Turns out they can score.
Yes, it was a reserve-heavy DC side, but given how Toronto has struggled to convert chances to goals, it was nice to see that they can be ruthless for once.
Three matches remain and while elimination has already been achieved, there exists a level of glory to be found in playing the spoiler.
The Eastern Conference is a ridiculously tight race – second to eighth separated by a mere six points; each of the upcoming opponents has something for which to play.
Up first is Philadelphia.
It has been some time since the two last met – back at the start of June – what was written then rings true, but, of course, a closer look at the enemy, the Philadelphia Union, is in order.
Philadelphia enter the weekend in possession of that fifth and final playoff spot in the East, on 42 points from thirty matches played – two points adrift of Houston in fourth and one ahead of Columbus and New England in sixth.
In the sixteen league matches they have played since that June meeting, they have won six, lost five, and drawn the other five.
Impressive 3-0 home wins over Columbus and New York were followed by a pair of 2-2 draws – against Dallas and at Salt Lake – before the five-match unbeaten streak was ended in Houston, losing 1-0.
The Union responded with a 3-1 win over Chivas, and then drew Portland 0-0, before picking up a 0-1 result in Vancouver to round out July.
August began with a 1-2 loss against Chicago and a 2-0 win against DC, before a five-match winless streak that saw them achieve scoreless draws in New York and against Montreal, while losing 5-1 in New England, 1-0 in San Jose, and 0-1 to Houston.
Most recently, they surprised Kansas City with a 0-1 away win last Friday – thanks to a Conor Casey goal and some fine goalkeeping from Zac MacMath.
June 1 – Toronto 1: Philadelphia 1
It was a pretty tight match, each snatching at half-chances through the opening half hour.
MacMath and Doneil Henry were fortunate to only see yellows for their shoving match in the 27th minute, after Henry reached in on a goalkeeper’s clearance drawing a crowd. Henry would receive his marching orders fourteen minutes later having hacked down Danny Cruz on the edge of the Toronto box.
Reduced to ten, TFC took the lead in the 66th minute from a fine passage of play – Jeremy Hall laid a ball down the right-side of the box for the alert, peeling run of Jeremy Brockie, who picked out Jonathan Osorio for a diving header off the shoulder of Sheanon Williams.
But as was often the case in that part of the season, Toronto would concede a stoppage-time goal – to Jack McInerney again, who similarly scored a late equalizer in their first meeting of the season - when a long Williams throw-in fell to him above the far-post and his low shot found its way through a crowd into the bottom corner of the net.
Philadelphia coach, John Hackworth, has been very conservative in his lineup selection, opting for a consistent unit, rather than trying to mix in those on the fringes of the squad.
That is until last weekend, when in desperation and facing the high-octane press of Kansas City, he opted for a five-man midfield, rather than their usual 4-4-2 formation, drafting in Michael Lahoud alongside Brian Carroll as a two-man shield in front of the back-four and playing Michael Farfan in the attacking midfield, behind battering ram Conor Casey.
Facing Toronto at home however, is not a match in Kansas City, so it would be no surprise if Hackworth returns to his tried and tested lineup, though, of course, with points even more crucial at this the sharp end of the season it would not be entirely out of character if he were to play it safe and stick with what worked.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Zac MacMath in goal; from right to left – Sheanon Williams, Amobi Okugo, Jeff Parke, and Ray Gaddis across the backline; Brian Carroll sitting with Danny Cruz, Michael Farfan, and Sebastien Le Toux across the midfield; Conor Casey and Jack McInerney paired up top.
Brazilian wingback, Fabinho, has seen some time at either left-back or on that side of the midfield, but looks better as a substitute, where his reckless abandon going forward is more an asset than a detriment. Gaddis may be playing out of position, but he has grown into the role, if not entirely making it his own.
Philadelphia has four matches remaining this season and their next two – home against TFC and away to DC – are their best opportunities to take full points – with an away match in Montreal and a season-ender at home against Kansas City to follow.
As such, against Toronto, it is likely that Jack McInerney returns from his two-game absence to be reunited with Casey up top. His goal-scoring has dried up of late – more on that shortly – but getting him firing will be key to any success Philadelphia may find this year.
Alternatively, Le Toux has also featured alongside Casey, and Aaron Wheeler is an option as well, from the bench at least.
Hackworth, should he opt to go with two strikers, could be a little more conservative and go with a flatter midfield – playing either Michael Lahoud or Keon Daniel, if he is back fit, instead of Farfan; that may would leave an attacking hole and lessen the service for the front-men though and hardly seems necessary against lowly TFC.
Cruz and Le Toux have swapped flanks throughout the season, but against Toronto Cruz has always been on the right, where he can pressure the younger side of Toronto’s backline. His battles with Ashtone Morgan have been physical and he has indirectly drawn red cards in the last two meetings, first against Morgan and then against Henry with his tenacity.
As always watch for Antoine Hoppenot to spark the attack from the bench.
Then, of course, there are the likes of Kleberson and Roger Torres, creative threats that have found minutes non-existent this season with pragmatism and effort placed above fantasy.
Philadelphia has been involved in a lot of very tight matches recently – aside from the 5-1 blowout loss with New England scoring four unanswered goals in the second half.
Five of their last ten matches have been decided by a single goal – four of those by the lone goal of the game – while a further three have been scoreless draws.
Expect this one to be tight.
A large part of their struggles up front have coincided with the loss of form by McInerney, once one of the most dangerous strikers in the league.
His last goal was the stoppage-time equalizer against Toronto – a span of thirteen appearances. His tenth goal then had him tied with Marco Di Vaio atop the scoring charts, but he has fallen well off the pace of nineteen set by the Italian.
The slack has largely been left to Casey, who also has ten on the season. His five-match goal-less drought mirrored their five-match winless streak and it was his goal that proved decisive in ending that misery last Friday, beating KC.
The physically imposing Casey uses his big frame to battle defenders, but it is his remarkable ability to be in the right place at the right time that has led to his goal-scoring feats:
Some of that success is perhaps due to his dropping off the front line to hold up the ball, then moving into the space afforded by the play ahead of him.
The long throw from Williams is a constant threat, unsettling defenders – here the mere possibility of it rattles the DC backline, allowing a quick short throw to lead to a cross where Casey breaks free and gets into a good position:
Similarly they are troublesome from other set-pieces, given the quality service from Le Toux. Here at the near-post – if somewhat inadvertently:
While Casey, especially with Fabinho attacking up the left, likes to drift out to the back-post to find space:
Mark Bloom and Morgan will have to be aware of who is lurking where.
That all may sound like simple brute force and dead-ball capitalization, but they can equally be incisive from open play - at least once they make a substitution or two.
Note the little touch back from Wheeler after a charging run from Hoppenot:
Interestingly, as Toronto has already twice experienced, Philadelphia has proven adept at drawing fouls from their opponents, who have seen eleven red cards this season. Philadelphia has only been showed two.
MacMath, still just 22 in his third year with the club, has steadily improved – his eleven clean-sheets has him tied with Donovan Ricketts for the most in the league and his heroics last weekend helped steal a result on the road.
That said, he still has moments of indecision, hesitant in two minds, such as when Houston’s Ricardo Clark nodded past him:
A feat Clark would repeat in their next meeting – a healthy portion of that blame lies with the woeful marking on both occasions.
And the occasional gaff:
Those same weaknesses make defending corners and free-kicks particularly worrisome – Dallas’ opening goal also came from a Michel delivery with Walker Zimmerman getting on the end:
Toronto should look to get numbers into the box – as usual – and hit some decent service in. Bright Dike, Doneil Henry, and Steven Caldwell are all targets that could trouble Parke and Okugo, neither of whom is overly big.
When pressed forward gaps can develop in front of the defensive core, opening space for shots from distance:
New England’s Kelyn Rowe made deadly use of that area in the big win:
Turnovers in particular can exacerbate that weakness, as when Patrick Nyarko stripped Leo Fernandes and set up Mike Magee on the counter:
Pressuring the ball will play an important role in breaking down a conservative side, while catching them up-field can be equally advantageous.
With Osorio returning, Robert Earnshaw fighting for a spot next season, and both Alvaro Rey and Bobby Convey looking lively – not to mention Dike eager to impress, Toronto should be able to pick their spots to get forward and will look to carry the confidence of scoring four into this match.
This will be the tenth meeting all-time between the clubs with Toronto winning twice, Philadelphia three, and drawing the other four.
The last three meetings have ended in 1-1 draws.
Toronto have never won through four previous trips to Philadelphia, but have drawn twice, both by scores of 1-1.