MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC 1-2 D.C. United

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[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhY2LESeztg]

One game, 100 words (or less):  Toronto is typically thought of as a defense-first team, but in the second half on Saturday at BMO Field, the defense was the first to let the Reds down. Thanks to three key Toronto errors over the game’s final 36 minutes (see below), D.C. United was able to snap TFC’s six-match unbeaten run, taking three points in Michael Bradley’s return with a 2-1 win in Ontario.

Three moments that mattered:

1. 54′ – Too easy for Nick DeLeon – Toronto’s defense breaks down after Luis Silva and DeLeon force a turnover high on D.C.’s right flank, sending DeLeon in on the Reds’ defense. Cutting around two sprawling TFC defenders, DeLeon punches a left-footed shot past Joe Bendik, turing one moment of uncertainty between Justin Morrow and Nick Hagglund into the match’s first goal.

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Perry Kitchen’s second half header helped vault D.C. United back to the top of the Eastern Conference. (Photo: Getty Images)

2. 69′ – Caldwell misjudges the corner – TFC responded quickly, with Jermain Defoe setting up Jackson for a shot that turned into Luke Moore’s equalizing goal, but another defensive error provided the match’s decisive moment. On a Silva corner from the right, Steven Caldwell misjudged the flight of the ball, jumping under the cross to the benefit of Perry Kitchen. The D.C. midfielder headed home his second goal of the year to make it 2-1.

3. 88′ – Nick Hagglund’s sent off – Toronto had occasionally threatened for an equalizer over the previous 19 minutes and would do so again through Daniel Lovitz in stoppage time. By then, the team was dealing with a man disadvantage thanks to another Hagglund error. Capping off his most-trying night as a pro, the rookie let Eddie Johnson get behind him in the closing moments, allowing the D.C. forward to have a clear path toward goal. Instead of get into a footrace, Hagglund pulled at “E.J.” from behind, denying him an obvious goal scoring opportunity. Though David Gantar initially showed yellow, a consultation with assistant Gianni Facchini produced a change of heart. Hagglund was sent off.

Three lessons going forward:

1. The Michael Bradley paradox – Toronto went 3-0-3 in six games without their star midfielder/ The first game he returns, they lose at home. Something must be up, right? Of course, there is, but what you conclude will depend on how you look at today’s game.

Despite losing, Toronto out-shot D.C. 19-7 and put six shots on target to United’s two. That’s right – D.C.’s only two attempts on goal came off the errors that produced their goals.

If that’s a Michael Bradley issue, the causation’s escaping me. Maybe the teams’ intensity diminishes when its midfield general returns. If so, why is Toronto tuning out with Bradley on the field but seems to hold no such awe of Jermain Defoe?

This just looks like one of those days that happens occasionally in a 34-game season.

2. It’s D.C.’s formula, though – For United, however, these types of games seem to be happening too often. Despite returning to the top of the Eastern Conference, D.C.’s only averaging 11.6 shots per game, 16th in the league. They’re conceding only slightly more (12.2), but that’s not a disparity you’d associate with a first place team. Usually better teams create more shots, allow fewer.

Usually. There are cases where teams actually (if only implicitly) play to those numbers. Most teams want to win the chances battle, but some don’t care as much. They’re willing to create more chances as long as theirs are better quality-wise, de-prioritizing the chance-battle relative to other teams.

That’s D.C. United. They don’t take too many risks. They wait for you to make mistakes, and while that occasionally leaves them playing on the back foot, it also allows them to limit the danger of the shots they give up.

At the same time, they remain ready to take advantage of their opponents errors. When a team’s defenders play around with the ball, allow D.C. to create a turnover and give the Black and Red a second half lead, their tactics leave them better equipped to see out a result.

In that way, the team’s become a type of smash-and-grab expert. How long it will last remains to be seen, but we’re far beyond expecting an outright collapse for D.C. United.

3. Is Steve Birnbaum playing his way into the job? – Jeff Parke hasn’t been great this season. Neither has Bobby Boswell for that matter. Both players have been fine, but neither are so good that they should take time away from a highly regarded rookie who’s proven he can keep up.

The question is whether Steve Birnbaum has done that. Filling in for Parke, the 2014 SuperDraft’s number two pick has four good starts over the last month. D.C.’s only giving up one goal-per-game while claiming seven points. Along the way, Birnbaum’s been solid.

At what point does Ben Olsen give the kid the spot? Probably when he’s convinced he’s better than Parke, and given the D.C. boss sees the players in practice, he knows a lot more about each one. Maybe Parke is just better right now. Or, maybe the team’s going to sign Oguchi Onyewu. Who knows?

At some point, though, Birnbaum may provide enough proof that he’s ready to start. Four games isn’t enough, but is five? Six? Regardless, the rookie starting to make his claim.

Where this leaves them:

  • Toronto remains in fourth in the East, seven points behind D.C., though they maintain three games in hand.
  • With the victory, D.C. United’s back on top of the conference, their 28 points leaving them three points clear of Sporting Kansas City.

Arsenal sends Gabriel Paulista to Valencia

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Arsenal has a thin defense, but that hasn’t stopped Arsene Wenger from thinning the squad even further.

Gabriel Paulista is headed back to the Spanish top flight after the completion of his transfer to Valencia. The Brazilian was sold for a reported $12.8 million, just below the $14 million price tag Arsenal coughed up to Villareal back in January, 2015. He will partner with Manchester City loanee Eliaquim Mangala at Valencia.

The 26-year-old made 64 appearances for the Gunners across all competitions, including 46 in the Premier League. His only goal for the club was Arsenal’s first of a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in December, 2015. His high-water mark with the club was a 120-minute performance against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals where Arsenal came back to win 2-1 on an Alexis Sanchez goal in extra time.

“We would like to thank Gabriel for his contribution to the club and to wish him well for his return to La Liga with Valencia,” Arsenal said in its confirmation of the deal.

Paulista was utilized more than expected last season thanks to an injury crisis at the back, and still the Arsenal squad doesn’t seem fat enough to offload defenders, but Gabriel’s over-aggressive nature and tackling inaccuracy led him to an early exit.

With Arsene Wenger now deploying a back-three, the only natural central defenders currently on the roster are Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi, and Rob Holding. Koscielny is suspended from a red card at the end of last season, and Mertesacker is battling a head injury. Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, and Calum Chambers have played CB for the Gunners in the recent past, but it is not their natural position.

Fabian Johnson misses Gladbach training with injury

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With John Brooks already out long-term due to a thigh injury, the United States may have another key injury to work around.

According to Borussia Monchengladbach manager Dieter Hecking, full-back/winger Fabian Johnson missed training on Friday due to an unspecified injury, and is now a question mark for Gladbach’s home match on Sunday against FC Koln. It could be nothing, but even the scare is cause for concern among U.S. fans.

Johnson has battled a few injuries the past couple of seasons, including a hamstring problem last spring that kept him out for nearly two months, including a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Johnson’s absence would leave a hole at right-back for the United States. The 29-year-old has been deployed some at right wing for the USMNT, but he has been relatively poor at that position in the national setup, looking better when pushed further back where he is given more defensive duties, roaming forward with less frequency but more intent.

In place of Johnson, another converted winger in Graham Zusi has been seeing more time at right-back, but he offers less in the attack and lacks Johnson’s recovery speed, meaning mistakes by the Sporting KC veteran are punished more often.

Falcao scores again to extend red hot start

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Monaco is hoping to ride out the final two weeks of the transfer window with 18-year-old wonderkid Kylian Mbappe still in tow.

While they wait, they aren’t missing a beat.

With Mbappe out of the squad, Radamel Falcao has begun the 2017/18 Ligue 1 season as Europe’s hottest goalscorer. He bagged a hat-trick last weekend with Mbappe on the bench to give him four goals in the first two league matches. Then, with Mbappe out of the squad entirely, Falcao netted the winner in a 1-0 road win over FC Metz.

Falcao has scored five goals so far this year, and his club has a +5 goal differential. In a way, Falcao has already been worth six points thus far.

Thanks in part to Ligue 1’s early start, Falcao’s five league goals are by far more than anyone else in the major European leagues. Four players have scored a pair of Premier League goals, nobody in La Liga or the Bundesliga have scored more than one, and the Serie A season has yet to start.

The Colombian did the same thing last season. After eventually coming off the shelf from to hamstring and concussion problems to start the season, Falcao scored 10 goals in 10 Ligue 1 matches leading up to the new calendar year.

At 31 years old, Falcao isn’t a long-term solution and the club will clearly look to retain Mbappe despite Falcao’s hot start, but should they lose the young Frenchman, the club will be in good hands while they search for a replacement over the next year.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

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The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

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But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.