How did I not notice this picture back in May? That's some awesomely stylish defending form Doneil.
Yes it was just a month and a half ago now that Toronto FC finally got that glorious win on May 26th, building on their Voyageurs Cup win by finally getting that losing streak monkey off their back. Torsten Frings was healthy, Danny Koevermans was scoring, and those were really the two basic things needed to get things on the right track. That 0-9 start though meant that that game was the rarest of footballing things, the result that saw both managers fired. For Aron Winter, the chop had been coming and even May's improved form wasn't enough to save him. As for Piotr Nowak, well losing to the worst team in the world was the final straw, and even a couple of US Open wins weren't enough to keep him in the job for their next league game.
So, though it's once again a 9th vs 10th matchup, there'll be plenty of differences as John Hackworths Union side take on Paul Mariner's TFC. For Philly, their league form has improved from bad to playoff worthy (6 points in 4 games under Hackworth) and for details of how that happened and what changes Hackworth has wrought, you could do a lot worse than check out James' latest Know Your Enemy piece, which breaks that down rather nicely. For Toronto, well their results have gone from atrocious to merely 'not good enough'. 7 points in 6 games is still nowhere near playoff form, never mind looking close to good enough to make up all the ground lost at the start of the season, despite a phenomenal stretch of form by Dannny Koevermans.
That is of course a bit on the harsh side, as there have been definite improvements under Mariner, ones that we can probably count on continuing. While Koevermans hot streak will inevitably end which is a bit worrying on the goalscoring side of things as we still don't look like having secondary scoring that can be relied upon, the teamwide defensive focus and improved organisation should be here to stay. It's still very much a work in progress of course, though the desperate late game bunkering seems to have stopped, early defensive breakdowns on crosses now seems to be the thing holding us back.
Again though, I'm being a bit unfair, we've currently got a Right Back playing in the middle of defence, a situation that hopefully won't last much longer, surely someone's got to come back from injury soon, or hey maybe Montreal will let us sign somebody in the transfer window without snatching them away at the last minute. (Talking of the transfer window, man, it was a lot more interesting under Winter.) Once we actually have good (MLS level good, they don't have to be Italian internationals by any means) Centre Backs playing in central defence, that should really cut down on the individual errors that have let down the defensive system so far and make us a team that really is difficult to beat.
As much as there are plenty of things I'm not keen on with Paul Mariner, his back to basics approach is something that was much needed after the confused chaos that typified the end of the Winter era. I love this quote from after the Dallas game, when asked what's behind the turnaround.
Players. Players in comfort zones, players understanding what they're doing, knowing their role and knowing their job. The beauty about it is everybody knows what your job is, and if you don't do it, you get told. It's football.
Now hopefully we can improve the squad, and get players whose comfort zones enable them do more, especially on the attacking side of things (A proper creative attacking midfielder, a David Ferreira type player, would be on the top of my transfer window wish list right now.), but for now, with the players we have, it's exactly the right type of approach to take, and one that looks like giving a solid base to build from. Whether Mariner is the right man to be able to do that building is very much still to be proven (and his player acquisition and retention skills aren't looking too hot after the last week or so) but this is a start. Baby Steps, necessary ones.
As for saturday's game, to get back on topic, well another benefit to Mariner is that it's become fairly easy to predict starting lineups with a certain amount of confidence, and I think barring injuries keeping Terry Dunfield or Danny Koevermans (both were in training today, so will probably be fine) out, the only issue is whether Julian de Guzman is over his stomach issues and fit to play, in which case I think we'll see Reggie Lambe back on the bench as the only change to the lineup.
It's going to be hot in Philadelphia, so after all the games we've played recently you'd expect fatigue to be a factor, fortunately Philly's Open Cup commitments mean they've been on a 2 a week schedule recently as well, so that should balance itself out.
Overall, I'm confident the team will do the job defensively, though there'll probably be a bit of a breakdown defensively at some point, so I think a clean sheet is unlikely, but they'll probably keep it to 1. After that, well hopefully we can create some chances at the other end, I'd back Koevermans to knock one in, but we'll probably need someone else to step and help out to have any chance of a win. A win would move TFC within 1 point of Philadelphia, a loss would see us back to 7 points adrift. I'll go with another 1-1 tie, and an almost respectable only 4 points back.