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Know Your Enemy: DC United – Meeting the Third

Right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, and with the international break coming up, it'll be a first choice lineup and all out effort form DC on Saturday. What does that entail though? What will TFC be up against?

Ned Dishman - Getty Images

Two league matches, eight goals conceded.

This was always likely to be a difficult stretch of the season, crisscrossing the continent to face two of the more high-profile opponents MLS has on offer. Fortunately - for blessed is he who takes pleasure in small victories - Toronto FC was able to ensure that, again, their trip down to Torreon will at least matter.

This weekend's opponent, DC United, Toronto's last before the league breaks for the final matches of this round of World Cup Qualification, poses a more subtle challenge than those of Los Angeles and New York with their star-power-fueled offences.

It has been some time since the two last met in a pair of May clashes, quite a bit has happened since on both sides of the ball; a closer look at DC United is in order.

Recent Form

DC has been at best inconsistent this season; but in that inconsistency there lies a pattern. Good at home, less so on the road. To be fair, that's pretty standard in MLS.

Ironically, since the loss of Dwayne De Rosario to a knee injury suffered while on duty for Canada, United has gone unbeaten in their last four matches.

This counterintuitive run, having lost their talisman, should be mediated by the strength - or lack thereof - of their opposition over that spell with home fixtures to New England and Chivas, as well as road trips to Philadelphia and Portland.

In fact, all those matches were incredibly tight, as were the two prior to the break - a 2-2 draw versus New York and a 1-0 loss in a storm-delayed match in Salt Lake.

A 2-1 win over the Revolution with goals from Chris Pontius and Lewis Neal overpowering Kelyn Rowe's opening goal was followed by a 0-1 squeaker at the Union with Lionard Pajoy scoring the lone goal against his former club. Perhaps most surprisingly, only a 1-0 win against Chivas that required a diving header from substitute Branko Boskovic in the final half hour of play - his first in MLS - to save any blushes against the struggling Ameri-Goats.

This past weekend, DC flew across the continent for a 1-1 draw in Portland.

They likely should have lost, and would have, had the linesman (assistant referee) not made an extremely controversial handball call on Timber's defender David Horst. Horst lunged his arms awkwardly towards a Perry Kitchen cross, but did not appear to affect the flight of the ball. An eternity later - or so it seemed - play was stopped as the referee received word from his assistant and pointed to the spot, much to the chagrin of the hosts, their owner and their fans alike. Pontius stepped to the spot and duly dispatched the penalty kick to open the scoring very much against the run of play.

Bright Dike continued his strong run of form smashing a late equalizer past Bill Hamid from a tight angle following some good build up down the left by Steven Smith and Darlington Nagbe.

Projected Lineup

Manager Ben Olsen's lineup has been one of the more difficult ones to pin down. He appears, at times, to look to match the styling of his opponent, rather than looking to field his best eleven consistently.

Against Philadelphia, he rolled out a 4-3-3 formation mirroring that preferred by the Union, before switching back to his preferred 4-4-2 at the start of the second half.

Some of this inconsistency has been borne out of the loss of De Rosario who was instrumental to DC's attack, though the struggles of the formerly in-form Maicon Santos, the unreliability of Boskovic, and the rotating cast of characters in the striking positions, have played their role as well.

With only three matches remaining - at home to Columbus and away to Chicago after the break - non-wildcard spots within reach and chasing clubs hot on their heels in the search for the remaining playoff positions in the East, this match against a struggling Toronto will be seen as a good chance to secure full points.

The projected lineup is as follows: Bill Hamid in goal; from right to left - Andy Najar, Brandon McDonald, Dejan Jakovic, and Chris Korb across the back; Perry Kitchen sitting deep and Nick DeLeon, Branko Boskovic, and Chris Pontius across the midfield; Lionard Pajoy and Maicon Santos up top.

football formations

Given the importance of securing what should be viewed as the easiest three points in their remaining schedule and a long break before their next match, the projected lineup is their strongest and most attack-minded potential starting eleven; it is the same one they marched out against New England in September.

Boskovic is without doubt a luxury player, but considering how much possession Toronto concedes to their opponent - not to mention their atrocious marking from set-pieces - his inclusion and distribution could play an important role in deciding the outcome.

Santos, as mentioned, has been out of form after starting the season impressively. He has not scored since the end of May and has been out of the lineup accordingly, but the chance to end that poor run against his former employers may just be too sweet a possibility to ignore.

Should Olsen decide to be more conservative in this match, he could replace Santos with Pontius playing as a withdrawn forward in support of Pajoy, field Marcelo Saragosa alongside Kitchen to shore up the middle of the park and employ the industrious Lewis Neal in the midfield.

Salihi will likely see some minutes towards the end should DC find themselves in need of a goal, but he has struggled to fit in, despite his obvious finishing ability.

Last Meeting

After falling 0-2 to DC at home at the start of May, Toronto's attempt at retribution was dismantled in the first minute of the return meeting in Washington.

Fifty-seven seconds to be exact.

A foul by Adrian Cann on Hamdi Salihi on the left-side of the pitch allowed Boskovic to swing a delivery into the box. De Rosario easily escaped the marking of Ashtone Morgan to head the ball down towards the near-post.

Not the sort of start a club looking to avoid their ninth straight loss to open the season had anticipated.

De Rosario doubled United's advantage minutes before the halftime whistle with a simple tap-in after DC had transitioned up the pitch and sliced open the failing Toronto defense. Josh Wolff played out to Korb surging up the right-flank, Korb spotted an untracked De Rosario attacking the far-post and his low ball needed only the easiest of touches to find the back of the net.

Toronto drew one back midway through the second half when Danny Koevermans found himself unmarked in front of goal from a deep Julian de Guzman free kick and redirected the ball past Hamid with a deft right-footed touch.

Any chance of a comeback was quickly suppressed when Salihi reinstated the two-goal lead two minutes on, beating Cann to a Najar cut-back from the right-end-line to loop his finish past a helpless Milos Kocic in the Toronto goal.

Ryan Johnson nearly pulled Toronto back to within a goal, but his sliding finish from a Nick Soolsma cross was wide of the mark.

The 3-1 loss prompted Koevermans' "Worst team in the world" comment that rang around the footballing world, though Toronto did manage to end that woeful streak in their next match against Philadelphia.

And as everyone knows, things have been great since then...

Bullet Points

With the absence of De Rosario, Pontius has stepped in as the central figure in the attack. As such, DC has flourished in transition where their pace and use of width causes opponents all sorts of trouble.

Whether Pontius plays wide, up top, or withdrawn in the middle, DC often looks to play long ball into space to spring their attack against an ill-prepared defensive unit.

Both DC goals in the first meeting were the result of long passes from defenders, while the quick break that led to De Rosario's second goal in DC is a perfect example of stretching the opponent in transition. Similarly, DC are fond of a cross-field pass to find that space left by a team compressing over to one side.

Najar playing right-back can be a defensive liability when asked to defend one-on-one against the more skillful attackers - he was skinned by Philly's Antoine Hoppenot - but the attacking threat he provides, whether it be long surging runs, overlaps around the outside, or arriving late on the scene as a shooting threat must be considered at all times.

Hamid is an excellent shot-stopper but can be hesitant at times. He was also beat from a very poor angle by Portland's Dike - no keeper enjoys giving one up at the short-side - and nearly gifted Hoppenot a goal by poorly handling a rasping Jack McInerney shot, but was spared by the combination of the offside flag and a fine last ditch save of his own.

DC's back-line can be fractious at times. McDonald and Korb exchanged some heated words at the end of the spectacularly climaxed 1-1 match against Philadelphia back in August, but then combined to score in the next match with McDonald getting on the end of a delicious Korb-cross with a sumptuous header.

The two were arguing over wasting time with a back-pass at the end of the match and Korb still occasional makes the wrong pass selection.

You can find more of James Grossi’s insightful ramblings over at Partially Obstructed View and follow him on twitter @Grawsee