With the torrent of summer matches nearly at its end, Toronto FC enters the next phase of their season, heading south for the first match of a four-game road trip, in DC on Wednesday night.
The whole run of games has been a mixed bag of results: through the seven games played so far of the nine league matches it entails, the club has just two losses, but only one win; they are unbeaten in the three road games, but both losses came at home; they have scored plenty of goals (twelve), but conceded an equally large amount.
It’s all been a bit of a wash, but what was a great chance to solidify one’s position among the elite in the Eastern Conference and the league has undoubtedly been a failure. Granted they still hold on to third-place in the East, but are now level on points with Columbus and just a few ahead of New York, New England, and Philadelphia with fewer matches in hand.
Just as this long stretch could have been crucial, so too is the next one, as the road trip will begin in DC, wind its way through Montreal, then on to Columbus and Kansas City, before returning home at the end of the month with the Ex in full swing.
Playoff positions are earned over the course of the season, points lost in one section can be made up in another. The true measure of a team’s worthiness in this league is consistency and Toronto has been that, if of the underwhelming variety.
On short rest from a disappointing loss to Kansas City on Saturday, this next segment of the 2014 campaign begins on Wednesday night with a match against high-flying DC United, one of the teams TFC is chasing atop the conference.
The two met at the start of the month the first of the 2 defeats in this busy stretch and just 25 days will have elapsed between confrontations, so clearly they are well familiar with each other. Much of what was written on these very pages then is still valid, but still, a closer look at the midweek opponent, DC United, is in order.
DC will enter Wednesday match well-rested and in good spirits.
They currently sit in second place in the East on 34 points from nineteen matches, four points behind Sporting KC, but with two matches in hand – they would like nothing more than to make up that ground while keeping Toronto at bay.
TFC sit in third, trailing United by a full eight points, with one game in hand – three points on Wednesday would go nicely towards narrowing that gap.
Added to that tabular anticipation is the fact that whereas Toronto has crammed in four league matches and a friendly since that early July meeting, DC has played just two MLS fixtures, though they too had an International friendly, falling 0-3 to Fulham, for some reason in Jacksonville, Florida, on July 26.
Ben Olsen’s United would follow up their 1-2 win in Toronto with another away victory by that same score-line, travelling to San Jose for a Friday night fixture, coming away winners on goals from Eddie Johnson and Luis Silva inside the first 25 minutes.
Chris Wondolowski would draw one back before half-time, but DC would see out the result, extending the winning streak to two matches (three on the road).
Nine days later on the following Sunday, they would return to the field back home against red-hot Chivas USA, riding five-game unbeaten and four-game winning streaks of their own.
But DC proved too much for their guests, taking the lead in the 25th minute – once more through Johnson, before Perry Kitchen doubled the advantage in the 59th and Silva sealed the result in the 70th.
Cubo Torres would find little consolation from the penalty spot in the 84th minute as DC extended their winning run to three matches.
July 5 – Toronto FC 1: DC United 2
Nick DeLeon gave the visitors the lead nine minutes into the second half, forcing a turnover out of Nick Hagglund after Justin Morrow put him under pressure with a poor ball. DeLeon, who had poked the ball away from Hagglund to Silva, received a return pass and moved towards goal down the right-channel, cutting inside before picking out the bottom right-corner with a left-footer.
Toronto would respond through Luke Moore five minutes later. Jackson ran towards goal before poking a ball down the left for Jermain Defoe, who held off the attentions of Bobby Boswell before returning the favour to Jackson at the top of the box. His low, right-footer was denied by Bill Hamid, but a lurking Moore reacted quickest to the rebound, stabbing in with a sliding finish.
But DC would find the winner in the 69th minute, when Lewis Neal’s right-sided corner kick was met by an unmarked Perry Kitchen for a downward header, finding a seam in Toronto’s mixed defense.
Then the absurdity of Hagglund’s magical, colour-changing card all but ended the tie in the 88th minute, reducing the home side to ten men – though Toronto did have one last chance, Hamid emphatically denying Dan Lovitz at the back-post from an excellent Collen Warner ball on virtually the final kick of the match.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Bill Hamid in goal; from right to left – Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum, and Chris Korb across the back; Nick DeLeon, Perry Kitchen, Davy Arnaud, and Chris Rolfe through the midfield; with Luis Silva slightly behind Eddie Johnson in attack.
The extended absence of veteran centre-back Jeff Parke due to foot and migraine issues, as well as recurrent concussion issues afflicting Nana Attakora has reduced their options at the back. To offset that, DC has acquired another centre-back with Canadian ties, Kofi Opare in exchange for their spot in the allocation ranking and a 2015 draft pick.
It is unlikely that he would be called upon to feature for his new side in such short order.
Olsen has stuck to a very consistent lineup for most of the season, leaving those on the outside restricted to spot duty – given the lack of schedule congestion there is little reason to expect any different on Wednesday.
One caveat though is Fabian Espindola, who has missed the last six weeks with a knee injury – he has returned to full training and had his status upgraded to questionable, so do not be overly surprised if he sees a few minutes from the bench.
Prior to the last meeting the threats posed by Rolfe, DeLeon, and Luis Silva were of primary concern – they are still very troublesome – but worthy of note is how Eddie Johnson has sprung to life in July, trebling his goal tally (from one to three) and showing the kind of impactful holdup play that makes him such a threat to defenses.
His two goals may have indeed been penalty kicks – confidence cares not from whence they come – but his set up of Kitchen’s goal against Chivas was a thing of beauty, knocking down a long Rolfe free-kick at the top of the area for the midfielder to smash into the net:
Toronto, without their recognized centre-back pairing of Steven Caldwell (injured) and Doneil Henry (yellow-card accumulation), will have their hands full with such a troublesome centre-forward.
Bradley Orr and Nick Hagglund will have to stay sharp getting a grip on Johnson, while TFC’s defensive midfielders will have to pick up the slack of tracking runners into the box in his wake.
One of those runners will be Silva, who has continued his fine form – with all five of his goals and a single assist in the last five matches.
Against San Jose it was a devastating run to the near-post, getting on the end of a Rolfe ball that proved the winner:
And against Chivas it was his ability to break through the back-line and finish that sealed the result:
Toronto’s advantages will be that Defoe will be itching to score, having been forced to sit out the match for a silly booking in Houston, and he owes Hamid one or two, the DC keeper having denied him too many times for comfort in the season series so far.
Added to that, the entire club will likely feel hard done by over events against Kansas City and will look to make amends with a solid result before heading into Montreal for a local derby.
Though not crucial to Wondolowski’s goal, take note of how much space is left in the wide areas on the counterattack:
With both wide midfielders cutting in to attack and full-backs who like to get forward, DC can be caught very narrow, leaving plenty of acreage in the wide channels – exactly the area that Jackson and Oduro proved so devastating in exploiting against KC. Korb in particular is the weak point.
This is the third and final meeting between the two this regular season, TFC won the first at home 1-0 back in March, but DC took the second 1-2 in Toronto.
The teams have now met twenty times in MLS play – TFC winning six, DC eleven, and three drawn. Nine of those matches have been played at RFK Stadium in DC, where TFC have won twice, DC four, and all three draws have occurred.
Toronto is unbeaten in their last two visits to DC, having drawn 1-1 last August – Dwayne De Rosario putting DC only for Bobby Convey to draw TFC level - after winning 1-2 in June – Robert Earnshaw and a DC own-goal, off the head of Daniel Woolard, enough to overturn De Rosario’s opener; DC won the previous meeting in 2012, 3-1.
Off the pitch, DC are good people.