It can be difficult to prepare for Toronto FC, as Greg Vanney’s team shifts through multiple formations, sprinkles in a high press sometimes, and generally maintains an ability to surprise. Tinkerers generally don’t do all that well in MLS, but Vanney has had plenty of success, and D.C. United probably has plans for a couple of different versions of TFC.
That said, the biggest question about the Reds right now comes down to simple player availability. If Jozy Altidore is fit and available for most of a given game, they’re as good as anyone in the East. If he’s not, well...since the start of 2018, TFC is 8W-5D-15L in games where Altidore plays fewer than 20 minutes. They still sometimes come up with big wins (they have a -3 goal difference in those games, owing to some blowout victories), but the record matches the eye test: Altidore is crucial for this team.
With that out of the way, let’s dive into what United is likely to see tonight:
Goalkeeper: Quentin Westberg
The French-born former U.S. under-23 was brought in as a solid veteran back-up for Alex Bono, but Bono has carried his woeful 2018 form into 2019. Vanney gave Westberg a shot, and it looks like he’s emerging as the starter. Westberg doesn’t quite have the save of the week-level stop in his bag, but he makes few mistakes and is very comfortable with the ball at his feet.
Right back: Richie Laryea or Auro
Auro is the starter, but he left Saturday’s game with a back problem, and though he’s listed as probable on the injury report, the quick turnaround is reason to be skeptical about him playing tonight. TFC could use the Brazilian, though, because Laryea is only a couple of months into being converted from central midfield. Either way, this is certainly the more vulnerable side of their back four.
Center back: Eriq Zavaleta
With veteran Drew Moor’s fitness a mystery and Laurent Ciman listed as doubtful, the prospects of TFC playing a 352 are lower than normal. That leaves them leaning on Zavaleta, who has struggled a bit this season. This could be a good game for Lucas Rodriguez slashing in (provided Ben Olsen doesn’t rotate him out).
Center back: Chris Mavinga
Mavinga has proven critical for TFC in the past, as he’s their one center back with any real speed. He can put out a lot of fires, and his emergency defending is pretty impressive. I’d think that Vanney would be interested in rotating him (he’s had injury troubles in the past), but they don’t really have the option to do so right now.
Left back: Justin Morrow
Morrow is pretty much what he’s always been: quick, steady, and fairly dangerous going forward. He hasn’t been getting into quite as many scoring positions this year in part because TFC has spent time in this throwback 442, but he’s still a tough, underrated player to have to get past.
Right midfield: Nick DeLeon
This is still a very weird thing to think about. DeLeon sounds very motivated for this one, which is probably bad news. Vanney has given DeLeon a more attacking role than Ben Olsen had in recent years, and while his 1 goal/3 assist season thus far isn’t setting the world on fire, it’s an uptick in production.
One other note: Vanney has been removing DeLeon in the 73rd minute or earlier for about a month now, so he’s probably not going to play the full 90 tonight.
Defensive midfield: Michael Bradley
Bradley sees significantly more of the ball than any other TFC starter (American Soccer Analysis has him getting 13% of their touches), which is probably not a surprise for any American fan who has seen Bradley play. TFC lets him set the tempo, and he’ll always be looking up for the chance to switch the point of attack or stretch the opponent vertically if the counter is on. United has to keep him contained in that department. If Bradley is playing backwards and sideways, D.C. is probably having their way.
Central midfield: Marky Delgado
Delgado hasn’t quite captured the superb form he had in 2017, but he has been better this year than last year’s ineffective campaign. Delgado is basically Bradley’s assistant, doing a ton of running without the ball to be an option in possession. He also has to work very hard defensively in this set-up, as most MLS teams can out-number Toronto centrally. The results in that department have been mixed.
Left midfield: Jonathan Osorio
Osorio is quietly having a good season, with 3 goals and 4 assists already. The formation change is perhaps benefiting him more than anyone else, though being the most attack-minded midfielder on a team that has Alejandro Pozuelo might be a bigger factor in his resurgence (particularly in terms of assists, as he’s on pace to get 14 or 15 on the year). Tracking Osorio off the ball is going to be huge, because TFC loves to combine on the top of the box. Osorio is usually the third man in those combinations, and interfering with that makes the defensive work to contain everyone else a lot more straightforward.
Withdrawn forward: Alejandro Pozuelo
The Spaniard came to MLS after a protracted transfer saga and had an amazing impact right away: 2 goals and an assist in his debut, and 4 goals and 5 assists in his first 4 appearances. It’s not just single moments, either, as Pozuelo is near the top of the league in terms of successful dribbles and key passes. There’s more than a little Peak Luciano Acosta to Pozuelo’s game, though we are still in the “small sample size” phase. Recent opponents have been a bit better about closing him down, though he’s still picked up a goal and an assist in his last 4 games.
Striker: Jozy Altidore or Jordan Hamilton
You know plenty about Altidore. He’s great at taking advantage of some of the gray areas in the game, like initiating contact before the ball arrives to throw his marker off-balance. He’s still as strong as any forward in the league, making him a tough player to fend off, and when the service is good, he usually responds with goals. He only played 18 minutes in TFC’s last game, though, so there’s an open question as to whether he can play more than 30 or so minutes. If he can, he probably starts; if not, he’s the ace up Vanney’s sleeve tonight.
Hamilton is a hard worker, but off the ball he can be fairly limited in terms of making clever runs. He doesn’t take much of the burden off of TFC’s creative players. That’s not to say he’s never a threat, but he’s less subtle and easier to mark than Altidore.
Altidore will be if he’s not able to start. Beyond that, though, the TFC bench isn’t exactly impressive these days. Jay Chapman can play on either side of this midfield, or as an attacking midfielder if Vanney changes formations. Ayo Akinola could also be used instead of Hamilton, which would give TFC a bit more speed up top (but less experience).
Plenty! TFC likes a mid-block, but they can high press pretty well. Mostly, though, the approach remains the same; it’s the formation that changes on a regular basis. While this narrow 442 has been preferred of late, they played 352 on the weekend, and have plenty of familiarity with that alignment. They’ve also played a 442 diamond (that actually makes a bit more sense with these players in my book, but I don’t coach TFC), and can easily drop Pozuelo back and push the wingers up to play a 4231.
Vanney also often changes his formation in the last 10-20 minutes based on the game state. If TFC is winning, the chances of them bringing a fifth defender in are pretty high. If they’re trailing, things could get weird. For example, Vanney has set his team up in a 334, which would probably involve two pure strikers, Pozuelo moving into the midfield, and Morrow as the left forward.