If someone would have wagered at the close of last season that within eights months a meeting between Toronto FC and DC United would feature two of the top sides in MLS they would have been laughed away in disgrace, their money refused on principle.
But MLS is a strange mistress.
Less than a year removed from dismal campaigns, those same Toronto and DC sides will meet on Saturday in a clash that will feature two of the top four sides in the East, jockeying for starting position with the playoff race about to commence.
Four months remain in the schedule with most sides yet to reach the halfway mark; still these points are crucial, both to the standings and morale.
Toronto enters the home match, their first in exactly a month, in good form, riding a tidy little six-match unbeaten run. DC on the other hand, limp in, missing the dynamic superstar that has proved the catalyst to their successful turnaround.
The two have already met once this season, with Toronto taking that March meeting 1-0 at home. Back then DC was an unknown proposition - as was TFC, it was only the second match of 2014 for both sides, but now, with sixteen matches under their belt, more can be gleaned about what to expect when the two take the pitch.
A closer look at DC United is in order.
Since that March meeting DC United has surged onward and upward, entering the World Cup break in top spot in the East on 25 points from fifteen matches.
The loss to TFC was their second consecutive – not a great start, but they would follow that up with a five-match unbeaten run, included within were wins at home against New England (2-0), New York (1-0), and Dallas (4-1), as well as draws home to Chicago (2-2) and away to Columbus (1-1).
They would lose a heartbreaker 3-2 in Portland at the start of May to a 94th-minute Max Urruti winner. Gaston Fernandez scored inside the first minute only for Davy Arnaud to level in the 21st. Portland would retake the lead before half-time through Futty Danso, only for the centre-back to register in his own net in the 78th to set up the pulsating finish.
DC responded to that disappointment with another unbeaten streak, 3 matches this time, winning 0-1 in Philadelphia – courtesy a Chris Rolfe strike in the sixth minute, drawing 1-1 at home against Montreal – with Jack McInerney and Eddie Johnson trading second half goal, before winning their next home match 2-0 against Houston – Rolfe again, set up by Fabian Espindola in the 28th, before returning the favour in the 63rd.
On short rest they fell by the odd-goal in three away to New England – Patrick Mullins and Diego Fagundez scoring either side of an Espindola strike - before closing out the month with a 1-0 win at home against Kansas City – again from Espindola - in a battle for possession of first in the East.
A rather soulless, scoreless draw against Columbus at Fed Ex Field (home of the local NFL side; a doubleheader with Spain taking on El Salvador in a friendly) was nearly won in the last minute, but Espindola’s Paneneka was predicted and saved by Crew keeper Steve Clark – it was all a little embarrassing.
They had one final match before breaking for the World Cup, away to Montreal, the day before the festivities kicked off in Brazil. Provided the chance to enter the pause as midterm champions, Luis Silva stepped up, notching a hat-trick as they beat the Impact 2-4 – Nick DeLeon also scored, while McInerney and Andres Romero registered for the Impact.
It was a result at a cost: Espindola sprained his MCL in an early (and rash) challenge on Felipe, which will see him miss four to six weeks of play – he was also suspended as a result of another incident involving the Brazilian after the Disciplinary Committee took action.
The lone bright spot of 2013 was their triumphant run through the US Open Cup, providing one of those bizarre occasions where a struggling side somehow puts it together for the magic of the cup.
Their defense of that trophy did not go as planned, falling at the first hurdle away to Rochester 1-0 during the World Cup hiatus.
Since the league resumed, DC has played one match, falling in a sluggish affair 0-1 to Seattle last weekend at home, as both sides struggled to cope without influential players – Chad Barrett scored the game’s lone goal.
March 22nd: Toronto 1 – DC United 0
Toronto wasted numerous chances – Bill Hamid coming up with a big foot save on Jermain Defoe on a break after Gilberto played him into space down the left; Hamid getting down quick to deny Defoe at the near-post from a Jackson cutback; Defoe then hit the post, with help from Hamid’s fingertips on another near-post move – before finally finding the breakthrough on the hour mark.
Steven Caldwell cut out a header on the centre-circle to Jonathan Osorio, who squared to Michael Bradley slightly to the right. Bradley picked out the run of Gilberto - his shot was saved by Hamid, but Bobby Boswell cleared straight to Defoe, who right-footed into the net.
It was the afternoon of the famous head-bandage sported by Bradley, who required several staples after an ugly collision with Davy Arnaud – Arnaud left the match with concussion; Bradley soldiered on.
DC would knock, but were not able to find an equalizer and Dwayne De Rosario had a glorious chance to double the lead after Bradley found Defoe in the centre-circle and the striker turned to play in De Rosario down the left, but the ball would not settle and Hamid denied his attempt.
Aside from missing Espindola, who would have been out anyways – suspended for kicking out cheekily at Felipe during a stoppage in Montreal – DC appear to be without the services of centre-back Jeff Parke, as well as Chris Pontius, who has been unavailable for most of the season with a hamstring problem – Parke’s status was upgraded from OUT to QUESTIONABLE, implying he could be available, but no need to rush with his replacement fitting in well.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Bill Hamid in goal; from right to left – Chris Korb, Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum, and Sean Franklin across the back; Perry Kitchen will sit in the middle of the park with Nick DeLeon, Lewis Neal, and Chris Rolfe across the midfield; Eddie Johnson will pair up top with Luis Silva.
Ben Olsen, DC’s head coach, has some options on his hands.
Since DC is on the road, look for Silva to drop into the midfield more often than not, cluttering the middle of the pitch. Or Olsen could move Neal back alongside Kitchen to form a two-man shield in front of the back four and have Silva based in the midfield.
If Olsen opts to be more attacking, Neal could be dropped all together, making way for Silva there and opening space for Conor Doyle up top. Doyle provides more speed and forward drive from the striking position in an effort to stretch Toronto’s defenses on the counter before linking up with trailing runners.
Jared Jeffrey is a very solid option in the middle, providing both defensive bite and a touch more offensive flair than Neal – recall that cracking goal he scored from distance last season in Toronto.
Spaniard Christian Fernandez, their usual left-back, has left the club – a mutual decision – after struggling to adjust to life in North America.
DC has two Canadians on their roster, Nana Attakora and Kyle Porter, but they have seen very little time in MLS this season. Could either of them be in line for some time during this Canadian vacation?
To meet DC without Espindola is an excellent advantage for TFC. The wily Argentine has been an absolute firecracker this season after a stifled campaign in New York last year.
With seven goals and eight assists, Espindola has factored directly in 15 of DC’s 22 goals this season, which is astonishing.
But his absence should not fool TFC into thinking they will have it easy. Eddie Johnson has yet to find his scoring boots this season, with just one to his name, but he remains a potent threat, especially in the air.
Rolfe, who joined the club midseason in a trade with Chicago, has proved a very useful addition and one tricky customer. He knows how to get open on the counter – as he did against Houston:
And how to use open space to his advantage – as he did against New England:
TFC must be very wary of him picking his spots to push up from his wide midfield position to exploit lapses in their defense.
Balancing Rolfe’s threat on one side is Nick DeLeon on the other. He may have struggled through a quiet sophomore campaign last season, but he has looked more the player that turned heads in his first year.
Just like Rolfe is apt to do on the left, DeLeon will break into spaces on the right. Against Montreal, when they focused too much on the threats of Espindola and Silva, it was DeLeon who stole in behind the back-line to re-equalize, two minutes after Montreal had gone in front:
Toronto’s outside backs will have to constantly be looking over their shoulders, making sure they know where those wide threats are as DC moves the ball forward – Montreal’s Karl Ouimette was punished for not looking over his.
DeLeon’s goal may have come from a rather extended build-up, but it still had all the traits of a quick counterattack, something that DC has excelled at this year.
Rolfe’s goal against New England was essentially a counter, but the Revolution were trailing 1-0 at the time and pressing for an equalizer, thus conceding such open space. What Toronto must really be wary of is what happened to Columbus.
Federico Higuain was punished for a poor touch, caught in possession by DeLeon, who strode up-field into the gap that the Crew’s back-line allows as they build. A simple ball to the outside found Espindola and DC took the lead on the road:
Toronto is not nearly as risky at the back as Columbus – who pressed their full-backs way up-field and spread wide up the middle – but still, TFC can be done for pace if they make a mistake.
A familiar face for Toronto fans, Luis Silva has struggled with injury for much of the season, only to announce his presence in style with a hat-trick against Montreal. His best of the match was this dipping strike from distance that handcuffed Impact keeper, Troy Perkins:
Given Silva will likely be forced off the front line into the middle, Toronto must be wary of giving him the time and space to turn up-field, lift his head and aim.
Aside from those daring counters and testing runs, DC pose a threat from set-pieces, especially in the form of Bobby Boswell. An experienced centre-back, who joined the club from Houston, he is notorious for his near-post runs, looking to flick on for a teammate arriving at the back-post. Just such a play led to a goal for Davy Arnaud against New York:
He did that exact same thing to TFC recently, finding Warren Creavalle all alone for a late tap in.
DC has a tendency to fall victim to that very same frailty – a lack of attention when marking on set-pieces.
Seattle’s winner came when nobody adequately covered Chad Barrett on a recycled corner kick:
While Chicago’s Jhon Kennedy Hurtado – who does not score very often – powered in this header direct from a corner kick:
It’s not just from the set-piece themselves that DC loses their man – Max Urruti’s late winner should not have been allowed, but DC defender’s were slow to react to the rebound:
Toronto has really not made use of their set-pieces very well this season – aside from that Gilberto blast in New York – so this may be the perfect time for one of Steven Caldwell, Nick Hagglund, or Doneil Henry, depending on who gets the start, to knock one in.
Added to that difficulty, is that DC’s back-line is not particularly fast, making them susceptible to quick attacks, as Montreal’s McInerney showed recently:
That goal is somewhat similar to the Defoe strike that won the last meeting between Toronto and DC, as a long ball placed inside the left-back forces the DC back-line to shuffle, opening up the space for mistakes, and thus the finish.
Toronto and DC have met nineteen times in MLS play – TFC have won six, DC ten, and three have ended as draws. Ten of those meeting have been played at BMO Field, where TFC have won four to DC’s six.
Toronto are unbeaten in four against DC, having won the last two and three of the last four. DC’s last win came in Toronto back in 2012, when Hamdi Salihi capitalized on a Milos Kocic error to score the game’s only goal in the 88th minute.
The two will meet for the third and final time this regular season at the end of the month, July 30th in DC.
For the extra studious, the Know Your Enemy from the first meeting is still available – Parts One and Two.