Mired in another long barren spell, Toronto FC returns to their home pitch on Saturday to face Philadelphia Union for their first league rematch of the season.
Winless in ten, having lost their last five, TFC scored one – yes, one – goal through the month of May, but with the dawn of June cometh a new chance.
Or so one can only hope.
Injury set-backs to Danny Koevermans and Richard Eckersley do not promise a fortuitous start, but Toronto, flirting with irrelevance once more, must brace itself or face another lost season.
A little more than a year ago – May 26th to be exact – it was the Union who provided the club’s first win of the season, halting a nine-game losing start, though it was only a false dawn in the end.
The two met a little less than two months ago, on April 13th in Philly, where a late Jack McInerney goal rescued a point for the Union after Ashtone Morgan had been harshly dismissed.
Much of what was written prior to that match remains true, but a closer look at the Union is in order.
In their seven league matches since then, Philadelphia has won three, lost three, and drawn a single match; they currently sit just on the positive side of the playoff line - in fifth place in the East, on eighteen points after thirteen matches played.
The Union have proven to be flat-track bullies, with all five of their wins coming against sides lower on the table than themselves – two against Chicago, one each against New England and an at-the-time struggling Colorado, as well as a 2-3 win at DC a week after drawing with TFC.
Principal to their woes has been their defending, having allowed 23 goals - second worst only to Chivas’ 24 - though a 1-4 loss to Los Angeles and a 5-3 loss in Montreal have padded that figure.
They enter Saturday’s match on the tail end of a tough schedule – it will be their sixth match through 21 days – fresh off a midweek US Open Cup fixture at home against the Ocean City Nor’Easters, which the Union won 2-1 thanks to a Brian Carroll goal late into second half stoppage-time.
It was a tense fixture by all accounts, Jack McInerney opened the scoring at the start of the second half with a simple tap in after a deflected Sebastien Le Toux cross was missed by an OC defender and fell to the Union’s leading scorer alone at the back-post, but the Nor’Easters leveled on an 89th minute goal-mouth scramble when Zac MacMath failed, once more, to collect a ball hit into the box.
With extra time and penalty kicks looming, captain and defensive midfielder, Carroll flicked a Le Toux corner kick towards goal, where it struck the post and was cleared. Did it cross the line? It was close; the goal was given and Philly go through to face cup nemesis, DC United.
Philadelphia fielded their strongest eleven in Tuesday’s cup clash, aside from Brazilian attacking midfielder, Kleberson, who has made the role his own since making his debut against Toronto.
They reportedly returned to the 4-3-3 for that match – with the attacking trident of Conor Casey, McInerney, and Le Toux in situ, but it is unlikely the conservative John Hackworth will continue in that vein, instead returning to their 4-4-2 for league play.
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 back; Brian Carroll holding with Danny Cruz, Kleberson, and Michael Farfan across the midfield; Jack McInerney paired with Conor Casey up top.
Marfan, now simply Farfan, as his brother was traded to Chivas, was one of the few starters rested on Tuesday – he came on in the 89th minute – and should return, though Keon Daniel and Le Toux, who both played the entire match, could get the nod.
It is entirely possible that Le Toux be paired with McInerney, rather than Casey, but given the size Toronto has at the back Hackworth will like to have a battler there to occupy one or two centre-backs.
Leo Fernandez impressed in place of Kleberson and could get some minutes.
The two clubs drew 1-1 in a physical April meeting.
With TFC bunkering for large portions of the match, Robert Earnshaw grabbed a goal against the run of play, latching onto an Ashtone Morgan ball from the back. Justin Braun, returning from an offside position – apparently not interfering with play – threw off the Union centre-backs allowing Earnshaw to win the footrace and lift a left-footer over the keeper in the 71st minute.
Morgan was then sent off for a raised arm on Williams in the 88th minute and Philadelphia thought they had equalized from the ensuing free-kick, but McInerney was adjudged to have fouled the keeper.
McInerney then made Toronto pay in the 93rd when he was left unmarked at the back-post to finish a swept Casey ball on a scrambled play after a long Williams throw was not properly cleared.
Joe Bednik was immense that afternoon robbing the Union of the full points, when he stymied Antoine Hoppenot one-on-one in the dying minutes.
Williams’ long throws have proved a very useful weapon – he has three assists from the touch-line thus far - most recently catching Los Angeles napping when Okugo got away from Juninho for a free header to tie the match against the Galaxy.
Le Toux has four assists in MLS play – tied with a host of others behind Graham Zusi’s league-leading five – and had a pair midweek in the US Open Cup.
His delivery on corner kicks in particular has caused many a team trouble.
Then there is McInerney himself, who is up to nine goals in MLS – a tenth in cup play – who must be watched closely.
They have struggled mightily to deal with quick breaks and balls played into space behind the back-line. Once stretched and turned, the Union defense fails to pick up their marks.
This Marco Di Vaio goal on the weekend is a good example, after tucking into the midfield and playing a ball into space on the left for Andres Romero he is tracked to the box and then left completely alone at the back-post for his hat-trick, shocking.
And young goalkeeper, MacMath, though constantly improving, is always capable of a gaff – this own-goal against LA was something else.
Cleary Toronto should get shots on goal and follow up for any spilled rebounds, look to turn the back-line by exploiting space behind the full-backs then charge the goal, and keep an eye on McInerney, while being sharp from throw-ins and corner kicks – sounds easy.
The Rumour mill has a potential trade in the works between the two clubs and Philly has some history in arranging a trade around a visit to an opponent.
Having played twice in a week, want-away defender, Bakary Soumare was traded to Chicago, his former club. Out of favour TFC centre-back and former Union captain Danny Califf, is potentially on his way out with a return to Philly repeatedly speculated upon, and talk on their end mentions a swap for midfielder Roger Torres.
Torres, a twenty-one year old Colombian midfielder, has found playing time hard to come by in his four seasons in Philly. He is a sublime talent when on song.
There are a ton of great Philadelphia-based outlets covering the game – Jonathan Tannenwald, the Goalkeeper, of Philly.com, The Philly Soccer Page – and their excellent podcast, and of course, SB Nation’s The Brotherly Game, to name but a few; the Union’s site itself is quiet good as well.