It is not often that a preseason match between two of the bottom three teams in the previous MLS season is going to draw much attention. In fact, there are very few preseason games that could be described as highly anticipated but that is exactly what Wednesday's friendly between D.C. United and Toronto FC is.
The game will be filled with plenty of story lines but at the heart of the anticipation is the fact that these two clubs are almost certainly the most improved teams around MLS since last season. Fans of both clubs will be eager to see their new players in action for the first time and neutrals will be curious just how good these new look teams are in their first time playing together.
It would be foolish to take too much from the first friendly of the year because it will be more about fitness and new players working to get on the same page than it will be about results. That will not dispel the anticipation though as after a long cold offseason full of excitement both teams will be looking forward to getting down to business.
Even though you can only take so much away from a preseason game there are still a few things that we will be watching for on Wednesday night.
1. Formations: Ryan Nelsen stuck to a pair of formations for the most part last season with the team often lining up in a 4-5-1 with two defensive midfielders or a 4-4-2. It always felt like a defensive approach from TFC with the focus on being responsible on their own side of the ball and that was what needed to be done given the personnel that Nelsen had to work with. That should not be the case in 2014 though as now he has the attacking options to go with almost any formation imaginable. He may be more flexible with his formations this season but it will be worth noting how the team lines up on Wednesday night because it will give us are first glimpse of how he will look to use all of his new options.
At the press conference announcing Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley, Nelsen seemed confident that he would be able to stick with his preferred 4-4-2 and still get the most out of this team. That confidence came from the fact that he wants to use a more fluid 4-4-2 with players able to get forward in numbers before dropping back into that more rigid shape to defend allowing them to cover the full field. Wednesday will be his first chance to show if he can put those ideas into practice in a real game.
2. The new guys: There are a good number of players who will come into this first game knowing that their place on the roster is essentially safe and they will be playing to impress the coach and earn minutes. For a number of other players though they are looking to fight their way onto the roster for the first time or hang on to their place for the new season. All three draft picks, Nick Hagglund, Dan Lovitz, and Kene Eze, are still looking to win contracts with the club and will need to hit the ground running in preseason to have a chance to do so with the roster already looking crowded. There is also a chance that the game will feature some trialists with Issey Nakajima-Farran the only confirmed guest player in camp so far. Those four will be looking to fight there way on the roster come March 1st while someone like Ryan Richter or Emery Welshman might be looking over his shoulder trying to protect their place on the 30-man roster.
There are also the new guys who generated all the excitement around the team this winter. Problem is that we will not see several of them on Wednesday as they are not all in camp with the team yet. Defoe continues to play for Tottenham, Gilberto and Jackson are resolving a few final bits of paperwork before joining the team, and Michael Bradley is being eased through preseason as he arrived in Toronto in midseason form. Bradley may feature in this game for a short period of time but there is no chance we will see the other three.
Fans should still get their first glimpse of Bradley Orr and Justin Morrow in TFC red and there will be the first game for Dwayne De Rosario since his return to Toronto. It could also be the first time that many fans gets to see Manny Aparicio and Jordan Hamilton in action along with some of the other academy players in the camp. So even with a few big absences there are plenty of new faces to see in action for the first time.
3. Story lines: By preseason standards this game is chock full of different story lines to get excited about. Another chance for Luis Silva to burn the team that traded him away for next to nothing. DeRo gets his first crack at the team that cut him at the end of last season and if you have been keeping track he often does well against his old teams. Should get a chance to compare two of the top CBs taken in this years draft to see just how Nick Hagglund stacks up against Steve Birnbaum at this point. Then to top it off you have the meeting between two of the teams who everyone has near the top of the table for "winners of the offseason" and now both teams will want to actually win something tangible even if it is just a preseason game.
Hopefully those three reasons are enough to get you excited for Wednesday's game but really if you were not already looking forward to seeing TFC back in action it might be wise to check your pulse because this offseason should have been enough to get even the biggest skeptic excited once more.