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Know Your Enemy: Philadelphia Union - Meeting The Second

Antoine Hoppenot, liable to come on late and make things happen.
Antoine Hoppenot, liable to come on late and make things happen.

A rare Sunday afternoon fixture means Toronto FC - and fans and pundits alike - will have an extra day of rest in the midst of this testing run of eleven matches in thirty-five days.

The match, a 4 pm kickoff, pits the side against the opponents whom offered them their first win of the season, ending that nine-match losing streak that began their league campaign.

Much has changed for both sides since their meeting on May 26th, each has undergone a coaching change and each has found a measure of success since those changes were made.

TFC are unbeaten in five matches under Paul Mariner after losing his first match away to Kansas City. Though they have struggled with conceding early goals in their last two matches, a newfound resilience has become the trademark of this new regime.

The Union too have exhibited new energy under the tutelage of interim manager John Hackworth, amassing a pair of wins and progression in the US Open Cup since he replaced Piotr Nowak in the middle of June, mere days after Mariner took over for Aron Winter.

Much of what was written prior to the first meeting of clubs is still relevant, but a closer look at what awaits Toronto is in order.

Recent Form

In the four league matches under Hackworth, the Union have won two and lost two.

The first, a tense affair against DC United - due largely to the combative Open Cup eleven days earlier - finish 0-1 for United, saw Philadelphia play much more freely under their new leader.

Players who had been frozen out under Nowak - Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo, and Josue Martinez - entered the starting lineup and, to be honest, the club was unfortunate to lose having dominated play.

DC capitalized on the set-piece ability of Branko Boskovic - a controversial free kick, awarded when Carlos Valdes swiped at Chris Pontius, bringing him down after the Union defender appeared to get a toe on the ball. Boskovic's left-footed driven delivery to the back-post, placed perfectly onto Pontius' standing leg stood as the lone goal of the match.

Their next match, a week on, was when the new era truly began.

A staggering 4-0 win over Eastern Conference powerhouse Sporting KC announced Philadelphia's intent to amend the errors of the first phase of the season.

A brace from McInerney bookended the first half - both opportunistic finishes - and a further pair in the final ten minutes, both created by the youthful exuberance of substitute Antoine Hoppenot - firstly, winning a penalty converted by Lionard Pajoy; then scoring on a delightful chip over Jimmy Nielsen after having been sent in alone by Michael Farfan (Marfan) - took advantage of a tired and clearly misfiring KC.

Three days later a 5-2 dismantling of USL Pro club Harrisburg City Islanders in the Open Cup with goals from joint top-scorers Pajoy - contributing a brace on the night - and Gabriel Gomez, as well as McInerney, and Freddy Adu kept that momentum rolling into the weekend fixture in Houston.

As Toronto experienced, Houston's new ground can be a tough place to get a result and despite Hackworth's shuffling of the lineup - giving starts to recently acquired Jorge Perlaza (from Portland in a trade for Danny Mwanga), Keon Daniel, and Gomez - they fell 2-1 to the Dynamo on the night.

Brad Davis opened the scoring on a nifty play started by Honduran Designated Player Oscar Boniek Garcia, feeding a low cross to Macoumba Kandji in the middle, who laid it out to Davis charging down the left channel. His left-footed chip squeaked through the mitts of Zac MacMath in the Union net, his slight touch deflecting the effort into the far side-netting.

Daniel brought Philadelphia level in the first minute after the restart, collecting a pass from Brian Carroll on the right-flank, turning in-field and lashing a shot from twenty-five yards, low into the far bottom corner of the Houston goal. Tally Hall was unsighted and wrong-footed by the deftness of Daniel's first touch and could only watch ruefully as it settled unmolested into the back of his net.

Misfortune and controversy marred the night for the Union, in the eighty-third minute, solid body check in the back of Brian Ching by Gabriel Farfan (Garfan) saw the referee point to the spot and the Houston talisman stepped up himself, converting the opportunity off the underside of the bar to the keeper's left, having sent MacMath diving to the right.

Four days to regroup from that disappointment before their fourth of July meeting with a resurgent Los Angeles Galaxy at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California.

The Galaxy took the match to the Union, but through their own poor finishing and some staunch defending, were unable to find a breakthrough. Robbie Keane had three separate chances to break the deadlock, but each time was denied: once by a Valdes clearance, then by a Garfan block on the line, and finally by the keeper himself.

Seconds before stoppage time at the end of the first half expired, Marfan outworked David Junior Lopes on the right touchline, skipped past him towards the end-line and smashed a low cross to the near-post. McInerney beat AJ De La Garza to the ball and with a deft back-heeled flick - one reminiscent of the goal Danny Welbeck scored for England against Sweden in the recent European Championships - sent the ball through the goalmouth, trickling agonizingly beyond the reach of the scampering Josh Saunders and in off the base of the far-post.

LA continued their pressure in the second half, with Chad Barrett eventually finding an equalizer in the seventy-third minute when some clever play from Landon Donovan on the left corner of the box, lured defenders towards him just as he played Todd Dunivant down the side of the eighteen. Dunivant's low ball to the near-post was touched on by Keane to Barrett waiting in the middle for a simple tap into an open cage to tie the match at one.

It appeared the contest would end as such until in the fifth of six minutes of stoppage time, Pajoy held the ball up on the left and squeezed a back-heeled pass between two markers for Marfan to run onto. Marfan headed towards goal and casually placed a curling effort low towards the far-post.

Whether it was a shot or a pass, only Marfan knows, as Hoppenot was arriving on the scene, but failed to get a touch, leaving the attempt to nestle in the bottom corner again beyond the reach of the in-form Saunders.

A surprise result over LA, due to a winner at the death. The rebirth of a club that had lost its way has begun, but there is still much work to be done.

Talk post-match revolved around how there was a sense of the tide turning in stealing the victory against such illustrious opponents and how the upcoming match against Toronto could well be the starting point of a serious assault up the table of the Eastern Conference - for either club.

Projected Lineup

Under Hackworth, Philly has maintained much of the fluidity that made Nowak's side such a pain to scout with one significant difference - a reinforced delineation of roles and a measure of team responsibility.

Done are the days of a player in one position this match and another completely different one the next; a sense of consistency has come over the side and many are thriving under their designated roles.

The 4-2-3-1 has morphed into a 4-3-3, and the projected lineup is as follows: MacMath in goal; from right to left: Sheanon Williams, Amobi Okugo, Carlos Valdes and Garfan across the back; Michael Lahoud, Carroll and Marfan as the midfield three; Adu, McInerney, and Pajoy across the top.

football formations

Hackworth has plenty of choices to make should he choose to deviate from what has been his most consistent selection.

Gomez and Carroll have been interchangeable, with Carroll the more defensive of the two; Gomez will occasionally come in for Lahoud patrolling the right-side of the formation as well. Keon Daniel has filled in on either flank as one of the forward three and Perlaza is an option as centre-forward.

Philadelphia recently signed former standout Chicago Fire defender, Bakary Soumare from Boulogne in France, but he is doubtful for Sunday's match, recuperating from a knee injury.

As mentioned in the previous report, there are plenty of youthful American and international talents on the fringes of the squad, but given the success of the side recently, there is very little reason to tinker.

One player sure to make a contribution is the fleet-footed Hoppenot, who has come on around the sixtieth minute in each of the last four games to stretch and bother defenses - as he did in Toronto. He's quick and wise beyond his years with a healthy amount of the brash youthful energy that has seen him attempt the audacious such as this flick against KC.

Last Meeting

Toronto escaped victorious 1-0 thanks to a late Danny Koevermans strike, reacting quickest after Chris Konopka had cut out his initial attempt at the right-post. Seemingly by force of will - be it Koevermans, the crowd in the South End, or both - the ball fell into the back of the net powered by a touch from the knee or shin, from a yard out.

Nick Soolsma's work down the left-side of the box prior to sending a low cross towards the big centre-forward in the eighty-eighth minute precipitated the explosion of joy that came with breaking that nefarious streak.

But not all was rosy on the night; things could have been so different in that meeting of the two clubs at the bottom of the Eastern Conference - ranked ninth and tenth, as they still are now, though closing the gap on those above.

Early chances went astray, as they had so many times before. Torsten Frings picked out Reggie Lambe streaking down the right flank, his initial shot was saved, but the rebound sat tantalizingly close to the net, but Lambe could only fling it wide of the goal from two yards at an extremely tight angle.

Ryan Johnson too wasted a glorious chance in the first half, a Lambe corner kick fell to him high above the left-post, but he could not curl his left-footed attempt in, strafing it wide of the opposite upright.

Then, Marfan lashed a shot from thirty-five yards out that smacked off the crossbar, a tendency of his that has continued in recent matches and one of which TFC must be wary.

Then there was the potential handball by Reggie Lambe that went unpunished.

Standout Toronto performance of the day must be awarded to young Doneil Henry who made two excellent defensive tackles, snuffing out danger from Kai Herdling and Mwanga - both no longer with Philly - to preserve the scoreless draw before Koevermans did his thing.

Bullet Points

The coaching change will have brought about a few new concerns as well.

McInerney has a tendency to drop into the midfield to play a role in the linking between midfield and forward, while Pajoy cuts in from his wide left position to function as an additional striker.

Adu is quite fond of rolling a pass to the outside of the defender for a teammate making an diagonal run to latch onto, while he moves into the gap created by the distraction.

The wide midfielders will often switch sides throughout the match and both full-backs like to get forward, Garfan in particular, though that does leave a fair amount of space behind them to be exploited.

On set-pieces the Union will make use of decoy runs to the near-post to drag defenders away from the centre, as they did against Kansas City to great effect.

It should not be forgotten that Williams has a long throw that can cause trouble from restarts. Watch for the Union to look for flick-ons to the heart of the box from the near-post at such throws.

Defensively, Valdes is a force at the back and is widely considered one of the better, unheralded centre-backs in the league. Okugo, normally a defensive midfield, has done admirably, but will likely lose out to Soumare when he achieves fitness.

In goal, MacMath can still be erratic, but has come some way to limit his mistakes that caused such trouble early in the season.

Both sides will be looking at Sunday's match as a chance at the full three points in an effort to inch closer to Montreal and the rest of the Eastern pack. Were it not for Marfan's late game-winner in LA - and TFC's tendency to leave points on the table with draws under Mariner - the match could have seen the Reds climb out of last in the East, but alas that will not occur this weekend.

Philadelphia Union 9th Place Eastern Conference

Points 14 Played 15 Wins 4, Losses 9, Draws 2

Goals For 15 Against 18 Goal Differential -3

Home 2-4-1

Away 2-5-1

Last Five L-L-W-L-W

The front office turnover did not stop at Nowak, both Diego Gutierrez and Alecko Eskandarian - yes, that Eskandarian of year one at TFC - directors of scouting and youth development respectively, have also left in the shuffle.

You can find more of James Grossi’s insightful ramblings over at Partially Obstructed View and follow him on twitter @Grawsee