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Martin Shatzer of SB Nation's excellent DCU blog Black and Red United answers my questions about DC ahead of Saturday's game. How have they changed to make up for the loss of De Ro, how's Dejan Jakovic doing, how will the season end and is Branko Boskovic justified in his whining? Plus I answer his questions about what went wrong with TFC and can it get better? So DC. How you doin'?
Waking The Red: Since Dwayne De Rosario got injured, DC have actually done quite well. What adjustments have been made and who's stepped up to replace him? While we're talking Canadian internationals, how's Dejan Jakovic looking these days?
Black and Red United: D.C. United has certainly benefited from a relatively easy schedule. This team hasn't faced a playoff team since DeRo went down, but United is also undefeated in that stretch. And plenty of players have stepped up, or stepped into new roles. Chris Pontius has assumed the role of captain, and has displayed a sudden and unexpected maturity, leading by example with his positive runs and constant workrate. Lionard Pajoy has transitioned from purely a hold-up target forward to a bit of a creator, and occasional finisher. The balance of the midfield has stepped up as well, with Branko Boskovic and Lewis Neal each adding their first MLS goals.
Jakovic has been great lately, and perhaps more impressively, he's been consistent. We always knew that Jakovic had a high ceiling, and he seems to have finally reached it. His intelligent movement, recovery speed, and aerial ability is a big reason that United gave up only three goals in its last five matches. To put it in a different light, Jakovic was just voted September Player of The Month by the B&RU readers. Just please send him back healthy, alright?
WTR: DC could still plausibly finish anywhere between 2nd and 6th. How do you see the rest of the season working out? How far can DC go, and is there any team you want to avoid in the playoffs?
B&RU: I see United finishing the season right where it is now - 4th place in the East. And with D.C. being far better at home than on the road, finishing in fourth rather than fifth will be vital. Without De Rosario, it's hard to see United going much farther than the Conference semifinals though. The team has been a bit fortunate lately, escaping games against weaker opponents with single goal victories. But at the same time, even without DeRo, United has taken points from everyone on the schedule. Of course it's possible that will continue as the opponents get tougher.
But that doesn't mean we don't have certain preferences of playoff matchups. United hasn't really come close to beating Sporting Kansas City in either game against them, while a visit to BBVA Compass scares the hell out of me too. On the other hand, United has had plenty of success so far this year against New York and Chicago.
WTR: Branko Boskovic recently went off on a bit of a rant about his playing time. Does he have a point? I presume Ben Olsen enjoys a lot of support and trust from the supporters, but is anyone other than Boskovic on Boskovic's side with this one?
B&RU: Oh yeah, definitely. United fans haven't been shy about calling for Boskovic and his former Rapid Vienna teammate Hamdi Salihi to earn more playing time. The problem is just that neither seems to fit the role of full-time MLS starter. They have different roles instead. Salihi can come into a match off the bench and try to finish chances that others create. And on a wide field without an aggressive opposing defensive midfield, Boskovic can work magic. And he'll probably work it in Toronto.
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B&RU: From CCL competitors to last place in MLS... When did the Toronto FC season go off course?
WTR: Before it even got started really. Despite an upswing at the end of 2011, TFC's squad was clearly still not good enough and very little was done in the off season. A lot of time was spent securing the return of loanees Richard Eckersley and Joao Plata, so basically treading water. The big need was for a good centre back to anchor the defence and allow Torsten Frings to move back into midfield, we signed Ecuadorian international Geovany Caicedo, who didn't even make it out of pre season, and Chilean international Miguel Aceval, who was slow, seemingly uninterested and clearly not a good fit. So, still no good centre back, then Frings got injured in the first league game, Danny Koevermans also struggled with fitness/injuries and that's the spine of the team gone. The depth was never ever good enough and so it proved. Aron Winter was nowhere near good enough to get the team through a tough stretch without his stars, and thus before May was out, the season was done.
B&RU: Are there any signs of encouragement heading into 2013? What's one improvement you'd like to see the team make in the offseason?
WTR: I'd love to say they were signs of encouragement, but it's really really difficult. Paul Mariner has a good reputation and seemingly lots of friends within MLS so can hopefully use those connections to make some good deals and bring in some players. He's playing a more realistic style of play as well, which theoretically should mean better results.
So far though, there's very little evidence of either of those things. His signings (putting aside the debate of just how involved he was in building the squad before Aron Winter took over) have been a mix of mediocre (Quincy Amarikwa, Andrew Wiedeman, Freddy Hall) and panic. Eric Hassli came very shortly after Danny Koevermans was lost for the season with injury, using up a 2014 1st round pick and any salary cap space gained by sending Julian de Guzman to rot in the Dallas heat. After rumoured deals to bring in Alessandro Nesta and then Olof Mellberg both fell through, Irish international centre back Darren O'Dea was brought in to be that centre back anchor, he's done alright, he's a good MLS defender, not elite, but a good solid player. Then we saw his price tag, $436,250 guaranteed salary. It doesn't suggest Mariner's good at finding bargains, and overpaying some players like that is really going to hinder the chances of getting any good depth.
As for on the pitch, TFC's more defensive style really hasn't made them harder to beat, it's now 38 goals conceded in 21 games under Mariner, and we're currently on an 11 game winless streak. When Mariner first took over, and had a more or less healthy squad and a bit of a soft stretch in the schedule, we got 16 points in 10 games, I guess that's something to cling on to.
He's going to have to do a fantastic job this off season, I'm not convinced he's up to it.
B&RU: TFC has given up more goals than any other team this year, including four goals allowed in both of the last two league matches. Is there any reason to believe they'll be able to keep United off the scoreboard on Saturday?
WTR: Not really, no. LA and New York both had way too much talent, and with no disrespect to DC, there isn't quite the same threat there, but it's really not that much harder from earlier in the season when you got 5 in 2 games against us. Darren O'Dea's a decent defender, and Ashtone Morgan is a very good attacking full back. He's not a great defender though, neither is Jeremy Hall who'll be at right back, or Richard Eckersley who's been moved from that right back spot to centre back, where he just doesn't have the necessary positional instincts and can often be all over the place.
Possession will be given away cheaply and regularly, and really it'll be up to DC as to just how much pressure they want to put on the defence. Eventually TFC will crack, they've been giving up late, often result altering goals left right and centre recently, so just keep on trying, eventually you'll score.