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.

Aguero left off Argentina starting XI to face Bolivia

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Sao Paolo striker Lucas Pratto will receive a fantastic opportunity on Tuesday when Argentina faces Bolivia in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT travels to Panama in CONCACAF WCQ ]

It just so happens that Pratto’s gain is a major letdown for one of the Premier League’s top strikers. The 28-year-old is tied for second this qualifying campaign for Argentina with two goals.

La Albiceleste have announced their starting lineup ahead of tomorrow’s clash in Bolivia, which features mainstays Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria and goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Meanwhile, Aguero — who started in Argentina’s 1-0 win over Chile on Thursday — is the lone change from manager Edgardo Bauza.

The Copa America runners’ up are currently depleted with a combination of injuries and suspensions. Four players will miss Tuesday’s meeting in La Paz due to suspension, including Gonzalo Higuain, Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia.

Elsewhere, Gabriel Mercado and Emmanuel Mas will each miss the match after sustaining respective hamstring and knee injuries.

Argentina currently sits third in the CONMEBOL table while Bolivia is in danger of elimination with a loss on Tuesday. La Verde have managed just seven points in the first 13 rounds of World Cup qualifying.

Three keys for USMNT against Panama

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Coming off of Friday night’s dominating effort against Honduras, the U.S. Men’s National Team looks for their second win in five nights when Bruce Arena and co. head to Panama.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT goes for second win in Hex on Tuesday ]

Strong performances from players like Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic have USMNT fans buzzing ahead of Tuesday’s clash in Panama City, but there are several questions that lie ahead for Arena as the U.S. goes for its second win in the Hexagonal.

How does Arena cope with injuries?

The only downside of the team’s 6-0 win over Panama on Friday was the aftereffects if the match. John Brooks, Sebastian Lletget, Michael Orozco and Jordan Morris are no longer with the USMNT after sustaining injuries/illnesses, leaving Arena shorthanded as the Stars and Stripes head into the Estadio Rommel Fernández.

While Clint Dempsey’s emphatic national team return will provide Arena with some assurances up front, along with the emergence of Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic, there are some questions in the midfield and defense for the U.S.

Jermaine Jones is available to return from his one-match suspension and could potentially fill the void left by Sebastian Lletget after his injury on Friday. While, Alejandro Bedoya — who replaced Lletget in the Honduras match — will also be in line for a starting spot.

Defensively is where it gets a bit tricky though, as Arena has to make up for an already-depleted backline. There was no DeAndre Yedlin or Fabian Johnson coming into this round of qualifiers, and John Brooks’ release from camp leaves the defense even thinner. Tim Ream appears to be Arena’s next choice to start at centerback with Brooks unavailable, but will he stick with Omar Gonzalez in the center or slide Geoff Cameron back into the middle?

It seems like the latter choice, especially given Cameron’s experience in the central defense, but that would mean Arena has to slot somebody else into the right back position. Graham Zusi has had slight experience in that role as of late, but it could be a bit of a gamble for Arena in another high-stakes match.

Bradley must control the middle once again

Forget Michael Bradley’s superb goal, which lifted the U.S. lead to 2-0 on Friday, it was the captain’s overall performance that is exactly what should be expected from the center midfielder.

Bradley completions/MLSSoccer

In 90 minutes of play against Los Catrachos, Bradley only missed on six passes while also making several successful tackles and recoveries to limit the Honduras attack.

The loss of Lletget is definitely a significant one for the Americans, given his lively movement going both ways. However, LA Galaxy teammate will likely be in line to replace the vibrant midfielder on Tuesday as he returns from a one-match suspension.

In regards to Bradley though, the U.S. veteran is at his best when he is able to move freely throughout the midfield, but Jones’ inclusion could present more of a burden for the Toronto FC player.

Jones is still a very capable midfielder, but he simply doesn’t have the pace to match that of a Lletget, which leaves Bradley more liable for covering ground defensively in front of the backline.

On top of that, the back four will see more changes on Tuesday after Brooks’ exit from the USMNT, making Bradley’s role all the more critical when facing players like Luis Tejada and Gabriel Torres.

[ MORE: CONCACAF qualifiers resume Tuesday afternoon ]

Dempsey/Pulisic bond continues to evolve

It couldn’t have gone much better for the pair on Friday night as Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic were directly involved in five of the game’s six goals.

The budding relationship between the two key attackers though is an intriguing one, and will likely determine just how successful this USMNT can be down the road. At 34, Dempsey is certainly on the back end of his career, however, his effort against Honduras shows just how dangerous the Seattle Sounders man can be, even after missing significant time due to a heart problem.

Meanwhile, Pulisic continues to shine in European with giants Dortmund, appearing both in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League. The two likely won’t be together on the international scene for long, perhaps only until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but the partnership is something to monitor over the next year-plus.

Not only does the duo represent a dangerous one-two punch in the attack but also a changing of the guard. Dempsey has been one of the most talented USMNT players in the nation’s history, and many believe Pulisic has the talent to match or even surpass that of the 55-time goalscorer.

We’ve seen it before when Landon Donovan was phased out of the U.S. squad and Dempsey was essentially handed the reigns of the attack, and this time Pulisic will be doing so with much more time to make an impact. The 18-year-old already has four international goals in 12 appearances, and if he improves on that goalscoring pace the U.S. will be enjoying his presence for many years to come.

At long last, Butland returns to full training with Stoke

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Stoke City’s long-coming goalkeeping dilemma will come to a head soon, as Jack Butland is back in training.

A year ago today, the Potters confirmed that star backstop Butland would miss EURO 2016 with a broken ankle. He’d need multiple surgeries as recovery dragged on and on.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

That was more palatable thanks to the play of Lee Grant, who arrived on loan from Derby County but became a permanent Potter in January. Grant has been a key part of Stoke’s season.

Butland is contracted to Stoke through 2021, and he’ll ascend to the starting gig sooner rather than later. But Grant is in the catbird seat for now, and at least will have made himself attractive to other clubs seeking a keeper.

Report: Everton linked with $4 million swoop for Canada’s Larin

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The Sun only hits on a few of the many transfer rumors it tosses around, but this one bears a second look for fans of Everton, MLS, and Canada.

Everton is already eyeing replacements for Romelu Lukaku, according to the report, and is hunting for a bargain in Canadian national teamer Cyle Larin.

Larin, 21, was the first overall pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft by Orlando City SC after an electric career at UConn.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

He’s since scored 35 goals in 63 matches for the Lions, picking up three in his first two matches of the 2017 season. The 6-foot-1 Ontario native has five goals for Canada in 19 caps.

The Sun says Larin would cost close to $4 million, a fraction of what the Toffees will get if they sell Lukaku.