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PREVIEW | Postseason success hinges on defensive stoutness for United

After an awkwardly timed international break wedged a bye week between the end of the regular season and the first round of the postseason, D.C. United reconvened Monday to begin final preparations for Saturday’s match against Toronto FC at BMO Field, where the winner will earn a date with top-seeded New York City FC four days later.

There is an obvious similarity between United and Toronto ahead of this weekend’s game, and one that has both teams oozing confidence in the freshly implemented one-and-done format of this year’s playoffs. The Black-and-Red floundered during the middle of the season before stringing together five consecutive clean sheets to tie an MLS record and enter the playoffs having not lost since Aug. 24. And Toronto, which toiled well below its potential for much of the year, is riding a 10-match unbeaten streak dating to Aug. 10.

Two teams rounding into shape at the right time.

“Guys are excited to get this on,” coach Ben Olsen said earlier this week. “A couple more days of prep and then we’ll go to Toronto, make sure the players are well-prepared in how we want to go about the game and then hopefully, on the day, we execute and move on.

“I think they’re in good form and I think we’re in good form. It tends to be a fun matchup. We understand the quality that they bring, and they’re certainly as sharp as they’ve been all season at the right time.

“But again, we feel like we also are pretty clear in who we are and how to go about the game to have success. Then it’s just about which team executes and make the plays that matter on game day. We’re really looking forward to it.”

Here’s what you need to know before kickoff:

Opponent: Toronto FC

Record: 13 wins, 10 losses, 11 draws

Standings: Fourth place in the Eastern Conference but level on points with United. Toronto earned the No. 4 seed, and subsequent home game, based on the second tiebreaker of goal differential: Toronto was +5; United was +4.

Last match: Win, 1-0, vs. Columbus Crew

Head coach: Greg Vanney; sixth season; overall record of 93 wins, 75 losses, 49 draws

Vanney serves as both head coach and technical director for Toronto. He was named head coach on Aug. 31, 2014, after less than a year as the club’s assistant general manager and academy director. He worked previously as an assistant coach and technical director of the youth academy at Chivas USA, from 2011-12, and also served multiple roles with the Real Salt Lake academy.

As a player, Vanney became an original member of MLS when he joined the LA Galaxy in 1996. He helped the club reach three MLS Cup finals and was twice named to the league’s Best XI, in 2000 and 2001. He then spent four seasons with French-side SC Bastia in Ligue 1 before returning to the United States to finish his career. Vanney went on to play for FC Dallas, the Colorado Rapids, D.C. United, where he was teammates with Olsen, and the Galaxy for a second time.

Vanney appeared in 15 matches and made 14 starts for the Black-and-Red during the 2007 season.

Injury report: Will Jozy Altidore play?

Altidore suffered a quadriceps injury during the regular season finale against Columbus and exited the match in the 70th minute. Reports from BMO Field that night said Altidore, the primary striker for Toronto, walked off the field under his own power but carried a limp as he entered the tunnel.

Since then, Altidore withdrew from the U.S. National Team roster ahead of recent Concacaf Nation League matches against Cuba (at Audi Field) and Canada (at BMO Field). He wasn’t on the field Thursday when Toronto held an open training ahead of Saturday’s match with United, according to The Athletic, but both Altidore and Vanney have expressed optimism over his potential availability.

“We’ll prepare for them with Jozy, and if that’s not the case, we understand their second and third options,” Olsen said. “At this point, there’s not a lot of secrets on who they are or how they’re going to go about it. Doesn’t make it any easier to go against them because they’ve got a wealth of talent.”

Altidore has proven indispensable for Toronto since joining the club in 2015. He’s reached double-digit goals in four of the last five years and his only miss was an injury-shortened 2018 season in which Altidore appeared in just 13 matches. Toronto’s all-time record without Altidore is 18 wins, 25 losses and 17 draws.

“He’s got a big presence, he’s a big body,” goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. “There’s a reason why he’s played so many matches and scored so many goals for the national team and played all over the world, because he’s got a lot of talent. It’s going to be a challenge trying to lock him down.

“From what I saw, he had a little knock in the game (against Columbus), but we fully expect him to be ready for kickoff, so we’re preparing for him as well as all the other pieces around him.”

If Altidore cannot go, Toronto may turn to reserve striker Patrick Mullins, who has two goals in 345 minutes this season. Mullins started consecutive games on Aug. 31 and Sept. 7 when Altidore was absent with a mild quad strain.

Major question: Can United win with defense in the postseason?

Thanks to a fifth consecutive shutout against FC Cincinnati during the regular season finale, the Black-and-Red landed tied atop the league with Atlanta United for most shutouts with 14, smashing Hamid’s previous career high of 10 in 2014. United rebranded itself with defense after a lowly summer funk and will ride that identity with confidence entering the postseason.

“You have to size up,” Olsen said. “We were at a certain point where things weren’t going according to plan, and (we needed to) size up how we’re going to go about first and foremost making the playoffs. It was trending in a bad way. What are we going to rely on? Who are we going to be down the stretch to turn the tides? Yeah, there was a focus defensively or a focus on the defensive end to be a tougher team to beat. That was the mentality, and over the last two months I think we’ve shown that we are as good a defensive team as there is in this league.”

The question now is how far can United’s defense take them if the offense continues to lag. Historically, teams with the most clean sheets during the regular season have performed well in the postseason over the last decade. Of the nine MLS champions since 2010, three of them were teams that led the league in clean sheets during the regular season: the 2015 Seattle Sounders (15 clean sheets); the 2014 LA Galaxy (13 clean sheets); and the 2011 Galaxy (19 clean sheets).

In other words, United’s formula gives them a realistic chance to advance.

“I’m not going to get caught up in the (fact that) the offensive end is sputtering,” said Olsen, whose team has scored eight goals in the last games. “We’ve been able to score goals and still create enough chances in each game to win and still be a solid defensive team. Hopefully that can continue, and I think if that does, it’s a good recipe to have success in the postseason. Ultimately, it’s still about can we show up and still be the defensive team that we’ve been and make some plays on the offensive end.”

Stat to know: Toronto creates high-quality chances

Among the hallmarks of United’s defensive prowess the last two months has been their ability to force opponents to take low-percentage shots. By bunkering in defensively and creating disciplined banks of four, Olsen’s squad have dared defenders to beat them with shots outside the box, shots from poor angles and shots through narrowing windows that require moments of magic to reach the back of Hamid’s net.

Toronto, on the other hand, does a wonderful job avoiding low-percentage shots and instead creates the majority of its chances inside the opponent’s penalty area. This season, Toronto finished tied with the Galaxy for the fewest shots originating outside the box with just 3.9 attempts per 90 minutes, nearly 50 percent less than the league-leading Houston Dynamo, who attempted 7.6 shots outside the box per 90 minutes. Instead, Toronto found ways to penetrate opposing defenses and generate higher-quality chances inside the penalty area, evidenced by the third-most attempts inside the 18-yard box with 165 total shots.

Because of those high-percentage chances, Toronto performed well above its expected goal (xG) total this season based on data compiled by American Soccer Analysis. Toronto scored 9.6 goals more than its expected average and ranked second in the Eastern Conference in that category behind only NYCFC, who finished 14.1 goals above the expected total.

By contrast, United scored just 3.1 goals above its expected average.

“We know how Toronto like to play,” striker Wayne Rooney said. “They’ll have their game plan, we’ll have ours and whoever executes the best out of the two teams I’m sure will win. We know it’s going to be a good atmosphere there. It will be a tough game. We remember the game there last time, we nicked a draw. I think we need to be a bit more on the front foot than we were in that game.

“Listen, we know with the game Saturday, if we go through into New York we’re probably not going to have more possession than Toronto. We know that and we’re prepared for that. But we need to be more clinical and take our chances on the break a bit better than we have done in previous away games. A lot of our focus is obviously on trying to do that.”

The unknown: Who will take penalty kicks?

United concluded its open practice Tuesday with a simulated penalty shootout in which every player on the pitch — including goalkeepers — took a turn at the spot in an attempt to simulate what might happen Saturday evening and beyond.

A year ago, the Black-and-Red were eliminated by Columbus in a shootout that saw three of five penalty takers miss the mark: Rooney, Luciano Acosta and Nick DeLeon. The only players who scored that night were Yamil Asad and Zoltan Stieber, neither of which are on the current roster.

In truth, United have almost no experience with penalty kicks beyond Rooney, who has converted 100 percent of his spot kicks during regular season games the last two years. With DeLeon, Asad and Stieber no longer viable options, it’s unclear who exactly Olsen would tab in a shootout beyond his two biggest stars — assuming both Rooney and Acosta are on the pitch after 120 minutes, which is far from a guarantee.

Here’s a look at which United players have attempted penalties during regular-season matches in their MLS careers:

Wayne Rooney — 7 penalties attempted, 7 goals scored

Ola Kamara — 6 penalties attempted, 4 goals scored

Acosta — 1 penalty attempted, 1 goal scored

“We practice every day,” Rooney said. “It’s probably more important for some of the other lads to practice a bit more this week. Obviously I’m so used to taking penalties. For myself, I know exactly what I want to do with it if it gets to that point. And maybe a bit of redemption, if you like, for missing last year.”

On the opposite end of the field, United should feel very confident in its goalkeeper. Hamid, who is a finalist for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, has conceded only one penalty this season in five attempts, a percentage that leads the league among keepers facing at least five penalties.

“Obviously there’s an idea behind doing penalties,” Hamid said, “just gaining the confidence of stepping up to the mark and then if we get there, like we did last year, just being a little more prepared. It’s good that (the coaches) are forward-thinking and I think the guys are taking it on. And like I said, I think the attitude is really good right now.”

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