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Know Your Enemy: D.C United - Meeting The First

Should be plenty of celebrating at both ends of the pitch on Saturday.
Should be plenty of celebrating at both ends of the pitch on Saturday.

A couple of old friends return to Toronto this weekend, as Dwayne De Rosario and Maicon Santos head north with new club, DC United.

The pair of former captains, re-united in the offseason, are now enjoying a new lease on life in the American capital.

History tells us that when former Reds return, it spells trouble for TFC and safe money is on either or both having a major influence on the proceedings.

Toronto, on the back of an underwhelming, if necessary, 0-0 draw in the first leg of their Voyageurs Cup series with Montreal, will need to keep the two in-form attackers in check should they hope to end that historic streak of losses.

The Lineup

Under manager Ben Olsen, United have principally used a diamond 4-4-2 formation and after a bit of early season tinkering have found a dynamic attacking quintet.

Injuries, however, have wrecked havoc on an otherwise solid backline.

The projected lineup for Saturday's match has Joe Willis in goal; from right to left: Robbie Russell, Perry Kitchen, Brandon McDonald, and Daniel Woolard across the back; Marcelo Saragosa stationed in front of the defense; Danny Cruz, De Rosario, and Nick DeLeon across the midfield; with Chris Pontius and Santos paired up top.

football formations

The same eleven was trotted out midweek in a high-scoring affair in San Jose.

Losing 5-3, albeit in San Jose on short rest, will have been a disappointment to the club after having finally put together back-to-back wins for the first time since June of 2009. Getting into a shootout with the Earthquakes is an ill-advised strategy at the best of times; one made worse by the absence of key defenders.

Missing two of their top three centre-backs - injury-plagued Canadian international Dejan Jakovic suffered a sprained ankle in New England just shy of a month ago and Argentinean Emiliano Dudar was forced out of the Houston match with a strained hamstring at the close of the first half - DC were forced to move Kitchen from his usual defensive midfield position to the back-line.

Against Houston this resulted in Kitchen moving to right-back, while Russell played centrally; against San Jose it was Kitchen in the middle, with Russell back in his preferred position.

Trailing 3-1 at the half Olsen pulled a trick out of his bag, replacing Saragosa - the defensive mid - with Honduran teenager, Andy Najar, allowing Kitchen to return to his role in the middle of the park, while Najar was oddly plugged into the right-back slot.

Theoretically it was a sound decision - adding another attacking outlet contributed to the Woolard goal - a diving header from a Najar right-sided cross after De Rosario had played him into space near the end-line - that put them within a one of drawing level - but would Olsen risk trying it from the start if Jakovic is still unfit and the same problems exist on the back-line?

The only other major substitution would be in goal. Joe Willis has held the role admirably since first-choice keeper Bill Hamid left the side in March to back stop the American U-23 qualification bid for the Olympics. Hamid returned from the tournament injured - ankle sprain - and has not found a way to take back his spot from the hot-hand.

It is possible that Olsen has been looking for a reason to give Hamid another chance and the quick turnaround, combined with a shellacking in San Jose, could well be that excuse.

Given that short rest and a long flight across the continent for a third match in the span of a week, there could be other minor changes.

Designated players: Hamdi Salihi - the Albanian striker, and the Montenegrin playmaker - Branko Boskovic; Najar - returned to his midfield role on the right flank and a handful of role players - the likes of defender Chris Korb, midfielders Kurt Morsink, Stephen King and Lewis Neal, and veteran forward Josh Wolff - though Wolff and Morsink, like Jakovic, were listed as questionable in the most recent injury reports - could all plug holes should Olsen feel that rest or change is required. All - save Morsink who has been recovering from offseason surgery - have had a role to play already in this young season.

The Tactics

When going forward, DC has proven to be a very dangerous opponent. Whether a quick counter, or a methodical dismantling, they are a potent attacking side.

The reputation and ability of last season's MVP De Rosario requires no introduction - especially to the Toronto faithful - but since joining the club from New York last summer, the attacking battery has been built around the talismanic attacking midfield-slash-striking hybrid, intending to make the most of his skill set.

Alongside him, across the midfield, DC has deployed a pair of young, hard-working players with enough skill to complement the movements of the man.

Danny Cruz, the hard-charging right-sided player, who at times with his former club Houston, functioned as a full-back, implying he has both the lung power and defensive capabilities to run up and down that touchline all day without getting drawn too far away from his responsibilities.

That could be in part why Cruz has gotten the nod over Najar for much of the season - he is more sound, defensively. Holding Najar back allows his introduction as a substitute should DC be chasing the match in the second half; a role at which he has proven rather adept.

On the opposite flank, DeLeon, a virtual De Ro clone, selected seventh overall in the 2012 Superdraft after a solid college career at Louisville. Attack minded, skillful, energetic, and well-acquainted with Cruz - they both attended UNLV at the same time for a short-spell, after having crossed paths several times previously. The more attack minded of the pair, has been very impressive so far this season. Three goals and an equal number of assists including some spectacular efforts have labeled him as one to watch.

These two shuttle up and down those flanks, with legs young enough to keep up with De Rosario's thought processes, to get back in defense, and enough energy to press the opposition endlessly - more on that later.

Up top Santos and Pontius have proven to work very well in tandem and in linking up with midfield as well.

Santos functions as a target forward - collecting long balls from the back, often with his back to goal, holding up the play allowing others to get forward and join him in attack. His size allows him these luxuries, while his skill on the ball encourages interplay and his appetite for a shot from distance - he does love them - keeps the opposition's defenses on their toes.

Pontius, still new to the role of a forward having spent most of his career to date in the midfield, serves to stretch the play and test a back-line with his pace and power. Clichéd indeed, but his athleticism is a constant threat, especially on the break, where he has proven to be very lethal.

Each is equally comfortable with the roles - and flanks - being reversed as well, Santos will chase passes into the wide areas, preferably the right, which allows his to cut inside onto his powerful left-foot; while Pontius is fond of charging down the left so as to cut in on his right foot to curl one across the keeper.

Delicate interplay; one-two's; chipped passes; crosses; free kicks; aerially; from distance; hard-charging runs; hell, even bicycle kicks; if it can be done to score a goal, DC will try it and likely succeed.

Defensively, the forward's role is to press mercilessly, hoping to force turnovers and thus garner chances in transition. And as for the holes in their defense, that will be looked at soon.

The Form

Heading into this weekend's match, DC sits in second place in the Eastern Conference with fifteen points after ten matches.

Following a slow start to the season - a pair of losses and a goal-less draw in Vancouver - DC's season was kick started by a 4-1 destruction of Dallas. Since then they have gone on a run of five unbeaten matches - draws at home to Seattle and Montreal; wins away to New England and at RFK against New York and Houston - before falling midweek to San Jose.

Much though the club wishes that defense was the catalyst of such a strong start, all the credit must go to their overwhelming attack.

Santos has six, Pontius, four; DeLeon three. De Rosario, held off the score-sheet until facing his former club Houston on the weekend, now has two to go with his seven assists; while Salihi was finally able to break his duck once the San Jose match was already beyond reach.

They score goals in any number of manners - shots from distance have been a particular specialty.

Santos is the prime candidate - his strikes to open the scoring against Dallas and draw DC level with Montreal after the expansion side went ahead proved crucial in the results. But De Rosario's first strike in San Jose and the Pontius blast that opened the scoring against New York were different class.

From free kicks they have any number of options. Santos will take those that call for a left foot, usually skipping a low rasping shot on target; though they will mix it up to keep the opponent on guard. De Rosario and DeLeon will get involved in the set-pieces, with DeLeon taking a number of corners.

More recently, they have been especially dangerous attacking crosses or bursting through the middle. De Rosario would have scored the goal of the season against Houston, picking up the ball in his own half, busting up-field, twisting and turning Luiz Camargo, spinning past Adam Moffat, side-stepping a lunging challenge from a returned Camargo, playing a give-and-go with Woolard, collecting the return in the heart of the box, popping a touch over an attempted intervention from Jermaine Taylor, volleying it goal-ward, only for Tally Hall to deny destiny, getting down quickly to block the effort.

As mentioned briefly, pressing high up the pitch has been an essential part of their game plan. The opening goal against New York was the direct result of such pressing - Pontius clattered Thierry Henry near the centre circle, stole the ball, charged up the pitch and smashed a shot past keeper, Ryan Meara.

They are equally dangerous on a quick counterattack; an excellent example is their fourth goal against Dallas. Play begins with a Dallas corner kick, Cruz recovers possession and sprints up-field, holding the ball he draws defenders to him, only to dish it out to De Rosario streaking down the right. De Ro lofts a ball to the back-post, where it is met by Santos and headed back across the keeper - from a corner kick at one end of the pitch to a goal at the other in a matter of seconds.


Their offensive prowess is a concern, but they are vulnerable at the back, especially if they are forced to continue with the make-shift back-line should neither Dudar, nor Jakovic be fit for the weekend.

With either Russell or Kitchen in the back-line McDonald is forced from his preferred right centre-back role to the left, causing discomfort and confusion. It is unlikely they will have had time to work on it; they looked disjointed against San Jose - the Earthquakes have a tendency to do that to opponents - not moving in unison or picking up marks.

Wondolowski's first goal was a result of McDonald staying close to Lenhart, while the other three defenders collapsed on ball carrier Marvin Chavez, leaving Wondo alone and onside. A simple pass and a low shot to the near-post saw San Jose take the lead moments after drawing level.

Get at their defense - there will be goals; in their last three matches there has been a combined eighteen goals - an average of six per; on the season they average conceding a goal and a half per game.

Another weakness is in goal. Willis is a great shot stopper, but he is susceptible to the occasional error. Houston's second goal, could harshly have been termed an own goal - Willis parried the shot, only for his momentum to pinch the ball between his body and the ground, forcing it goal-ward.

He is prone to the occasional weak touch, incomplete play or questionable clearance. Follow up on chances, Steven Lenhart's second - San Jose's fifth - saw the lanky, golden-haired trouble maker continue to play after a Chavez shot rebounded off the post, beating the keeper and defenders to the ball for an easy tap-in.

With both sides sporting heavy legs thanks to midweek exertions, it will be important to see out the first few attacks. Do not let DC sense blood in the water, keep things tight, and they will tire given the difficult week they have had.

Crosses from the attacking right seem to be causing United the most trouble, perhaps it is the confusion over marking between the right centre-back and the full-back in the target area that is causing this weakness. Reggie Lambe will have to make good use of any space provided on that flank and again Toronto must get numbers into the box to make use of those crosses.

It emerged this week that Toronto was the best team in the league at swinging service into the box - San Jose was second - but have failed to capitalize on those chances. The problem being that one can pump deliveries in, but if there's no one there to convert them - or one man, marked out of existence - it is not going to be an effective tactic.

Points of Interest

DeLeon has a long throw on him that need be watched, should the opportunity present itself.

Apparently De Rosario was key in the acquisition of Santos, suggesting his former teammates to the United bosses once he had been released from Dallas; who traded Eric Avila to Toronto in exchange for the Brazilian last July.

Santos racked up a brace and an assist against former side Dallas; De Rosario followed up a goal and an assist performance against Houston - one of his former clubs - with a brace and a helper against another former club San Jose.

The two sides have had some great matches. The pair of 3-3 results at RFK - in '09 a De Ro brace and one from Adrian Serioux - and last season - De Ro hat-trick versus TFC - and the 2-3 win in the final match of 2010 (eerily, TFC goals from Santos and a De Ro brace).