It’s an interesting time for D.C. United to find themselves playing Toronto FC. Both teams are sitting in the Eastern Conference’s soft underbelly. A win would propel United above the Reds and into a playoff spot, while TFC will see the chance to turn the East’s three-team vanguard into a gang of four. This is potentially one of those mid-summer MLS games that doesn’t seem that vital at the time, but that fans look back on come November.
There are two major talking points around TFC right now, and they’re very much linked together. Sebastian Giovinco has suddenly stopped scoring goals, while the TFC starting lineup has been depleted by injuries to important players. Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Will Johnson, and Clint Irwin have all missed several games, and the latter trio will not play tonight either. Altidore, however, is probably going to return. TFC hasn’t been clear about how much he can play, but it would not be a surprise if they sent him out from the start.
Altidore’s return couldn’t come fast enough for TFC, who simply don’t have the supporting cast to keep teams from mobbing Giovinco. Young players like Jordan Hamilton and Tsubasa Endoh have had some success this year, but it’s been sporadic, and they don’t yet think the game at the speed Giovinco does. Say what you will about Altidore, but he can keep up with Giovinco and will see the same openings and solutions (not as fast as Giovinco, but close enough that the windows are still open).
The numbers bearing out Giovinco’s need for a partner like Altidore are stark. Here’s how he’s done in MLS since Altidore pulled his hamstring in the 38th minute against Vancouver back on May 14th:
In 8 starts and 651 minutes played, Giovinco has 0 goals and 2 assists since Altidore was hurt. For context, he had 8 goals and 5 assists after the first 10 games of the season.
So this isn’t a great time to be playing the Reds...or is it? Team morale can’t be particularly high after last week’s embarrassing 2-1 loss in San Jose. For those that haven’t heard, the Quakes had two men sent off - red cards that, comically enough, have both been overturned - with the score 1-1. TFC settled into a maddening pattern of crosses from the right and low-percentage shots from outside the box. San Jose ate that approach up, and eventually Simon Dawkins beat a couple of defenders on the dribble before his knuckling shot completely flummoxed Alex Bono, who has replaced Irwin in goal.
Greg Vanney has been very willing to tinker with his team’s formation, deploying a 352, a 4231, and several variations on a 442 in a season that isn’t even 20 games old. It’s been a work in progress all year, and that makes predicting their lineup a bit tricky. However, a diamond midfield 442 has been preferred regularly, and Altidore’s return doesn’t really give Vanney a reason to get away from it:
Bono, a Generation Adidas draft pick from 2015, will continue to stand in for Irwin. He has held off Canada national team prospect Quillan Roberts, a homegrown player, but both are still very raw players. Still, Bono was among college soccer’s top goalkeepers at Syracuse, and he’ll probably be eager to make up for misinterpreting the flight of the ball on San Jose’s goal last week.
On the right, TFC has been mostly very happy with Steven Beitashour, who was bizarrely traded away by Vancouver despite appearing to be one of the league’s top right backs with the Whitecaps and, before that, in San Jose. Beitashour - who has 6 caps for Iran but was born and raised in California - is a solid all-around defender who can be dangerous when he gets forward. In TFC’s set-up, he’s less aggressive than Justin Morrow, who was Beitashour’s teammate in San Jose before coming to Toronto via trade.
Morrow will attack more often than Beitashour, and he won’t do it in the same manner. Beitashour stays wide and hits crosses; Morrow will sometimes underlap, running inside to play combinations. Defensively, he has the speed to keep up with anyone United will send up against him, and his athleticism and quick thinking have allowed him to fill in at center back despite being undersized.
At center back, noted Fabian Espindola kicker Damien Perquis was granted a mutual termination to return to Europe recently, so Drew Moor - another low-key intelligent addition by a suddenly coherent TFC braintrust - has had to adjust to a new-ish partner. Perquis was injury prone, though, so it hasn’t been a major transition. Moor knows both Eriq Zavaleta and Josh Williams pretty well at this point. Zavaleta is a bit larger and stronger, while Williams brings quickness and a knack for getting to headers. Against Alvaro Saborio, I suspect they’ll choose Zavaleta.
In the diamond, injuries have made it pretty easy to predict who will start. The industrious Marky Delgado will set up on the right, though if anyone’s position in in this midfield is in question, it might be his. Jay Chapman has been making more of a difference lately, and Vanney has been willing to try him right of center rather than the attacking midfield role he had in college. Still, Delgado will most likely get the call here, in part to balance the more attack-minded Jonathan Osorio on the left.
Speaking of Osorio, the Canadian is bizarrely not part of a national team program that desperately needs any technical player it can get. That’s to TFC’s benefit, though, as Osorio has consistently earned his starting spot even when the Reds have their full compliment of players. Osorio will have a bit more freedom to roam, and he’ll use it to get closer to Giovinco and Endoh for passing combinations. Preventing that from happening will help United rob TFC of some attacking fluency.
In the defensive midfield role, Benoit Cheyrou is not the most mobile but tends to take up good positions. He usually doesn’t get exposed for his lack of speed because he can sense when TFC is about to be caught by a quick transition upfield, and the narrow diamond also helps by keeping some quicker players nearby. Cheyrou’s 79.7% passing accuracy on the season isn’t great for a player in his position, but TFC often asks him to switch the point of attack. DC will need to make sure he’s under at least token pressure in those moments, because a diamond with no one swinging the ball to forwards peeling wide or fullbacks pushing up tends to be pretty easy to compress.
Endoh has, after a college career almost entirely spent on the right, ended up playing plenty of minutes as Toronto’s attacking midfielder. This wasn’t a great role for him at Maryland, but in College Park he was having to play as his team’s creative hub. With TFC, that job falls on Giovinco, so Endoh’s role is to stay very busy and be a willing assistant to the front line. Getting Endoh to cover a lot of ground will never be a problem, so United has to be alert to him as a third runner coming forward. Endoh doesn’t have top-line speed by any means, but he does have a deceptive ability to produce a 2-3 step burst while on the ball (often resulting in fouls going his way).
Giovinco may be mired in a long slump, but he’s still Sebastian friggin’ Giovinco. What worries me in particular is what could happen if Giovinco gets himself an early goal. We’ve seen it so many times: A player’s form dries up, they get one goal, and then all the sudden they can’t stop scoring. United does not want to be the team that Giovinco breaks out against. Restricting the Atomic Ant to long shots and staying in a firm defensive structure that allows cover for players who might get beaten on the dribble will be key. Right now, frustrating Giovinco early appears to be a critical component toward getting him to settle for rushed, long-distance shots later in games.
Altidore, if he plays, will offer his customary strength and off-the-ball movement. That will, as we’ve already discussed, open so much up for Giovinco and the rest of Toronto’s attack. Keeping him off-balance when he tries to post up will be important. Even if Altidore holds his man off, making him take an extra touch or two can make all the difference. That’s the difference between a quick-moving attack full of technical players streaking forward or suddenly having to slow down and start playing to feet in a far more predictable manner.
If Altidore is only fit to sub in, Hamilton will most likely get the start over fellow TFC homegrown player Mo Babouli. Hamilton is a work in progress, but he’s starting to put the pieces together off the ball. He doesn’t have Altidore’s ability to play with his back to goal, but he shouldn’t be underrated: In TFC’s last 5 games, Hamilton has 3 goals and an assist.
Off the bench, Hamilton is probably a strong candidate to come on for Altidore sometime around the 55th-60th minute. However, Babouli is also in the running, as is brand new signing Tosaint Ricketts. The Canada national team regular has the kind of speed you normally see at track and field events, though over the years his touch has been pretty hit or miss. Nonetheless, that’s a potentially game-changing element to send in, especially during a game that will be played with temperatures above 80 the whole time. Chapman is also likely to get in for any of Delgado, Endoh, or Osorio as the match wears on. Finally, Vanney could opt to bring on Williams (or Zavaleta, whichever one doesn’t start) and go to a back five if he’s trying to lock things down.