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Nothing will come easy for rarely full-strength Toronto FC

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Every team will bring their best for the Reds this year, with the target on their backs growing.

MLS: D.C. United at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

For a multitude of reasons, it’s been tough for Toronto FC to field a full-strength lineup over the past month and a half. Whether by injury, suspension, or international duty, the trio of Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley had been kept apart since May 4.

The designated players were reunited on Saturday night, each of them playing a huge part in TFC’s 2-0 win over D.C. United, and so it was quite poetic when the Reds needed all three to combine to break the deadlock and score their first goal. The quality was on display as Bradley picked off Luciano Acosta and fed the ball out to Giovinco, whose perfect pass gave Altidore plenty of space to finish.

“Seba’s the best player in the league and has been since he’s been here,” said Altidore after the game, affirming how important it is to have your best players on the field. The Reds certainly needed all of them on Saturday.

It wasn’t as easy a win as TFC might have hoped for against a basement-dwelling team. Then again, it seems nothing will be made easy for them this season. Whether it’s ludicrous scheduling or injury, there always seems to be an excuse Toronto could use – but they don’t.

This week, we saw one of the downsides to being top of the table. Despite the chasm between the two sides in the standings, D.C. held their own.

“Credit to D.C., they were very difficult to break down,” coach Greg Vanney told media after the match.

MLS: D.C. United at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

United have little to offer in attack, but they were solid defensively, especially in the first half. TFC’s passing couldn’t have been much more fluid to start the game, but Kofi Opare stuck pretty firmly to Altidore.

This is something that the Reds will have to deal with as they continue to win. The further ahead they get, the larger the target on their backs. Every team has come out hard against TFC and will continue to do so as long as the Reds are winning.

“We’re very cognizant of the fact that if we drop our guard one percent, then we can lose to anybody,” pointed out Bradley on Saturday. “The reality is for a lot of different reasons, teams play against us and we get their best.”

Regardless of the final score, D.C. delivered one of their better defensive performances at BMO Field. At half-time, the chances were just 6-5 in Toronto’s favour as a few long balls and set pieces kept Alex Bono awake.

When you’re in first place, every game can be a trap game. For a while on Saturday, we saw TFC become increasingly frustrated in front of goal, unable to link up for a final ball. They were held off for the entire first half and D.C. have now proven that it is possible to stifle Toronto at home, if the tactics are right.

Since TFC aren’t going to have anything handed to them, the flexibility of their squad is a fantastic asset. With so many games clustered together, like this upcoming stretch of six in 19 days, they’ll rarely be able to meet their pumped-up opponents with a full squad.

MLS: D.C. United at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Bradley, who’s seen a lot of different starting lineups in his 100 games in a Toronto shirt, commented that the best teams can win in many different ways, as his team has this season.

“Teams that don’t have much variety, teams that lack balance, it’s easy to go through spells where what you’re trying to do isn’t working,” he said. “Ultimately your margin becomes very small.”

A little consistency would be nice, but it’ll be a while before the Reds see anything like that. They won’t have Bradley for Friday’s game against the New England Revolution due to yellow card accumulation, and shortly after that players will start leaving for the Gold Cup. It might not be until the end of July that TFC can field a full-strength lineup again.

Vanney said that getting Giovinco and Altidore to play closer together is one of the team’s goals for this season but that’s hardly been possible, with one of the two unavailable more often than not. Thankfully the squad is deep enough to compete with any lineup, but it’s frustrating that Saturday’s strong lineup can’t be the norm.

That’s just another of the hurdles for TFC to overcome this year.