis has shown no sign of changing.
Left back Justin Morrow is arguably the best in MLS at his job. He's smart, a good judge of angles, fast, athletic enough to move over to center back in a pinch, and he has the engine to provide width on the left for 90 minutes. There was talk that he would be suspended by the Disciplinary Committee for a tackle against the Revolution, but at least one outlet is reporting that the DisCo didn't opt to give him a ban for this game. If that's true, Morrow is going to start. If not, United needs to attach the replacements - either Daniel Lovitz (who isn't even really a fullback) or Ashtone Morgan - relentlessly. Both players are fast, but neither is a savvy defender in terms of the mental side of the job.
Deep in the midfield, TFC will pair two old friends. Michael Bradley and Will Johnson played together on Chicago Fire youth teams before becoming professionals, and they will provide a hard-edged, combative, energetic challenge to Marcelo Sarvas and Nick DeLeon. Pressuring Bradley and denying him the opportunity to size up passes over distance is critical. He is easily the most dangerous passer Toronto has, and his ability to find Sebastian Giovinco from deeper positions has been huge for TFC this season. Sever that link, though, the Reds will struggle to get their attack going.
Johnson will provide plenty of hard work with and without the ball, but his job is essentially to be Bradley's assistant in central midfield. He's very good at that role, and he'll also do everything he can to provoke retaliation from his opponent. I think of Johnson as being fake macho: He's always running his mouth looking to get into a shoving match or worse, but if you bump into him he will be the first player to complain to the referee. United will need to stay calm, because letting Johnson under their skin only distracts from winning the battle in midfield.
On the wings...well, TFC doesn't really use wingers in this set-up. Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio will tuck in from the right and left respectively, as both players have plenty of experience in central positions. Osorio is the more skillful, and he'll look to combine with Morrow or the forwards in order to open the right channel up. He's also got a decent shot from outside the box, so United can't just assume he'll look for a one-two every time.
On the right, Delgado is less creative but adds a dynamic element to TFC's attack. He's a high-energy player who has a knack for pressuring defenders into turnovers, and he appreciates how important it is to play quickly. Delgado will also attempt to make a vertical run up the wing more often than Osorio will, but he's not the best crosser. The Black-and-Red can force him into a dead end by pushing him out wide.
Altidore could be rested with an eye towards the long haul - after all, he's only just back from injury - but given that he's been out for a bit I'm guessing that Vanney wants to get him sharp. Altidore's physical presence needs to be respected, but despite the old school "big man, little man" look of Toronto's front line, this isn't a situation where Altidore only occupies center backs while Giovinco goes wherever he wants. In fact, Altidore has always had an unhealthy interest in dropping off the front line or peeling out wide. He's not Espindola in that department, but one of the reasons he's never been a dominant scorer is the lack of standard center forward runs.
Nonetheless, those tendencies can trouble defenses precisely because he will draw players out of their normal spots. That leaves more room for Giovinco, and it's not like the Atomic Ant needs much room in the first place. United's defensive alertness needs to be very good for all 90 minutes, as Altidore will look to attack from some odd angles while also making room for Giovinco to be Giovinco.
Speaking of the best player in MLS, Giovinco is a hugely difficult player to gameplan for. He thinks faster than anyone in the league, so it's already hard enough for defenses to cope with his movement in the build-up. Teams say "let's deprive Giovinco of the ball" every week only to find themselves chasing him all game long. On top of that, he's a great dribbler, and he finishes with both accuracy and power. Last year when TFC came to down, a United side on short rest did an admirable job containing Giovinco for about 89:30. Unfortunately, they let down for a handful of seconds two times, and Giovinco scored two spectacular goals. That's life against him.
Off the bench, the Reds will be missing Maryland product Tsubasa Endoh and midfield veteran Benoit Cheyrou due to injury. Lovitz is an option on the left wing, but could also pop up as an inverted winger on the right (particularly if TFC changes into a 433 as the game wears on). Homegrown product Mo Babouli is an energetic but raw forward who will likely replace Altidore after 65-75 minutes, but like Lovitz could play as a wide forward in a 433 as well. Morgan was used last week as a defense-first left midfielder in the late stages as TFC protected a road draw, and we could see that again.