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Know Your Enemy: Philadelphia Union

Previewing TFC's upcoming opponent - Philadelphia - the formation and the form, how they like to score goals, and how to score goals against them. Also, rally towels!

Conor Casey. He's caused plenty of problems for TFC over the years, but how are Philadelphia using him?
Conor Casey. He's caused plenty of problems for TFC over the years, but how are Philadelphia using him?

Well that was something wasn’t it?

Energized by the dramatic last-minute equalizer to cap a stunning second-half comeback against FC Dallas, Toronto FC returns to the road after a two-game home stand.

Life away from home has not been kind through their first two attempts – losses away to Canadian opponents Vancouver and Montreal; though only by a single goal in each – and Saturday’s match is unlikely to be a comfortable one.

Toronto and Philadelphia have some history.

It was the Union who laid that nasty 2-6 defeat on Aron Winter’s side back in 2011, the club’s record loss. And again it was Philadelphia who last season outplayed a rejuvenated Paul Mariner-led TFC, earning a 3-0 win – by all rights it should have been more - snapping a five-match unbeaten run and reaffirming the futility of 2012.

The two have already met this season, at the Disney Tournament in Orlando, with the Union refraining that three-goal score-line, thoroughly outplaying the Reds and at times making them look the fool – video highlights for the brave-hearted.

Much has changed in TFC-land since those naïve February days; that said, a closer look at the Philadelphia Union is in order.

The Lineup

John Hackworth, who took over from the controversial Piotr Nowak around the same time Winter was dismissed last year, has done well molding a very young and inexperienced side into something a little more sturdy.

Gradually relying more on a smattering of older, seasoned pros; combining their savvy with the impetuosity of youth, has thus far yielded some positive results. Through five matches the Union have seven points – two wins and a draw – and currently sit in fifth in the East, two points above Toronto and above the hallowed red-playoff-line – not that that counts for much at this point.

They’ve added a few new faces to what should be a fairly similar lineup to the ones Toronto faced last season.

Local Pennsylvania boy, centre-back, Jeff Parke, formerly of New York and Seattle, engineered a move to return home for the twilight of his career, replacing Colombian Carlos Valdes, who himself returned to his native environs on loan to play for Independiente Santa Fe in hopes of earning national team recognition.

Though not a true homecoming, the return of fan-favourite, Sebastien Le Toux, after a lost season spent wandering the hinterlands of Vancouver and New York, has thrilled the loyal crowds and reinvigourated the Frenchman.

And then there is Conor Casey, an experienced target forward – and one-time TFC striker – who pairs nicely with either Le Toux or the maturing Jack McInerney after a successful six-season spell in Colorado.

After dabbling with a 4-2-3-1 against Kansas City in the season opener, Hackworth has been pretty consistent with a slightly diamonded 4-4-2; though that shouldn’t preclude any future tinkering.

Their projected lineup is as follows: Zac MacMath in goal; from right to left – Sheanon Williams, Amobi Okugo, Jeff Parke, and Ray Gaddis along the back; Danny Cruz, Brian Carroll, Keon Daniel, and Gabriel Farfan across the midfield with Sebastien Le Toux and Jack McInerney up top.

football formations

With three possible first-choice strikers it’s tough to decide which two to deploy.

Le Toux was held in reserve against Columbus, with Casey taking his first start of the year after debuting from the bench against New York. The idea, supposedly, being that having a big body to battle with the sizeable Crew defense was a shrewd decision.

To leave out McInerney - who has three goals thus far (half of the team’s output) while looking goal-hungry, at times devastating, and earning varied plaudits - is unthinkable.

Casey could well continue, but it is dubitable that Hackworth would rest Le Toux in front of the home fans who cheer him so heartily.

Michael Farfan missed last week with an ankle sprain and the league’s new injury policy makes it hard to tell where his progress is – check back for Waking the Red’s Prematch Notes, due out late Friday or early Saturday for the latest information – but should he be fit he would likely replace either his brother, Gabriel or Cruz on the flank or, Daniel in the middle.

Michael Lahoud is often fielded as a more defensive option alongside mainstay Brian Carroll in the centre of midfield, but given this is a home match and what must be viewed as winnable points; expect the more offensive-minded dreadlocked Daniel to receive the nod.

Fielding a consistent defensive unit of six – MacMath, Williams, Okugo, Parke, Gaddis, and Carroll – has aided in shoring up the defense and establishing a solid base from which to build – much like Toronto – but has caused some tension with Bakary Soumare publicly stating he would like to leave, less than a season after joining, if minutes are not forthcoming.

Veteran additions have been important, but there is still a lot of talented youth fighting for minutes in the side.

Leo Fernandes, a Brazilian-born American midfielder has looked interesting in his brief cameos and lanky forward Aaron Wheeler impressed in a recent Friendly against UNAM Pumas, not to mention the mercurial Roger Torres and the Super-sub Antoine Hoppenot, who have proved devastating to TFC - in the preseason fixture and over previous seasons.

A further three players have been loaned out to USL PRO affiliate Harrisburg City Islanders – Cristhian Hernandez, Greg Jordan, and Jimmy McLaughlin – and eighteen-year-old Zach Pfeffer is spending a season-long loan abroad with TSG 1899 Hoffenheim in Germany.

Newly-minted Designated Player and midfielder, Kleberson, was on the bench in Columbus and could perhaps see some minutes come the weekend – he is only on loan for the remainder of this season.

The controversial Freddy Adu was banished to Brazil – Bahia – transferred on a permanent deal in exchange for the Kleberson loan, having refused to renegotiate his contract terms; adding yet another strange chapter to the complex saga that is the Adu.

The Form

Philadelphia return home after a series of tough road matches in places they’ve previously had little success.

Their 1-2 win in Colorado, on goals from Okugo - his first in MLS, a header from a Le Toux corner kick – and McInerney – a deft counterattack set up by sub Hoppenot – was their first win over the Rapids in six matches. Jamie Smith’s goal for Colorado was a stunning long-range blast.

After a bye week, they were denied a result in New York by a pair of stunning goals from Dax McCarty – a neat outside of the boot flick to a Jonny Steele cross – and Thierry Henry – a gorgeously fluid strike – with Casey tallying in consolation from a long Williams throw in. The 2-1 loss sees them without a point through five away matches to the Red Bulls.

A 1-1 draw in Columbus, goals from McInerney – a simple tap in after a devastating Okugo through-ball allowed Cruz to square to his opener teammate – and Dominic Oduro – a tight angled blast that fooled MacMath – sees them still winless through four all-time meetings in Columbus, though they did manage to take their first point.

The Union were impressive, running Kansas City ragged, throughout the first half in the season opener, taking a lead through Le Toux - touching in a Daniel cross at the back-post. But succumbed to pressure in the second, conceding three goals from Graham Zusi - finishing off a loose ball once Benny Feilhaber’s shot was blocked after Bobby Convey’s cross was expertly headed down by Claudio Bieler, Oriol Rosell – a flicked headed to a perfect Zusi free-kick, and Bieler himself – finishing off a Chance Myers cut-back from space at the top of the box - to lose 1-3.

They snatched a tidy 1-0 win over New England in their other home match – after the trip to Colorado – with McInerney getting a second-bite at a Le Toux corner kick after goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth denied his first attempt.

The Tactics

Their movement in transition is particularly troublesome with McInerney proving adept at finding those gaps in the defense and constantly testing the back-line with darting runs.

Their second goal versus Colorado - with McInerney finishing off some excellently strong play from Hoppenot - is a good example.

Holding off the challenge of Hendry Thomas and then eluding another challenge before sliding a pass in for the slashing run of his teammate is exactly the sort of ability that makes Hoppenot so dangerous later in matches and McInerney such a slippery striker.

Their goal from the weekend in Columbus similarly shows how the constant prodding can desensitize a defense leading to an eventual breakdown.

Okugo provides the service from deep on that one and Cruz unselfishly squares. Note the attitude filled celebration from the young forward.

Michael Farfan is both a playmaker and a scoring threat, should he be fit Toronto must be wary of his movements.

Le Toux will also look to exploit space, getting on the end of long deliveries. He should have had two in the first half against KC, but misfired on the second having gotten on the end of this lovely service from Daniel for the first.

The French forward will likely provide the service from corner kicks, which have led to two of their six goals on the season. Though Daniel has proved equally dangerous from set-pieces – his long-range bomb against Houston last season was stunning – and this season he hit the post on a free kick against Colorado

The long throws of Williams are another dangerous set-piece, as New York discovered when Casey turned one in.


Philadelphia has had trouble defending in situations where ball movement forces the back-line to move away from their rigid structure.

Zusi’s opener saw a left-sided cross sent to the back-post where it was headed down back into the middle of the box, opening up space for the midfielders to exploit.

That difficulty with defending movement will also often leave too much space at the top of the box - KC’s third came with the back-line collapsing on the ball-carrier Myers leaving Bieler alone to finish..

While McCarty’s goal came from a similar position once he got in front of his defender to touch a cross in.

Marking on set-pieces has also caused some trouble with Rosell easily escaping his marker to head in the eventual winner.

MacMath, a young keeper, is still occasionally error prone.

He interpreted Oduro sending a goal-mouth cross through the box from a tight angle, leaving the top of the goal exposed.

It also reiterated their susceptibility to movement, a through-ball opening up space and catching out the defense.

While his handling of long shots, such as the following from New England’s Lee Nguyen, means Toronto should attempt from distance and follow up looking for rebound.

Points of Interest

The first 5000 fans will receive Rally Towels. Woo-hoo!

The clubs met three times last season: 1-0 TFC in Toronto with a late Danny Koevermans strike snapping the streak that shall not be named; a 3-0 Union spanking in Philly on goals from Gabriel Gomez, Adu, and Hoppenot, that ended a five-match unbeaten run by the Reds; and finally, a diplomatic 1-1 draw in Toronto with Williams cancelling out an Eric Hassli strike late, once both were well out of the postseason picture in September.

Toronto has never won in three visits to PPL Park, falling 2-1 in the first meeting back in 2010 – goals from Michael Orozo-Fixcal and Le Toux either side of a Chad Barrett tally and 3-0 last season as described above. They drew their 2011 meeting with Ryan Johnson cancelling out Le Toux’s first half strike twelve minutes into the second half.

Philadelphia, at times, has some extremely one-eyed announcers – the ugly Rivas-Hoppenot head-butt incident from last season was a good example of the enhanced outrage they often portray.

Their classy Bethlehem Steel-inspired third jerseys are some of the sharpest offerings in the league.

For the extra studious, links to last season’s Know Your Enemy previews – meeting one, two, and three.