It’s tempting to look back on earlier meetings for cues as to what’s to come in today’s MLS playoff match between D.C. United and Toronto FC, but some oddities in terms of timing have deprived us of a look at what these teams can do against each other at full strength. Back in late June, a TFC side featuring major rotation and several players out of their normal positions looked largely comfortable against a nearly first-choice United at Audi Field, only to cough up a late penalty in a 1-1 draw.
The previous meeting, in May, saw a busy schedule force D.C. into arguably the least conventional lineup of the entire Ben Olsen era. Playing a 532 with Ulises Segura and Akeem Ward as wingbacks, and with Zoltan Stieber playing up front, United hunkered down, conned a TFC team that was only missing Jozy Altidore from their best 11 into taking roughly 500 shots from 30 yards, and walked out with a 0-0 draw.
A lot of things have changed on both sides since then, but there are still some facets of note. Greg Vanney has largely preferred a 433 or 4141 (the formation he used at Audi Field), and that’s what we’re focused on right now. Here’s their probable starting eleven for this evening’s game:
Goalkeeper: Quentin Westberg
The veteran French-American won the job from Alex Bono just before United’s last visit to BMO Field, and has been the starter ever since. Generously listed at 6’1”, Westberg fits the Nick Rimando profile: he’s good with his feet, he’s seen it all, and he’s got great reflexes. However, in traffic, he can be a bit of a liability. While United doesn’t have some sort of absolute unit to hurl crosses at all game, they do have Wayne Rooney taking set pieces, and two center backs who win a ton of things in the air. Don’t be surprised if they look to exploit Westberg in that department.
Right back: Auro Jr.
After missing some time mid-season with injury, and then spending a few weeks at left back, the Brazilian is in his normal spot these days. As a natural wingback, Auro will bomb forward regularly, generally providing the width on the right flank (that’s why we’ve got the right winger tucked in in this graphic).
Center back: Omar Gonzalez
TFC added Gonzalez as a TAM signing in the summer window, and it’s proven to be a smart piece of business. Since returning from Liga MX, Gonzalez walked into the starting eleven, and Toronto went from being an awful defensive side to being...well, “good” is taking it too far, since they have 1 shutout in their last 14, but they’re definitely improved. Without Gonzalez in the lineup, they gave up 36 goals in 20 games (1.80 per 90); with him, the figure is 16 goals against in 14 (1.14 per 90).
Center back: Chris Mavinga
The speedy Frenchman is a key for TFC in terms of emergency defending. While he has dropped a bit from being in the Best 11 discussion in years past, Mavinga’s ability to put out fires has been where many attacks met their end, and it’s a tricky issue for United (who tend to create the kind of chances on runs from underneath that Mavinga tend to shut down). The idea should be to tempt him into charging at a play he can’t make, but that’s easier said than done.
Left back: Justin Morrow
Morrow is no longer among the league’s elite attacking fullbacks/wingbacks (remember that year he scored 8 goals?) in part because he’s started to slow down as he progresses into his 30s. However, that’s not to say he’s past it, and these days he provides balance to Auro’s more adventurous style on the right.
Right-center midfield: Marky Delgado
The 24-year-old ball-winner quietly had the most consistent season among TFC’s midfield trio, posting a career-high 7 assists while still being the most disruptive player of the group. Delgado is a smart player who is tough to drag out of position, and who doesn’t turn the ball over much. He’s never flashy, but his mistakes are few and far between.
Defensive midfield: Michael Bradley
You probably know all about Bradley, so let’s talk specifics. With TFC, Bradley drops deep to start possessions from the back, but he doesn’t do it in the more common “the six moves back between the center backs” fashion. Instead, Bradley often drops to the right, with Gonzalez moving inside as the Reds will enter a 343 for portions of their build-up.
United is going to have to take care of this in two different ways. First, they’ve got to make it hard for the defenders and Westberg to go to Bradley, as he is always their first look. This is low-key very important, and we’ll get into why they might not do well playing direct today in a bit. If they can’t go long, and they can’t go to their first look, things are going to unravel.
Secondly, when Bradley does get on the ball, United needs to be ready to apply pressure while also limiting his options for longer passes out to the flanks. It’s going to take a high level of coordination and concentration, but the teams that can mute Bradley’s distribution are the teams that beat TFC.
Left-center midfield: Jonathan Osorio
Osorio’s role would conventionally be referred to as the no. 10, but he’s not really a playmaker. His role would be more accurately described as a goal threat, or more of an attacking no. 8, as Alejandro Pozuelo is very much this team’s chief creative force. Injuries have disrupted his season, and since May 8th he has just 2 goals and 0 assists.
Right wing: probably Tsubasa Endoh
If Jozy Altidore is fit to start, Endoh will probably go over to the left, with Pozuelo moving over here and playing with a ton of freedom. However, it looks like Altidore may be limited, and if he can’t start, Endoh is probably going to set up on the right. The Maryland product is having something of a breakout season since this summer, and has managed to stay in the starting lineup recently despite TFC signing two different TAM wingers (Nicolas Benezet and Erickson Gallardo). This role could also go to Nick DeLeon, but Vanney appears to prefer the longtime United midfielder further from goal.
Endoh wants to drift inside and combine rather than run the touchline, where his crossing ability has long been shrug-worthy. If United can shepherd him out wide, they can cut him out of the game.
Center forward: Alejandro Pozuelo (unless Jozy Altidore is fit)
Vanney is more of a “best 11 on the field” sort of coach rather than looking to maintain an exacting system by plugging a similar player in. In this case, that means that if Altidore can’t start, he’ll most likely use his playmaker as a false 9 while starting Benezet on the left. Vanney has another target man that United fans are familiar with in the form of Patrick Mullins, but he has only appeared in 8 of 15 games since a mid-season trade moved him north from Columbus.
The Black-and-Red should damn well be familiar with the broad strokes of how Pozuelo will approach this position, as it’s a lot like Wayne Rooney. He’ll drop off the front line, and has a ton of positional freedom to find space and look for runners.
While this means unconventional angles to cope with, it also means TFC can’t really go direct. As we alluded to before, this is a pretty big deal, because it allows United to more regularly high-press the Reds, knowing that the long balls a pressing approach produces are going towards someone less powerful and physical.
Left wing: Nicolas Benezet, most likely
A 28-year-old French midfielder, Benezet is more of a shifty, technical type than a speed demon charging up the wing. He’s good on the dribble, and has a reputation as a good passer and set piece taker. He hasn’t quite figured MLS out since arriving in the summer, but there are flashes of quality for sure.
This is probably Altidore’s role for the day. Bringing him on would radically change TFC’s attack, and when he’s been healthy this year, he’s been right up there with guys like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Josef Martinez in terms of goal-scoring. So, let’s just hope he fails his pre-game fitness test.
If DeLeon starts over Benezet, then the Frenchman fits this category, as does Gallardo (though the latter has fallen out of favor in the last few weeks). Mullins could also factor in here, especially if Altidore is unavailable and TFC finds themselves pushing for a goal late.
Vanney’s willingness to change formation means guys like Laurent Ciman or Eriq Zavaleta could enter the game if TFC wants to play a back five. Given that United’s best hope in such a scenario is probably a set piece, don’t be surprised if Vanney has already planned for this exact scenario if Toronto is leading late.
TFC generally wants to be a mid-block possession team home and away, though it would make sense for them to press more often against United in pursuit of an early lead. The variations Vanney can throw out aren’t stylistic, but rather are based on his formation. This team has spent chunks of this year playing a diamond 442, a 352, a flat 442, a 4231, and could easily shift into a 343 full-time without making a substitution. Vanney is also one of the most likely coaches in MLS to bring a center back on and play 541 late, as we just addressed.
Essentially, Vanney is not really wedded to any formation, and his team is very used to having to shift things around for a specific opponent, or because a game isn’t going their way. If United is handling the 433 without trouble, you can expect Vanney to move his players around in search of a solution.