There was a moment – just the one, mind you – where I thought this one might go south. And it was this: a clear handball on the line to deny United a goal. Should have been a penalty. Should have been a red card. Given just how fragile TFC must be after their terrible start to 2012, that would have been a death warrant for them. But the whistlemen had the blinders on, and I prepared for the worst.
What I hadn’t reckoned on was just how bad TFC is and how confident and committed Olsen’s crew are. Granted, United were easily the better side in the first half despite playing with some key absentees and a re-jiggered lineup. But early in the second stanza, Toronto were asking all the questions until that fateful moment. I hate to keep harping on about it because it’s getting quite stale, but those were the kind of moments that have turned games sour for United the past few of years.
Not this year.
Veteran at the back. Russell and Dudar were the guys brought in to stabilize what had been a leaky back line. While Russell’s been hit or miss in that department, Dudar, after a few early stumbles, has been immense. Yet neither were on the field in this match, and it fell to an unlikely source to step into the gap. Enter Daniel Woolard. Christ but I’ve been hard on the guy, but I’m going to bury that hatchet. I still can’t bring myself to say that he’s any good, but he puts in an honest shift and gets the job done. Sure, part of the reason he looked comfortable in the center was that TFC played with just one front runner and Kitchen was hoovering up the midfield scraps much more effectively than Saragosa. But he also had a number of key interventions in the air and on the ground and never looked as out of place as both Kitchen and Russell did when forced into emergency duty in the center of defense. What he lacks in technical ability, he makes up for with tactical nous.
Fullback options. Of course, Woolard has been the only consistent fullback United has fielded this year, so with him pulled into the middle and Russell on the bench, that meant two new faces on the flanks. While Korb turned in his usual outing of middling defense and piss-poor passing, Najar was really interesting on the right. He did have some shaky moments positionally, but his quickness got him out of those jams and he’s a terror going forward with the ball at his feet (and put a few good balls through for the forwards from deep positions). Granted, he’s probably a better option at the back in games where United are going to dominate possession or are chasing the game, but at least we’ve got a viable fourth option at fullback. Of course, if you saw any of that abomination on Wednesday, you already saw his usefulness bursting from deep…
Open the floodgates! But Najar-at-right-back wasn’t the only useful thing to come out of the loss in midweek. Somewhat lost in the shuffle was Salihi finally getting off the mark. The “what if?” game is for suckers, but it says here on my scorecard that putting one in the net is just the sort of thing that gives you the confidence to take volleys from outrageous angles and stick them just inside the post. Tremendous finish to seal the three points – just what it said on the tin when United acquired him. And Salihi heating up couldn’t have come at a better time with Santos starting to labor…
Sit Santos? He started the season on fire, but he looked beat here. His first touch was abyssmal. He wasn’t winning balls in the air. His assortment of dummies and flicks just weren’t coming off and had me growling at the tube more than once (so I assume Olsen was making similar noises). True, Santos was still getting back after the ball defensively and did put one decent effort on frame, but he may need a rest. Given that United really don’t have any other reasonable target-man options, they’ll need to resort less to the direct ball if he does sit.
Bye, bye Boskovic. Speaking of less direct options. Branko’s bag of subtle touches in tight spaces and languid playing style are at jarring contrast with the way the rest of the team wants to play. They’re racing about at 100 mph while he’s turning pirouettes in slow motion. He’s a lumbering post-up guy on a team built for the fast break. Can’t see him sticking through the summer, but that opens some big possibilities (and a big chunk of the salary cap) come transfer window time. Hmmm…
Neal looks tidy on the ball but largely anonymous. Doesn’t cause the sorts of problems you’d like a wide midfielder to cause.
Cruz eats up the ground, so he’s hugely useful from a defensive point of view, but he’s a black hole with the ball at his feet.
Hamid was solid. Not sure Willis did huge amounts wrong during his starting run, but Hamid deserves to keep starting both on current form and potential for development.
I’m going to have to do a separate post on where to field Pontius. I’ve said it before, but the comparisons to Dempsey are intriguing.
TFC just might erase any records for futility that Onalfo’s United inked in the Big Book of MLS Failures. They’re terrible, so a road victory and clean sheet against them should probably be taken with a generous dose of salt. That said, you have to win the games set before you, and United were playing with a new-look lineup after Olsen rode his winning team to exhaustion. A road win and a shut-out with a makeshift back line speaks to the quality of the squad, even with the current freakish rash of injuries knocking out spots 2–4 on the center back depth chart.