Toronto FC returns to MLS action after a two-week layoff against a familiar foe. Much has happened away from league play since TFC fell 0-2 to DC United fourteen days ago at BMO Field, a pair of cup matches, a modicum of success, something to hang one's hat on and begin to build the confidence required to turn around a lost season.
A strong two-goal performance and a clean sheet at home against Montreal saw the Reds progress to the final of the Voyageurs Cup even after Richard Eckersley was lost to a red card in the first quarter of an hour.
The weekend off and some time away from the pitch proved fortuitous to Toronto allowing them to take the lead in Vancouver in the first leg of that final series. Were it not for a last-minute thunderbolt of a strike from Eric Hassli, they would have enjoyed that return even more, as is; an important away goal may still stand them in good stead.
But on Saturday night a new challenge awaits. Will this be the match that begins the slow ascent? Or is the time still not right for an opening win to the season?
DC has been busy these last fourteen days. A week after defeating Toronto they endured a trying match in Houston losing 1-0 and as Toronto was preparing for their match in Vancouver their midweek fixture against Colorado was just finishing, 2-0 to the good at RFK.
The loss in Houston was foreseeable. It was one of those unwinnable games: Sometimes the sense of occasion surrounding a match - in this instance the opening of the long awaited BBVA Compass Stadium - is simply too much to overcome. It was an emotional day for the Houston soccer community; finally a home to call their own and several of their heroes of yesterday in attendance.
A difficult task made tougher by the Texan weather. Granted it is still early in the year and the full weight of summer has yet to descend on North America, but for a team yet to confront some heat, an obstacle nevertheless.
Virtually the same DC team that faced Toronto - save a few minor changes: Robbie Russell returned to right-back and Andy Najar shifted into the left midfield spot at which Lewis Neal had underperformed - did well to navigate a difficult opening half, neither threatening nor really being threatened. A couple of half-chances fell the Dynamo's way in the first half, while DC was limited to one good opportunity in the match.
Maicon Santos made some space for himself on the left side of the Houston box, catching Andre Hainault off-balance with a deft step-over and push to the outside. The angle was tight and in the end his shot was off-target, dragging wide of the far-post.
DC looked most dangerous on the counter, but failed to find any quantifiable success. Houston gradually took over the match as injury to Perry Kitchen - an uncomfortable landing saw him helped off the field; scans later revealed no measureable injury and he was fit in time for the Colorado match - and the oppressive temperature got the better of United.
They found their goal through Brad Davis of all folks, a screamer of a drive - left-footed of course - from about thirty yards, after DC had given him time and space to settle the ball and get turned in front of goal.
Were it not for some profligacy from the home side and several fine saves from Bill Hamid, it would undoubtedly have been more. Houston and the crowd were willing Brian Ching to score on opening night - as he had, four times in fact, in the first match at Robertson Stadium, years before - but it was not to be.
DC had a final chance in stoppage time to salvage a draw, a curling Dwayne De Rosario free kick picked out Woolard at the far-post, but his downward header was straight at Tally Hall, who held onto the ball and the result.
1-0 to Houston.
A long flight home and a short break saw a very different United eleven take on Colorado.
Rested were Chris Pontius, Maicon Santos, and Danny Cruz; DeRosario was paired with Hamdi Salihi up top, while Branko Boskovic sat in the hole. Najar switched over the right of midfield, while Neal returned to the left-flank.
Colorado enjoyed much of the early possession, but did little of note with it. Conor Casey's return and the Rapids struggles on the road robbed them of the fluidity that has at times seen them dangerous. It took DC about twenty minutes or so to sort out who would do what, but once they did, they looked unstoppable.
Interestingly it was the least heralded of the foreign talent on the pitch that proved the catalyst on the night. Englishman Lewis Neal, a journeyman from the lower, unglamourous tiers of English football, signed from Orlando City of all places, created the first goal.
Pouncing on a poor piece of control by Jaime Castrillon, Neal regained possession deep in his own half and strode up-field. Unobstructed by Rapids players backing off, he had the good sense to wait and let play develop. Salihi made a clever run to the left, dragging with him the central defender Moor, opening a gap for a through-ball. De Rosario had charged up the pitch and was left by his tracker - Jeff Larentowicz.
His first touch settled the pass, the next to stroke it under the sliding keeper and into the net. De Rosario opened the scoring in the twenty-fifth minute and within two minutes; DC could have had two more.
A De Rosario shot from outside the box seemed destined for the top corner, until Pickens pushed it away. On the ensuing corner kick Boskovic's service connected with Russell at the top of the six, but Pickens was equal to it with a reaction save.
Before the half was done Najar looked to add his name to the score-sheet - a mazy run and shot off the outside of his right-boot, but again Pickens was equal to the task, pushing it over the bar as well.
The onslaught continued in the second half. Salihi once denied with his head, would not be stopped given another chance. The sixtieth minute Neal collects a loose ball on the left-flank and delivers a wonderful cross to Boskovic attacking the penalty spot; the Montenegrin's header is parried, but falls into the path of Salihi at the far-post for an easy tap-in.
De Rosario had the ball in the net again, but was correctly called offside. Mercifully the match ended soon enough, without further scoring, though chances continued to come DC's way.
2-0 to DC.
One win, one loss since the sides last met see DC drop a spot on the Eastern Conference table to third place on twenty-one points.
Now seems as good a time as any to suggest reading over the preview for the last match, paying particular attention to the tactics and points of interest sections.
It is always difficult to penetrate the mind of a coach in the midst of a congested run of games. Three matches in a week, plenty of injuries at various stage of recovery and a handful of elderly players whose durability must be considered.
With that in mind - and with all available news at hand - the projected lineup sees Bill Hamid in goal; from right to left - Robbie Russell, Brandon McDonald, Daniel Woolard, and Chris Korb along the back-line; Perry Kitchen manning the base of the midfield diamond with Danny Cruz, Dwayne De Rosario, and Lewis Neal across the top; Maicon Santos and Chris Pontus will resume their stations at the top of the formation.
There are a number of changes to that lineup that make an awful lot of sense, but given those that were made for the midweek match - Salihi and Boskovic handed rare starts - it is reasonable to expect that DC will see the visit of Toronto as a chance to take maximum points, solidifying their position near the top of the Eastern Conference and cap off a solid week.
Najar could return to the right-back slot in place of Russell. It gave him plenty of space to accelerate within and he posed a threat down Toronto's left-flank. Ben Olsen has leaned heavily upon the thirty-two year old legs of Russell, who has made twelve starts in DC's thirteen matches. He was removed from the match against Colorado after an hour for a spell of well-earned rest, while Najar played the full ninety on the right of midfield - as he did in Houston on the left - hence the selection of Russell. Or he could feature on either side of the midfield in place of Cruz or Neal.
Given Salihi and Boskovic's limited playing time thus far and in particular, the short rest between matches it is unlikely that Olsen would adhere to that old maxim of "Don't tinker with a winning lineup." Both performed admirably, but it makes more sense for the rested Pontius and Santos to return on the weekend.
Then there is De Rosario, who has started every match of DC's season, only substituting off on three occasions; a combined total of thirty-nine minutes of regulation time not on the pitch for United. Even if Olsen wanted to give the Canadian a rest, it is highly unlikely that such a conversation would sit well with Dwayne or would be wise given how proficient he is against his former clubs.
Injuries have limited the remaining options. Defensively Emiliano Dudar is still listed as out, while Dejan Jakovic return to the bench but has yet to see the pitch. Marcelo Saragosa too was on the bench, but Nick DeLeon is still absent. Stephen King has been useful as a utility substitute in recent matches, as he was in the match versus Toronto.
Before the sides first met, all the talk was about how much the two returning TFC captains would return to haunt their former employers; truth be told that simply wasn't the case.
Julian de Guzman's shadow job on De Rosario and the quick physical pressing Toronto's back-line applied to Santos limited their ability to find time and space to put their skills to use.
Toronto enjoyed a fair number of early chances, despite the defensive game plan they pursued - the sitting back that so raised the ire of Ryan Johnson.
It all came undone after DC made a subtle, but effective change to their lineup and momentum began to shift ever so slightly.
Neal was removed and Pontius was pushed over to the vacated left midfield position. Boskovic came on and took his usual position at the point of the diamond forcing De Rosario up top to pair with Santos.
The result of this change was that de Guzman's shutdown job on De Rosario was rendered moot. No longer able to cleanly track his fellow Canadian around the pitch without getting drawn too far out of position - and thereby clogging the midfield - large pockets of space began to form as Julian was forced to collapse onto his defenders in order to stay near his mark.
Eventually Julian gave up his shadow role.
Then the momentum switch came. The Reggie Lambe handball that went unseen really shook the Toronto players to their core. Entering the match with the long losing streak and that unwanted record hanging over their heads was too much to bear, and as mentioned before, sometimes the weight of the occasion predetermines the result.
Remember this was before the clear the air talks - they're undefeated since then, by the way - and Toronto was caught flat-footed when DC shifted their plan.
The goal soon followed - less than a minute after the uncalled penalty - and it can only be classified as a collective breakdown.
McDonald, a centre-back is given plenty of time to play a ball up to Pontius from the halfway line. Neither Joao Plata, nor Eric Avila press him at all, nor do they close down the passing lanes. His pass intersects a retreating de Guzman and a deep-lying Miguel Aceval. Julian leaves it to his back-line to deal with - danger does not seem evident at the time - and the Chilean is slow to confront Pontius
All of a sudden the ball is in the back of the net - from handball panic to blissful relief to down a goal in less than a minute.
The team reeled from that disappointment. It sucked the energy out of the match.
The next blow came from the injury to Torsten Frings. His value to the team cannot be understated and to see him trudge off the field in frustration and pain, must have caused some concern amongst the squad - yet another blow to the fragile confidence. For the ten minutes after that they were scrambling; darting aimlessly about the pitch. Keeping one's cool under pressure is important.
Heads down having conceded, losing their captain to injury, then a debatable corner kick is awarded - not by the linesman who was three yards away, but by the referee who was at least twenty - the Boskovic delivery is half-cleared, bounces off one United player's head to McDonald who sends a looping header back in to the mix.
Toronto was trying to push out, but they were a touch slow and were punished by an acrobatic finish by Salihi - a real goal-poacher - and now they're behind by two.
DC time-wasting antics further sucked the life out of the game. A tactic they are less-likely to employ at home.
Jeremy Hall's first appearance was a bright spot, as noted by Aron Winter, though he subsequently struggled a little early on against Vancouver.
TFC will want to make DC work. Keep them running and wear them out. Keep marking De Rosario tightly and pressure them when they have the ball. DC are at their most dangerous on the counter, but like to shoot from distance and work crosses in from wide areas. Limit their time and space on the ball.
As with any team that thrives on the counter, they are susceptible to counter-counters; forcing turnovers and quickly breaking to catch players out of position and stretched. That is in part why Kitchen is so important to their game, he covers a lot of ground and is content to sit there and hunt out the opposition.
The return of Danny Koevermans gives Toronto a useful weapon against DC. McDonald is solid in the air, but Woolard is a full-back by trade and playing out of position. Koevermans may be well covered, but his presence will open space for others and occupy at least one, if not two defenders.
First fifty Volkswagons in the RFK parking lot get free parking. Sweet!
A handful of Washington Capitals were in the house on Wednesday night and there may be a few there on Saturday.
Doneil Henry wears an undershirt with some script on it; expect a message next time he scores, perhaps.
TFC matches in DC are almost always entertaining, so enjoy.