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Know Your Enemy: DC United – Meeting the First – Part Two, Game Film Review and Points of Interest

The second half of the preview of TFC's upcoming opponent, DC United, prior to Saturday's match, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses

Fabian Espindola & Chris Rolfe, two of the many threats DC possess, celebrate a goal in unison
Fabian Espindola & Chris Rolfe, two of the many threats DC possess, celebrate a goal in unison
Paul Frederiksen-USA TODAY Sports

Part One, considering their lineup and form, was posted yesterday

The Tactics

DC United will pose a variety of problems to Toronto FC on Saturday. Rather than one or a few specific types of threats, the sheer mix of ways that DC can do damage is the crux of the task at hand.

Starting up top, DC has a plethora of tenacious, explosive forward runners. Regardless of who takes to the field, Toronto will have to be very careful with possession, minimizing the chance of turnovers in dangerous positions. Fabian Espindola, Chris Rolfe, Jairo Arrieta, and Conor Doyle will all run their socks off, both in attack and in closing down the ball-carrier. Add in Chris Pontius, Nick DeLeon, and Luis Silva, and DC commits an overwhelming number of runners towards goal. Opponents can block up one or two channels to goal, but DC will find a way.

The way they interact, surging in combination, forces the opponent onto the back-foot. Just look at the way they cascade towards goal, shaping the Vancouver defenses to their will, eventually leading to Chris Rolfe's game-winner at the end of April:

Rolfe surges through the midfield, by-passing Russell Teibert, who is no slouch in the speed department, playing up to Pontius. He is stopped, but Rolfe continues his run to blast a finish past David Ousted. Note how helpless Kendall Waston is, a virtual pylon, toyed with by DC.

That connectivity makes counter-attacks devastating – Espindola's goal against Columbus came straight from a Crew corner kick; DC, through the likes of Rolfe, Espindola, and Pontius, have a tendency to shade their attacks towards the left, meaning the right-side of Toronto's defenses, a concern, will heavily tested.

A corollary of that concern is the use of width that DC will attempt, opening up channels for those willing runners to expose. And DC's runners can shade to either side: Arrieta made a near-post run for his goal against New England, while Rolfe drifted off the back-should of the Orlando defenses in order to nab another winner from an Arrieta cross:

Man-marking, tracking those runs, and maintaining position to defend against them will be crucial from Toronto's centre-backs; that all starts with awareness. Damien Perquis and Eriq Zavaleta have looked a strong partnership in recent matches, but they will have their hands full in DC.

And it is not just the defenders that need to be alert. DC will also make use of early crosses from those wide positions. Fortunately, left-back Taylor Kemp, perhaps their best crosser of the ball, appears to be out. His ball for Pontius against Philadelphia was a thing of beauty; the looping header wasn't too shabby either:

Philadelphia were doing a good job of clogging up the middle of the pitch, so DC instead used the provided width to devastating effect. Looking closely, there were two Union flaws that TFC should learn from on that play: first, there was not enough pressure on the ball, allowing Kemp to pick out the service; second, even with three defenders in the area, Philadelphia were still outnumbered on the back-end, with four DC attackers committing to the area.

For Toronto to withstand those threats, the outside midfielders will have a job to do, tracking those wide runs and closing down crossing opportunities, while the central players will have to track those runners. Without the services of Michael Bradley, that duty will fall on the shoulders of Benoit Cheyrou, who will have to be even more tuned in, while the rest of the side will be forced to think defensively first, especially with the match played in DC.

One final run-of-play threat of which TFC must be wary is DC's ability to play the long game. Espindola's goal on the counter above was an example of such; Arrieta's against Kansas City is another:

That turnover on the right exposed Sporting and DC immediately had two players surging on the opposite side of the field to convert a simple cross into a goal. Bobby Boswell is particularly good at picking long passes out of the back – he did so on several occasions for Houston against Toronto.

Defending against that is a matter of awareness and minimization – know where the DC attackers are at all times and limit the chances for such passes to slice open the field.

Aside from all that run-of-play concern, DC will also threaten on set-pieces.

They can go direct at goal – both Silva and Rolfe have scored on free-kicks, while Espindola and Pontius are also candidates to have a crack at goal – or put quality service into dangerous places for some of their taller players to get on the end. Boswell, Kofi Opare, and Steve Birnbaum, even the likes of Davy Arnaud or Perry Kitchen are options. Sean Franklin is not the one one would expect to score from corners, but thanks to Opare's presence in the middle, he was able to do so, at the back-post, against Columbus:

For Toronto to escape untouched from such provocations, they must both limit the number of chances they concede – they have particularly allowed far too many corners recently – and mark up well. Chris Konopka will need to dominate his area on Saturday; thankfully Zavaleta has really brought a strong aerial and positional presence to the back-line since working his way into the side.


Having allowed just thirteen goals in fifteen matches, DC will pose a stern test to Toronto's attackers as well. Only one team has scored more than one goal in a match against DC this season: the New York Red Bulls, and they did it twice.

That said, there are several weaknesses that Toronto should look to exploit.

DC is vulnerable to attacks from wide positions. Consider Sebastian Le Toux's goal for Philadelphia in their recent meeting. Andrew Wenger pounces on a moment of hesitation from Birnbaum, nipping the ball off his foot just inside the box, continuing his movement to the right, Kemp, the left-back, is forced to over-commit in-field to confront him, opening up the wide lane for Le Toux. Wenger finds him and Le Toux beats Hamid with a right-footer:

The key points to consider on that play are defensive spacing and threat awareness. That a player like Le Toux was allowed so much free space inside the box without coming under pressure is something that will drive Ben Olsen mad, while the origin of the trouble was Birnbaum and Boswell both drifting to the left with the initial play, opening up that right side and forcing Kemp into an undefendable position.

Those same concerns were on display again later in that match when Wenger was allowed space out wide off the right-back to work in on goal, his effort would rattle the crossbar.  One can imagine Sebastian Giovinco pulling off such a similar move, should a cheating full-back inch in one step too far.

When a defense gets too narrow, they allow crafty players the angle to threaten. Toronto would do well to look to exploit those areas.

Compounding that frailty is the fact that DC is a little slow in terms of reacting to horizontal movement in the area. David Accam's goal for Chicago on Wednesday is a great example:

The Fire work the ball outside, catching Franklin slow to get out and pressure, while Boswell is caught in no-man's land. Opare does his best to track the near-post move by Accam, but just cannot keep up with the speedy Ghanaian. Toronto has the pace to cause similar such danger; they had several such plays against San Jose last weekend.

Similarly, when confronted with a target striker, such as they were against Philadelphia's Conor Casey, DC can be forced very deep, leaving plenty of space at the top of the area. Zac Pfeffer's late game-winner for the Union came from such a play:

That sort of horizontal square ball, or pull-back to the top of the box, is the something Toronto could excel at. Bradley is not available, but Cheyrou, Osorio, and perhaps even Warren Creavalle, who scored from that area on the weekend, are candidates to take advantage of those passages of play.

Another thing Toronto could take advantage of a certain lack of coordination amongst the DC defenders. Despite how sturdy they have performed, there have been shocking breakdowns leading to goals. Both Boswell and Birnbaum were guilty of assuming the other would make the first move to close down Bradley Wright-Phillips, allowing the defending Golden Boot-holder to bring down a long ball and strike:

Kansas City's Dom Dwyer was permitted to drift off the defenders to find space for his goal, while Max Urruti was able to ghost around the outside, attacking the back-post completely unmarked for his.

Those types of breakdowns are the situations that a player of Giovinco's quality will relish.

One final point, DC has shown themselves to be a touch slow to react in the box. At least two goals – from Charlies Davies and Ricardo Clark – came from rebounds where the attackers acted more quickly after the initial chance had been saved.

Toronto should be alert to any rebounds, following shots into the area, and putting themselves into those positions to take advantage of those hesitations.

Points of Interest

Last Meeting:        July 30, 2014        DC United 3: Toronto FC 0

In the third of three meetings last season, DC United strolled to a 3-0 victory over TFC at RFK Stadium. Eddie Johnson scored the first after just eight minutes, getting on the end of a Perry Kitchen cross. Chris Rolfe would add a second in the 59th minute, blasting a shot past Joe Bendik after the referee played advantage – Warren Creavalle had taken down Nick DeLeon for a definite penalty - and an own-goal off of Nick Hagglund, whose headed clearance found the back of the net, rounded out the result.

The two teams have met 21 times in MLS play: DC winning twelve to Toronto's six, three matches ending in draws. DC is riding a two-game winning streak.

Ten of those matches have been played in DC at RFK Stadium, where DC has won five, Toronto two, and all three draws have occurred. DC are unbeaten at home in the last two encounters; TFC won 1-2 in June of 2013 when Robert Earnshaw responded to a Dwayne De Rosario penalty kick and a Luis Silva free-kick was deflected into his own net by Daniel Woolard. That sentence could be confusing given two of those players have played for both clubs.

This is the first of two meetings this season; they will meet again later this month in Toronto on June 27.