Saturday afternoon Toronto FC returns to the pitch at BMO Field to host Philadelphia Union in their final MLS match before the two-week International Break for World Cup Qualifying and the start of the European Championships.
A fair bit of the pregame talk revolves around the horror story that was last season's 6-2 Philadelphia win in Toronto. Historic though it may have been - it is currently the record for most goals conceded in a match and the record home defeat for Toronto, while for Philadelphia it remains their largest margin of victory, most goals scored in a game, contains their earliest goal (2nd minute) and their shortest time to string together three goals (27 minutes) - those teams were very different from the ones that will take the pitch on this day.
Of the twenty-six players that saw the field only half remain - remember Alen Stevanovic? - and of those on the score-sheet that day only Danny Mwanga returns. Gone are the likes of Sebastien Le Toux, Justin Mapp, Maicon Santos and Danleigh Borman; tomorrow's match will bear little resemblance to last year's hammering.
What will be presented is a pair of clubs struggling to emerge from periods of upheaval, both of ideology and of personnel. Toronto and their Dutch influenced 4-3-3 have been talked to death, but Philadelphia's metamorphosis is slightly more subtle.
Coach Piotr Nowak appears driven by a constant need to get younger, fuelled in part by his megalomaniacal need to be the only voice in the dressing room. His constant tinkering with the lineup is mind-boggling to say the least.
Two teams at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, with the fewest number of points in the league, and having scored the fewest number of goals.
Both are in desperate need of points, it should be a classic.
This is where things get tricky.
Philadelphia has tried anything and everything to find cohesion including various formations and select players in several positions. Take Michael Farfan for example, he has appeared as a central attacking midfielder, pushed out to both the right and left flanks and effectively - think Andy Najar at DC - at right-back. Keon Daniel too has appeared all over the midfield as Nowak attempts to decode the proper position for each member of his young team.
One thing that must be said is that he has a bevy of young, interchangeable - and malleable - pieces at his disposal; a weapon that once honed will be a nightmare for the opposition's defenses with players weaving in and out of formation, seamlessly transitioning from one position to another.
One can almost see the outlines of his vision, way off in the distance.
Contradictory reports aside, their projected lineup is loosely a 4-2-3-1 as follows: Zac MacMath in goal; along the back-line from right to left - Michael Farfan, Sheanon Williams, Carlos Valdes, and Gabriel Farfan; Brian Carroll and Gabriel Gomez sitting at the base of the midfield, with Freddy Adu, Keon Daniel, and Lionard Pajoy across the top of the mid, and Danny Mwanga positioned up top.
Goalkeeping is the most troublesome position. MacMath sat out last week with concussion-like symptoms opening the door for Chase Harrison to start in Dallas. Harrison picked up a knock of his own - rolling his ankle and smashing his head on the post as he attempted a save.
Both are currently listed as out on the injury report, but news items state that MacMath is likely to resume the tending duties. Should neither be available the position will likely fall to Chris Konopka, signed by the Union out of the league's reserve keeper pool prior to the start of the season.
The Farfan twins, henceforth known as Marfan and Garfan, for Michael and Gabriel respectively, are adept at any number of positions. Fielding them at full-back allows Nowak to get more talent on the pitch than the likes of Chris Albright, Porfiro Lopez - a Costa Rican, still acclimating to the league - and rookie Raymon Gaddis - who has performed well in his six matches across the back-line this season, but is due a rest - provide.
Valdes, the newly anointed captain, suffered a nasty gash in a clash of heads with Dallas' James Marcelin that forced him out of the match, but should be fit, though either Gaddis or Lopez - as he did to end the Dallas game - could be fielded in a pinch.
Leading goal-scorer, Gomez too suffered a knock after registering the equalizer and left the match shortly thereafter. He is scheduled to depart the club for national team duty - Panama, boo - after the Toronto match and though listed as ‘Out' on the league's injury report, other sources have him ready to contribute if called upon.
Should he not recover in time, Amobi Okugo is a steadfast replacement, if less of an offensive threat, or perhaps Michael Lahoud, recently acquired from Chivas for former Captain Danny Califf, though he normally plays a little more forward.
Adu, fresh off suspension - a pair of yellow cards against New York for a striker's tackle and a debatable ‘dive' - should return to his right-sided midfield role, while Daniel covers a lot of ground in the middle of the pitch and Pajoy pushes up on the left at times virtually pairing with Mwanga up top.
Despite Roger Torres' unavailability as he recovers from knee surgery, Nowak is left with a pile of attacking options, including young American talents - Jack McInerney, Chandler Hoffman, Zach Pfeffer, and Antoine Hoppenot - foreign acquisitions - Cristhian Hernandez and Josue Martinez - and Kai Herdling - a German forward/midfielder, currently on-loan from TSG 1899 Hoffenheim - to ride the bench and scrap for the scant remaining minutes.
Philadelphia currently sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, eight points ahead of Toronto after ten matches.
They began the season with three straight losses - away to Portland and Chicago, home to Colorado - before a decent spell saw them pick up all but one of their points in the next three matches - a goal-less draw in Vancouver followed by wins over Columbus and Chivas at home and on the road respectively.
Though they have since gone winless - a span of four league games and a friendly against Schalke 04 - they have slowly been improving.
Against San Jose it was a pair of Steven Lenhart headers that were their undoing, including a ninety-third minute winner, cancelling out Gomez's tying goal some ten minutes earlier.
Next in Seattle, they were caught sluggish from a Seattle throw-in that was worked quickly up the field to Fredy Montero, who found Mauro Rosales streaking down the right for a tidy finish low, across the keeper to the far-post to score the game's only goal.
Two weeks ago they lost by the odd goal in five to New York at PPL Park in what was undoubtedly their best game of the season and last weekend they ground out a 1-1 draw in a physical, dour contest in Dallas.
In Dallas they looked shaky on the first corner kick; they conceded on the second.
A right-sided delivery from Bryan Leyva was met by George John in the centre of the box, his downward header deflected neatly to Blas Perez drifting away from his marker - Keon Daniel caught ball-watching - at the back-post. Perez prodded the ball into the goal past a scrambling Chase Harrison.
On a third corner kick the Union looked similarly vulnerable; Daniel again could not shutdown Perez, who rose over him for a header, one more easily dealt with this time.
Gomez leveled the score on a mistake by Carlos Rodriguez. His defensive header screwed back behind his fellow defenders into the path of Gomez - who would have been offside if one of his teammates had played him in - to snap a header down across the keeper, Kevin Hartman, before colliding with him, causing the injury that quickly saw the Philadelphia goal-scorer substituted.
The Union were content to see out the draw and were twice lucky not to be reduced to ten men. Earlier in the match Lahoud, making his debut, could have gone for a second yellow had he been booked for a late tackle that injured Hernan Pertuz, while Marfan's blocking off of a quick break from Jackson could easily have been the Philly right-back's second bookable offense. Philadelphia committed some twenty-two fouls that night, scrapping out the point on the road.
Against New York, Adu ran the show through the early match, before the Red Bulls opened the scoring on the counter. Roy Miller picked out Mehdi Ballouchy streaking down the left channel; he stopped, circled back and picked out the run of Joel Lindpere at the top corner of the box for a thunderous left-footed blast high to the near-post.
Pajoy drew Philly level with a bullet header from a right-sided Adu cross to the edge of the six-yard box, mopping up a second chance from a half-cleared corner kick. Adu was then sent off for the controversial second booking for apparently diving, before Pajoy put the Union in front, capitalizing on a forced turnover, collecting the ball from Mwanga and staying with a bouncing ball that fell kindly for him to roll under a charging Ryan Meara.
That frailty from corner kicks reared its head some twenty minutes later when a right-sided Brandon Barklage corner kick was met by Markus Holgersson in the heart of the box at the edge of the six. He redirected his header across the keeper into the far-corner to draw New York back level. Again it was Daniel who lost his mark.
Kenny Cooper then killed off the short-handed Union. A brilliant ball from the back by Rafa Marquez over the top, Cooper wins the race, chests it past MacMath who slips, and calmly places it with his right foot into the open net from a very tight angle only yards from the end-line.
With all the upheaval and constant tinkering of Nowak, it is hard to pin Philadelphia down to a particular style, they are still in the formative stage as a club and the trades of talismanic figures Califf and Le Toux have yet to finish reverberating through the team.
They have looked their best, more so in attack than defense, in the 4-2-3-1 prescribed above.
Adu is perhaps the most important player on the pitch in terms of attack. He operates out of the right in a free role. Cuts in from wide and pushes into the attack to create numerical advantages in those sectors of play. From that station he will pop up all over the pitch and rely on the game intelligence of his teammates to clog whatever gaps he leaves behind.
He almost single-handedly makes them a more dynamic threat with his passing and vision; he's very active, finding space, and causing trouble.
Adu will take most set-pieces, delivering nearly all corners, but sharing direct attempts on goal with Gomez, who is deadly accurate in his own right, bouncing his kicks dangerously a yard or two in front of goal in the attempt to handcuff the keeper.
The match against New York was Adu's best performance for the club since joining last summer. For the first time in many years he had a proper preseason and has slowly been rounding into form after missing time with the club attempting to qualify for the Olympics.
The right side, with Adu and Marfan backing him up provides a lot of the forward impetus, allowing Pajoy on the opposite flank to push forward in support of Mwanga. In that sense it is almost a lop-sided formation with the left stretching forward, while the right draws the attention.
To call Marfan a right-back is almost a misnomer given how much time he will spend far up the pitch. At times the back-four is nearly a back-three; but Carroll and Gomez holding in the midfield are able to slide over and provide cover to either side if necessary.
Gaddis has gotten forward a fair bit from the left-back slot, but should Garfan take the pitch, he will be expected to provide more, while also holding down that flank defensively. A task he is more attuned to than his twin brother.
The holding midfielders will make the occasional forays forward, looking to arrive late at the top of the box to get involved. Between Gomez and Carroll, the Panamanian (Gomez) is more likely to make late runs forward and he is quite proficient at both that and at dead-ball situations as his scoring record implies - four goals to lead the team.
Against Dallas they were caught trying to play a high defensive line, one that is susceptible to quick transitions and long ball over the top. That also contributed to losses in Seattle and to New York.
Looking at how they score the only uniting factor is the three players involved in the production. Adu, Gomez, and Pajoy have been involved in all eight of the Union's goal, whether combining amongst themselves, or with the help of Marfan or others. Keep an eye on them.
They have a tendency to score in the middle of the match; heading into and coming out of half-time is the time to be wary of conceding.
Since trading Califf, though it was a concern before as well, Philadelphia has been woeful on marking from dead-balls and picking up coverage of attackers at the far-post. Without Califf or Faryd Mondragon - who returned to Colombia prior to the start of the season - they have been lacking that vocal leader who barks instructions, takes responsibility and marshal's the back-line, hardly a surprise given the overall youth of the team.
New Captain Valdes is the tallest member of the quartet standing only - officially - six foot, not particularly large for an MLS centre-back.
Against Dallas in particular, with an inexperienced keeper in goal they were allowing free runs and generally non-protecting him from suffering contact.
Those back-post headers, especially in the most recent matches, have been the main source of goals against.
They are equally susceptible to quick attacks, when their high line is caught out of position. The back-line isn't slow, per se, but it is not fast enough to recover against the fastest attacks in the league if caught flat-footed.
Raking cross-field passes to free Joao Plata, Ryan Johnson, Reggie Lambe, and Nick Soolsma - whoever is playing - should find some space to attack.
If Gomez is fit - much like with Salt Lake - be aware of trailing runners following up and arriving late to the top of the box, for a pull back.
Points of Interest
The clubs will meet two more times in the regular season - in Philadelphia on July 8th and back in Toronto on September 15th.
There will be a reserve match after the first-team match concludes, stick around to catch a glimpse of Luis Boa Morte - the snake of death, not really, but - and the up and coming talents emerging from the academy - Qullian Roberts will likely be in goal, and highly thought of youngster Jordan Hamilton as well.
Philadelphia is one of the few teams in the league that does not have any former TFC players in its midst.
Philadelphia has only had one week this season where they have had more than a single match and that was due to the midweek friendly sandwiched between two Saturday league fixtures; compare that with Toronto's schedule.