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Know Your Enemy: DC United – Meeting the Second

A single installment of the Know Your Enemy series, previewing TFC's upcoming opponent, DC United

Espindola will be eager to avenge this feeling from the last encounter
Espindola will be eager to avenge this feeling from the last encounter
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

For all the disappointment that was the weekend loss to New York City, Wednesday night's victory over Montreal was the complete opposite.

Not only was it a lot of fun, but the free-flowing attack, the designated players clicking, and the resounding win showed that this team, despite the occasional slip up, is something other than what has been experienced at BMO Field these past eight-plus years.

There have been sporadic moments of joy over the duration of the club's history: the end of season pitch invasion in year one, the Voyageurs Cup triumphs, the Champions League runs; but they were never enough to last.

Something feels different this time - not just the sheer entertainment value of watching Sebastian Giovinco, though that is a factor - this team can compete, even without a few starters.

That said, now is not yet the time to celebrate. A long season lies ahead and even that most enjoyable of victories over a close rival can only be savoured for a brief period; the weekend brings with it another, more formidable, challenge.

DC United are currently the class of the league, sitting atop the Eastern Conference on 34 points from nineteen matches, with a full ten point advantage over New England in the East and six over Seattle and Vancouver in the Supporters Shield chase, though they have played a few more matches than all their closest rivals.

Toronto should be familiar with DC, the two met earlier this month, much of what was written then – Parts One and Two, are still relevant, but an updated look at this weekend's opponent, DC United, is in order.

Recent Form

DC enters Saturday's match in decent form, having won their last two matches in the league and adding a third with a win over Pittsburgh in the US Open Cup.

They entered that June 6 meeting in similar form, winners of their last two in the league and riding a long home unbeaten-run, one ended by Toronto's 1-2 win – DC had been unbeaten at RFK Stadium for sixteen matches dating back to 2014, a run of twenty through all competitions.

That loss kicked off a mini-slump, as DC would go on to lose their next game as well, falling 1-0 in Orlando on the strength of a Kaka penalty kick in the 30th minute. The penalty was called after Taylor Kemp bundled into Pedro Ribeiro out wide near the end-line and the big forward took a tumble, allowing the referee to point to the spot.

Bill Hamid would save the initial attempt, but left a juicy rebound in the middle for the Brazilian, who nodded a follow up chance into the yawning cage.

On just three days rest, DC would respond in the Open Cup. Facundo Coria opened the scoring after eight minutes, but the Riverhounds equalized in the 23rd from a penalty courtesy of Rob Vincent. The match would stretch into extra time, where DC's supremacy came to light. Kofi Opare scored the winner in the 92nd minute and Nick DeLeon added another for good measure in the 104th minute of play, advancing DC to the next round of cup action.

Back in the league come Sunday, DC would whisk away the challenge of second-placed New England with a come-from-behind 2-1 win over the Revolution at RFK.

Charlie Davies gave the visitors the lead in the tenth minute, turning a Lee Nguyen ball from the right in off the base of the left-post when DC was caught by a quick attacking move.

Chris Rolfe responded an hour later with a volley from the back-post after Fabian Espindola worked his way down the right-side of the box before hanging a cross up for Rolfe. And it was Rolfe who grabbed the winner from the penalty spot after Miguel Aguilar was upended on the corner of the area by the outstretched leg of Steve Neumann in the 81st minute.

Most recently, this past Wednesday, DC made it a second-straight league win with a midweek 0-1 result in Chicago. The games' only goal came in the 73rd minute from Conor Doyle, and what a crack it was, smashing a rising drive high into the Fire net when a scramble in the box fell to him.

Worth noting: The win in Chicago was DC's first away win in five matches – losses in Philadelphia, Portland, and Orlando, as well as a draw in New England preceding.

Last Meeting

June 6        DC United 1 – Toronto FC 2

A pair of glorious individual goals from Sebastian Giovinco were enough to overturn a sixth minute goal from Steven Birnbaum, who got on the end of a right-sided Espindola corner kick, touching into the net from the doorstep after darting in front of Damien Perquis to get the required right-footed touch on the delivery.

Giovinco stole one back in the 34th minute after Luke Moore found him with a wonderful stabbed ball down the left. Giovinco twisted up Sean Franklin before beating him to the outside and placing a left-footer high across a helpless Andrew Dykstra in goal.

Opare looked to have reinstated DC's lead following a flap from Toronto keeper, Chris Konopka, only for the offside flag to spare any such blushes.

And Giovinco would seal the impressive road result in the 83rd minute when a Benoit Cheyrou pass was dummied by Jozy Altidore, falling into the path of the Italian tempest, who beat Dysktra with a dipping right-footer from distance.

No doubt DC will be looking to exact a little revenge given Toronto ended that cherished streak of solid home form.

Projected Lineup

Ben Olsen has a few injury concerns heading into Saturday's clash. Eddie Johnson's situation is still a big question mark, while Michael Farfan, Collin Martin, Sean Franklin, and Chris Pontius are all listed as 'Out'.

An extra complication that must be considered in that DC is playing the fifth of seven matches in a three-week period – a span of twenty days. They travel to Philadelphia next Wednesday for a US Open Cup match and face a cross-continent flight to Seattle for a fixture next weekend before a well-deserved break.

Much of that noise can be discounted by considering that the match in Toronto is the only one with Eastern table ramifications, so expect a strong eleven. Olsen did manage to rest the majority of his first-choice eleven in Chicago on Wednesday, making seven changes from the lineup that faced off against New England days earlier.

Given that insight, their projected lineup is as follows: Bill Hamid in goal; from right to left – Chris Korb, Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum, and Taylor Kemp along the back-line; Nick DeLeon, Perry Kitchen, Davy Arnaud, and Chris Rolfe through the midfield; Jairo Arrieta and Fabian Espindola will pair atop the formations

football formations

There are a few possible alterations to that projection.

Opare could easily step into Birnbaum's central position, as he did in Chicago; the two have more or less rotated since Birnbaum returned from injury. If so, Birnbaum is an option to slot in at right-back in place of Korb. Such a change would provide a more defensive-minded outlook on that side – the one that Giovinco will be looking to exploit. Houston found a fair amount of success in shutting down the Italian when Raul Rodriguez, a centre-back, was moved into that full-backs' role back in May.

Or, if Franklin is fit enough – and recovered from the undressing he suffered at the hands of Giovinco last time – he could slot back in.

In midfield, Doyle, who scored that thunderous game-winner against Chicago, could feature on the left-side of midfield, as he has in the last two matches, in which case Rolfe would likely move into a striker's position at the expense of Arrieta – Rolfe is in such good form it would be hard to leave him out – he leads the team with six goals, one more than Arrieta, who has not tallied in three starts. Olsen does like to have the tenacity and running of Arrieta up top; it helps stretch the play.

Luis Silva has been slowly coming back to fitness after a nagging hamstring issue and could take up a central role against his former club. DC will be playing on the road, so perhaps having Silva play as an attacking midfielder/withdrawn striker would clog up the middle of the pitch a little more, while not completely sacrificing offensive dimensions.

Espindola will definitely be playing, but who he partners with is where Olsen can throw a change up Toronto's way.

Additional Notes

The two teams have met 22 times previously in league play. DC has won twelve, Toronto seven, and three have ended in draws.

Eleven of those matches have been played in Toronto, where United have won seven and Toronto four – they have split the last four encounters at BMO Field, each winning two. DC won the last one, 1-2 last July, but TFC won the two before that – 1-0 in March of 2014 and 4-1 in September of 2013.

Interestingly, fifteen of DC's 23 goals-for have come in the second half of play, so Toronto will need to be wary of a post-half-time surge.

Espindola is very much the centre-piece to the DC attack. Toronto must watch him carefully. He nearly struck early in the last meeting, guiding a hopeful chip from the corner of the area off the crossbar, before setting up Birnbaum's opening goal.

When not threatening himself, he is capable of playing the set-up man, as he did against New England, working down the right-side of the area before hanging a ball up to the back-post from Rolfe to strike on the volley:

And if Toronto focuses too much on Espindola, the likes of Rolfe, Doyle, Arrieta, and Nick DeLeon can pop up and cause problems.

Another DC asset that will cause Toronto some trouble is DC's ability from set-pieces. Birnbaum's goal in the last meeting came from a corner kick, while Bobby Boswell nearly put United in the lead against Chicago, rising up to meet a free-kick, only for a last-ditch save from Sean Johnson to deny the opener:

Toronto has looked stronger at the back with the insertion of Eriq Zavaleta, but DC has plenty of targets, so set-pieces will be a concern on Saturday. Limiting those chances will be key.

Having been burned by star players in recent weeks – Giovinco's two-spot was followed by a Kaka winner – DC were guilty of being overly cautious in how they approached New England striker Charlie Davies.

By focusing too intently on keeping a lid on Davies, they allowed Lee Nguyen to find space – note how easily he escapes the attention of Kitchen in the middle – and once the emergency alarms starting blasting, Davies was able to slip away, getting the required touch to give the Revolution the lead:

Both centre-backs are so narrow, in order to stay close to Davies, that they allow all that space out wide for Nguyen to attack.

Memories of the thrashing they took at the hands of Giovinco will still be ripe, so he will loom larger-than-life in their mind's eye; Toronto's other attackers should be able to find the space to cause DC problems. The trick will be to take advantage of those chances.

Altidore's strike on a long Michael Bradley ball was a thing of beauty and with Giovinco occupying at least one defender, those two could link up again, while Bradley himself, Cheyrou, and Osorio should look to escape the midfield attentions of Kitchen and Davy Arnaud to arrive late for a pull-back once Giovinco and Altidore have put the defenders on the back-foot.

Olsen will likely ask his defenders to be conservative in light of the attacking talent Toronto possesses and away from home, but should they be caught committed forward, there will be plenty of space for Giovinco to exploit.

Against Chicago in particular, DC was very lucky to escape damage as the back-line repeatedly fell asleep. Mike Magee coasted behind the back-line to receive a long ball on one play and a quick Harry Shipp free-kick nearly found a pair of attackers getting into position on the back-side.

But the best chance fell to Kennedy Igboananike in the first half following a midfield turnover, allowing him to burst down the left-channel towards the DC goal – were it not for a blazing recovery from Opare, he would likely have scored; or at least, threatened.

Playing quickly – from set-pieces or restarts, forcing turnovers, and general business can catch DC napping and unprepared. Toronto should not be afraid to go route one if necessary, sometimes the long pass is the most dangerous one – and that Altidore goal was hopefully the first of many such to come; more of that please.

Should be an entertaining match. And another win over DC would be yet another statement from a Toronto side looking to be considered a contender for the East and beyond.