Hop into your TFC time machines kids; we're going back, way back, all the way back to...last season. For those that tuned into today's match looking for signs - any sign, even a small one - that TFC 7.0 had progressed were bitterly disappointed. Showing little to no creativity, a stultified midfield and a defense that regressed back past what had appeared to be a somewhat solid performance on Wednesday, the Reds were a pale imitation of an MLS team.
Before the match started we learned that Argentine winger Nicolas Cabrera was no longer with the team but that taking his place in TFC Trialist Town were Norwegian (and former teammate of Ashton Bennett) Henrik Robstad (LB) and Canadian Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault (DM) - yes they are defensive players, you did not misread that. Don't ask, if I knew I'd tell you, really. So with the team missing several players due to injury Fran O'Leary had some choices to make with the somewhat limited squad at his disposal.
There were a couple of surprises in the starting XI; even when accounting for injured players - starting at the back alongside Joe Bendik, Richard Eckersley and Darren O'Dea were Gale Agbossoumonde and trialist Darel Russell. A bit of head scratcher to not see former Union captain Danny Califf line up next to O'Dea as this is the pairing that we've all been expecting will be the backbone to the defense come March 2. Puzzling at the very least - perhaps Califf is still gaining full fitness? But if so I'd like to hear about it - otherwise I'm starting to assume that we'll see O'Dea and Boss being lined up together going forward.
Another odd selection was midfielder Darel Russell at left back - now someone has to play there with Ashtone Morgan still nursing a knock, but why not give the trialist who actually plays that position a shot and let Russell try to show what he can do in the midfield? And then there's the curious case of Jeremy Hall - once again he starts for reasons unknown - would have much rather seen Osorio or Bekker out there to start the game - you know, creative types that don't make me grit my teeth.
Under cool, windy yet clear conditions TFC took to the field with a pretty decent lineup considering the absences - hope was if not high, than at least present by those of us watching. And that hope lasted until the whistle blew and the Union took control pretty much from the outset. Although there was a brief moment of hope when a nice bit of work from Taylor Morgan saw TFC get a corner to start but even though Silva put in a nice ball, Terry Dunfield headed it straight at Harrison the Philly keeper. But hey, progress right? Sorry, putting an immediate damper on things in the 8th minute was Antoine Hoppenot who pretty much waltzed through O'Dea and Agbossoumonde to get a shot off outside the box to open the scoring. Sigh...
It didn't get much better after that. While Morgan continued to show flashes of what could be a signing worth using an international spot on - nice movement, good ball control, lots to like - Ashton Bennett did exactly the opposite for the majority of his time on the pitch. While often in the right place at the right time, time and again Bennett bobbled the ball, showed a shocking lack of control and seemed confused when he found the ball at his feet - suffice it to say, he did not impress for one looking to win a contract.
But then again, nor did anyone else wearing red in the first half - play kept getting stalled in the midfield as the inability of the midfielders and the forward players to do anything even remotely creative showed again and again. Time and again long balls were punted down the field to Taylor Morgan - who while a big target with fast feet was not able to get on the receiving end of the majority of the ill placed kicks.
Philadelphia were able to win most of the battles in the midfield and stroll down to TFC's end with ease. And with just minutes left in the half a shocking - OK it's TFC, it wasn't that shocking - breakdown saw Roger Torres easily get into the box, dance around Agbossoumonde and put the ball past Bendik. Fantastic, really. For a team that is supposed to be stingier on the defense the Reds looked less than rock solid on this day.
And halftime (blessed halftime) was reached with TFC trailing 2-0 and fans - the few still watching - were feeling that sense of doom descend upon them once again. Surely O'Leary and the coaching staff would make changes at the half and we'd see some of the same flashes of decent play that we saw in the final 45 minutes on Wednesday night, right? Right? Wrong.
The second half started with the same XI that began this delightful game and 6 minutes in Union trialist Matt Kassel basically put a nail in the game after a poorly cleared ball on a Philly corner - seriously are they ever going to practice set pieces? - saw Kassel easily put the ball past Bendik from just outside the penalty area. Super fun!
The rest of the half progressed with tiny little bits of improvement. Luis Silva had a few nice moments; one decent shot that was blocked by Harrison, a nice backheel that unfortunately none of teammates saw coming and resulted in a comical collision and decent movement as he tried unsuccessfully to make something happen.
When the subs finally started to be made we still didn't get to see the waited for pairing of O'Dea and Califf. Instead it was Academy product Derrick Bassi paired with Califf. Justin Braun (our only signed striker) was brought on and he and Kyle Bekker actually had some nice moments together with Bekker sending in some good balls and Braun with at least one very nice run and shot on goal. Progress!
However when the final whistle was mercifully blown we were left with that sinking feeling that we so often had after games last season - this is the team that we follow? Really? OK, I've not had much positive to say and really there wasn't a lot of positives to comment on for today's exercise in TFC futility. Standouts were Taylor Morgan, Kyle Bekker, Darren O'Dea (yes 3 goals were scored but had some good "I'm in charge" moments) and for about five minutes or so, Justin Braun. The rest of the team ranked anywhere from horrible to meh.
But this is the way it's going to be for awhile folks. There is no magic pill, no wand to be waved over our poor (in all senses of the word) team. Even if (when?) the much needed help up top and midfield reinforcements arrive it will take time for them to be integrated into the squad. And also, tonight's lineup was notable by player absences that we have to assume will be in the starting XI as long as they're fit (Ashtone Morgan, Julio Cesar, Torsten Frings) and that the starting XI in that first half would have to be supplemented by some of those that came on in the second half.
We're not calling this preseason 2014 for nothing; hang onto your scarves folks - it's going to be a bumpy ride.