Good news, D.C. United fans! Toronto FC is coping with a schedule that, in the short term, is even crueler than the Black-and-Red’s. United’s seven games in twenty-two days will eventually be worse, but in the near term they have games today, then on Wednesday, and then again next Saturday. TFC plays today, on Wednesday - the first leg of the Voyageurs Cup final - and then on Friday (a game they can’t reschedule because BMO Field can’t be prepared for the Toronto Argonauts on Sunday if the game is pushed back a day). Life is rough up north, but maybe it could help United?
And they’re going to need that help. The Reds are atop the league standings with 29 points. They have the best points-per-game rate (1.93). Only three teams have scored more than their 26 goals on the season, and only two have given away fewer than the 15 they’ve conceded. They have the best goal difference in MLS, they’re unbeaten at home (5W-2D-0L), and they were on a 7W-1D-0L overall run until the wheels came off in their 3-0 loss to the New England Revolution back on June 3rd.
They’re strong at the top of their roster. Sebastian Giovinco is the best player in MLS. Jozy Altidore is arguably in the best form of his life, give or take his best season in the Netherlands with AZ. Victor Vazquez is leading MLS in assists despite only signing with TFC after the season had begun; he is, at worst, a strong candidate for Newcomer of the Year. Michael Bradley’s name is justifiably written in ink on the USMNT team sheet. Justin Morrow is the best left-sided defensive player in MLS, by a comfortable margin.
Normally that means they’re really weak once you get down to player #10 or so, but TFC is also the deepest team in the league. They’re good enough that Tosaint Ricketts, Armando Cooper, Jonathan Osorio, Benoit Cheryou, Raheem Edwards, and Nick Hagglund are all sitting the bench if everyone is fit.
Ricketts and Hagglund are out, but other than that, Greg Vanney has his full roster to call on. While there is a chance we see some rotation due to that aforementioned schedule congestion, TFC is still going to put a team on the field that will make them the overwhelming favorite:
In goal, Alex Bono used an injury to Clint Irwin to take over the starting job. Oddly, Irwin was given a start as soon as he was deemed fully fit back in early May, but it was just a one-off. Bono has held the job since then, though that seems like a bit of an odd choice. Bono is a solid young goalkeeper, but he hasn’t shown anything to make one think that he’d easily hold off the 2016 version of Irwin. It’s hard to say that Irwin is not at that level with any certainty, though, because he’s barely played this season.
On the right side of the back three, Eriq Zavaleta has been solid and reliable. The issues he had as part of a back four - confused decision-making about when to step and when not to, mostly - are lessened with Drew Moor making all the decisions, while his speed and quickness allow him to flare out wide when needed. Still, if United can feed the ball to (probably) Patrick Nyarko in space along the touchline, they might be able to get Zavaleta to make a bad choice.
Going back to Moor, he’s returned from an absence caused by a heart arrhythmia. Fortunately that has cleared up, and the veteran has returned to his organizer role. However, if Vanney wants to keep him ready for the Wednesday-Friday barrage, Hagglund could rotate in. It would be hard to blame Vanney for thinking about making a switch given that United has 10 goals on the season.
On the left, Chris Mavinga has bounced back from a poor start to his MLS career to look solid enough. He’s certainly still the weak link here, though, and he sometimes seems unprepared for the physicality of MLS. However, he has shown signs of the qualities that got him games in Ligue 1 and the Russian top flight, and his speed certainly masks some of his mistakes.
At the base of their midfield, Bradley has been a natural fit. His ability to set the tempo, switch the point of attack, and knowledge of when to fire forward to keep an attack going with intelligent pressure on the ball are all huge parts of what TFC does. There is a chance that Vanney rotates him out after he played 180 minutes for the USMNT in their qualifiers, but unfortunately for United, his replacement Cheyrou is also very good in this spot. The major difference? Bradley is significantly more mobile than the 36 year old French veteran.
On the flanks, Morrow and Steven Beitashour are both perfect fits for the wingback role. It remains unbelievable that San Jose let both get away over relatively minor raise demands. Of the two, Beitashour will tend to hit more crosses, and to do so further from goal. Morrow, meanwhile, likes to get around the right back and also has the green light to make late runs into the box. He doesn’t have 3 goals already this year - yes, as many as United’s leading goalscorer Luciano Acosta - by accident.
Marky Delgado couldn’t get a look in for no apparent reason in the early part of the season, but he has finally staked his claim as the Toronto midfield’s ball-winner. Delgado is quick, physical, and embraces the fact that his job is to win the ball and give it to Bradley or Vazquez immediately, but is technical enough that he can maintain possession if those two aren’t available.
Vazquez’s arrival really changed the Toronto midfield, which had been tough as nails but lacking in creativity in the final third. The Spaniard, after dominant seasons in Belgium, has immediately looked like one of the best chance creators in MLS. He’s not a particularly flashy dribbler; rather, Vazquez succeeds with an almost old-fashioned reliance on his eye for a pass. Basically, the former Barcelona youth product sees openings that no one else does, and he sees them early. Whether it’s through balls from deep, or quick one-touch passes near the top of the box, he’s a nightmare to defend because he’s always one step ahead of everyone else.
Speaking of nightmares to defend, let’s move on to the Toronto forward pairing of Giovinco and Altidore. Injuries have cost the Atomic Ant a few games, but he still has 6 goals and 1 assist in 803 minutes this year. Giovinco’s astounding footwork and the range of places he is extremely dangerous as a shooter from are dangerous for any MLS team; the fact that he brings his very best against D.C. every time only compounds the threat.
TFC has managed to score plenty of goals even when Giovinco is hurt, and Altidore has been a big reason why. His play as a target man has been stellar, and his always underrated ability to unlock defenses as a passer has made him the second most likely assist man for the Reds. Since July 31st last year, Altidore has 33 appearances between regular season games and the playoffs. In that time, he’s produced 21 goals and 11 assists; that would be one of the all-time great MLS seasons if it had happened without that pesky winter break in there. So, uh, yeah...tonight is going to be difficult.
And even if United can hold TFC off for a while, Vanney has the long list of very good players to bring into this one that I mentioned near the top. Osorio and Cooper would both be attack-minded replacements for Delgado, and Cooper can also slide out to the right (as can Delgado). Edwards can play on either flank or up front, and would bring speed and a knack for creating chances with low balls into the box. Up top, without Ricketts they’ll have to choose between Edwards, Jordan Hamilton, and Ben Spencer, but most likely, Giovinco and Altidore will stay in unless a) there’s an injury or b) the game is a blowout one way or the other.