If you want to know why Toronto FC is down here outside the playoff places with D.C. United, all you need to do is look at all the players they’ve had out due to injury. Jozy Altidore hasn’t played since April 10, but it goes far deeper than that. Michael Bradley has more starts at center back than TFC’s actual top center backs, and Greg Vanney has had to give minutes to just about everyone on the roster.
Vanney has also had to get creative with formations. The team that brought the 352 back in MLS is known for also being able to win with a 442 diamond, but their injuries have caused Vanney to spend plenty of time in a 4141 because that was the only viable formation his fit players could line up in. This past weekend, TFC started in a 352 before shuffling after half an hour into a 442 diamond, a benefit of having a versatile group of starters.
It’s a bit of a guess, but United should expect to see the 352...at least at first:
Alex Bono is a lock to start in goal, and for the first time in months, there’s relative certainty about the back three in front of him. Dutch international Gregory van der Wiel has not necessarily been as dominant as his reputation would have suggested, but he has been solid for TFC and adds plenty of range to a group that, as currently comprised, is a bit slow. Nick Hagglund remains tough to beat in the air, while on the left side we could see the aging Jason Hernandez (who somehow came through the injury crisis as TFC’s only healthy center back). Eriq Zavaleta is also an option, but it’s not clear that he’s fit to start at this point.
The availability of three center backs of some sort means Michael Bradley can move back to defensive midfield, which has really helped TFC get back towards expectations. For one, he simply isn’t a center back, and it showed. Perhaps more importantly, the fact that he was playing as a defender for so long revealed that Toronto has precious little depth at defensive midfield. If United lets Bradley distribute from deep, they’re going to have trouble all game long. He has to be put under pressure, or TFC is going to get control of this game from the start and never let up.
If Vanney is going to rotate (TFC played last Friday, so it’s not an urgent need), the best place to look is at the wingbacks. Brazilian youngster Auro seems to be the most likely starter of all the possible candidates, and he’s going to be a danger throughout down the right side. Vanney’s choices are less appealing on the left, where he could go with Nicolas Hasler (who is better on the right, and a bit too slow for the job) or Ryan Telfer (who is better off playing with a fullback behind him).
The remaining midfield spots are probably going to Canadian duo Jonathan Osorio and Jay Chapman. Osorio has been among TFC’s best goal threats this season and has grown in stature during this prolonged injury crisis; tracking his runs out of midfield will be vital for United. Chapman has also shown that he’s more than qualified to start at the MLS level, though of the two he’s the player more likely to take a mental break and cost the Reds. If Vanney wants to freshen up in central midfield, he could bring Ager Aketxe, an Athletic Bilbao product who has not really impressed much since coming over this offseason.
Up front, Vanney has looked at a variety of options in the absence of Altidore, but seems to have landed on the idea of playing his #10, Victor Vazquez, as a withdrawn forward. It’s not an ideal fit, but given TFC’s available players it’s not the worst idea. It doesn’t help that actual forwards Tosaint Ricketts and Jordan Hamilton have not taken advantage of a window in which they could have gotten a run of starts.
Vazquez joins Sebastian Giovinco, who has often dispatched with D.C. single-handed. Giovinco’s history against United (6 goals, 2 assists in 6 games) includes numerous strikes that border on ridiculous, and this site has more than once referred to him as a cheat code. All United can do is be quick and alert, both as a group and as individuals, and hope for the best. Giovinco can lose his head at times, but there’s also the fact that when he gets a controlled, focused rage going, he tends to score, so trying to get under his skin is just as dicey a tactic to combat him as anything else.
Vanney could also field a diamond, as we said earlier. In that case, van der Wiel would move to left back mostly due to a lack of other candidates. Justin Morrow is close to returning, but he and Ashtone Morgan both remain injured at the moment, and TFC is probably waiting for the World Cup break to end before they come back. Auro is very comfortable as a right back in this set-up, so if you see a diamond, expect him to get forward just as often as he would in the 352.
The versatile Hasler has shown an ability to be reliable (if unspectacular) on the left side of a diamond, while Osorio would move up to the attacking midfield position. In the diamond, TFC is a bit less focused on high pressure and more about cutting the field in half — it’s hard to pass laterally through that midfield quartet — and forcing turnovers along the touchline.
Off the bench, Ricketts is a sound bet to enter at some point regardless of the score, as is Aketxe. Marky Delgado may be able to enter this one off the bench, which would be less than ideal news for United. If TFC has a lead to protect, Vanney is more than willing to send Zavaleta in and move into a back five.