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Know Your Enemy: Philadelphia Union – Meeting the First; Part One – The Lineup and the Form

The first half of the latest installment of the Know Your Enemy series, previewing Toronto FC's upcoming opponent, the Philadelphia Union, focusing on their lineup and form headed into Wednesday's match

The stunning views of Philadelphia's PPL Park, where TFC will clash with the Union on Wednesday
The stunning views of Philadelphia's PPL Park, where TFC will clash with the Union on Wednesday
John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Just as one gets comfortable with the idea that the past is in the past, old tendencies rear their ugly heads again.

After a whirlwind few days in TFC-land, the club will return to the pitch, under a new manager – the ninth in the club’s eight-year history, to try and put right what has gone wrong on the pitch.

Whether their current on-field struggles really warranted Ryan Nelsen’s removal or the revolution in the back-room was as much a power-play as a response to crisis remains to be seen and like many of the darker turns in Toronto FC’s history, the truth will likely never fully emerge.

Enough ink has been spilt on Nelsen, Tim Bezbatchenko, and Jermain Defoe over the past few days for now; that will all get sorted out in the wash. The important fact remains there are matches to be played.

Ten games that will define the season; whether a bloody big success or epic catastrophe teeters in the balance. Toronto still clings to fourth spot in the East, but any advantages have evaporated in a tightly-packed conference, where spots three to nine are separated by just five points.

The last few months do not matter; it begins with a rare home-and-away series against the Philadelphia Union.

Aside from Western Conference opponents, who TFC only face once per season, Philadelphia is the last club to be encountered in 2014, that the two matches come back-to-back is a little odd, but it could be fun.

These two teams have had some battles and the two cities are well-acquainted with each other over the years in various sporting encounters.

So what should fans expect from this year’s Union? A closer look at this week’s double-enemy, the Philadelphia Union is in order…

The Lineup

Much like Toronto, Philadelphia underwent an extensive rebuild in the offseason.

Veteran centre-back Jeff Parke was traded to DC United, while Michael Farfan departed for Mexican side, Cruz Azul. Their replacements included external signings Vincent Nogeuira - a midfielder from French side, Sochaux, Argentine midfielder Cristian Maidana, and former TFC midfielder Maurice Edu, as well as a pair of young MLS centre-backs, Ethan White - coming in the other direction from the Parke trade - and Austin Berry, who joined from Chicago, with allocation monies headed to the Fire. A pair of draft picks in highly-touted keeper Andre Blake and forward Pedro Ribeiro rounded out the preseason acquisitions.

Since then, they have continued to add further pieces, Brazilian Fred was picked up in a waiver draft, while former standout defender Carlos Valdes returned from Colombia at the start of August; Jamaican forward Brian Brown and Algerian World Cup keeper, Rais Mbolhi joined the club as the transfer deadline approached.

Having begun with a rather solid base of MLS experience and young talents, Philadelphia looked poised to be a threat in the Eastern Conference, with many considering them a dark-horse for a run at the top.

In term of Wednesday’s starting eleven, there are a few concerns that interim manager Jim Curtain must address. The international break will see both Valdes and Mbolhi away with their respective national teams, so too for Michael Lahoud and Zach Pfeffer, though their absences will have less impact than the previous two. The quartet will miss both matches against Toronto, unlike Brown and Blake, who will not miss any league action, with Jamaica conveniently taking on Canada in Toronto a few days after the Union visit.

Missing goalkeeper Mbolhi will not be too much of an issue, as they have three solid starters in camp – though the mindset of Zac MacMath, who, through no fault of his own, has been forced to concede the starting position to Mbolhi, is a potential issue.

Centre-back on the other hand, has been an issue all season with Edu and Amobi Okugo forced into spot duty from midfield; former manager John Hackworth even tried out forward Aaron Wheeler in that spot for a run of matches in the early going.

Enter Berry, who has had a very difficult season with injuries and illness, but made an appearance in a bye-week friendly the Union played against USL PRO affiliates the Harrisburg City Islanders last week.

Their projected starting lineup is as follows: Zac MacMath in goal; from right to left – Sheanon Williams, Ethan White, Austin Berry, and Ray Gaddis across the back; Maurice Edu and Amobi Okugo sitting deep with Sebastien Le Toux, Vincent Nogueira, and Danny Cruz through the midfield; Conor Casey as the lone forward atop the formation.

football formations

Curtain may opt to go with Blake in goal; the rookie has proved himself capable in one league match and some cup action.

Left-back Fabinho provides a little more attacking flair than Gaddis – not that much more really – but has been nursing an injury recently. If Berry is not ready to go, Williams could move into the middle, swapping Gaddis to the right and opening up the left for Fabinho, if fit. Or one of those sitting midfielders could slot into the back-line, making room for Brian Carroll in the centre of the pitch.

Nogueira and Le Toux are pretty much locks to start, but Cruz’s left-side could see some variation, as both Maidana, again if fit, and Andrew Wenger are candidates for that spot. Leo Fernandes, who was very impressive early in the campaign, has seen his minutes dry up, but he too is an option.

Up top Casey provides a nice foil for their attack, but Brown and Wenger are both faster and more mobile attackers. Ribeiro and Wheeler have seen only limited action this year.

It appears as though they tried out a different formation from their standard 4-2-3-1 against Harrisburg, opting for more of a diamond midfield; it is possible that Curtain was planning ahead with that move, in which case, Casey could be paired up top with either Brown or Wenger.

The Form

The Union enter Wednesday’s match in good form, having lost just two league matches since Curtain took over from Hackworth at the start of June. Their record of five wins, four draws, and two losses since the end of May has seen them keep pace with the Eastern Conference, though they currently sit in seventh place on 30 points from 25 matches.

Their season began well, going unbeaten through two matches – drawing away to Portland and winning at home against New England, but they would have to wait ten matches to pick up their next win in the middle of May, 1-2 away to Kansas City, with five losses and four draws in between.

Heavy losses to New England (3-5) and Los Angeles (4-1) would follow, before a 0-3 win in Chivas had them tasting victory again.

A 3-3 draw at home against Vancouver, having stormed back from two first-half goals to lead, only to concede a late penalty kick, precipitated the firing of John Hackworth because, "[Our fans] don’t deserve ties at home; they deserve victories. They don’t deserve being near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. They deserve a team that’s going to be near the top."

With MLS breaking for the World Cup, the Union were able to progress through two rounds of the US Open Cup, defeating Harrisburg City and the New York Cosmos, before returning to league play with a 1-3 win away to struggling New England.

They would lose 2-1 away to Dallas the following weekend, before beating the Revolution again four days later, 2-0 in the Open Cup to progress to the semifinals of the competition.

Back in the league, they drew 3-3 in a rollercoaster match against Colorado, twice taking the lead at home, only to get pulled back level each time – this time they did not fire their coach.

Again on short rest in the midst of a spell of seven matches in 22 days, they would beat New York 3-1 with Casey and Fred scoring at the beginning of each half. Bradley Wright-Phillips pulled one back on the hour, but Le Toux sealed the result with a spot kick in the 69th minute.

A pair of 1-1 draws, either side of an eleven day rest would see them into August: away to Chicago - Jeff Larentowicz gave the hosts the lead on the hour, only for a controversial Le Toux penalty kick in stoppage-time to draw Philly level - and Kansas City - Graham Zusi put Sporting in front in the 54th minute, but Brown would equalize on nearly his first touch in the 71st, having entered two minutes earlier.

A 2-1 win against Montreal – Le Toux scoring twice before Maxim Tissot ensured a nervy finish - was followed by a penalty shootout win (3-4) over Dallas after a 1-1 away draw in the Open Cup semifinals – Philadelphia will host Seattle in the final later this month.

Playing their third match in a week, they fell 2-0 away to Houston, with Curtain giving rare starts to draft picks Blake and Ribeiro. Will Bruin registered the first for the Dynamo and the second, in the final minute of regulation, was an unfortunate own-goal, Omar Cummings’ cross deflecting off Gaddis.

Rested, a week later the Union beat San Jose 4-2 in an offense outpouring that coincided with the debut of new keeper Mbolhi. Philadelphia stormed out to a two-goal lead inside fifteen minutes with Wenger and Le Toux scoring, only for San Jose to respond at the start of the second frame through Sam Cronin and Chris Wondolowski.

Sheanon Williams would reinstate the lead two minutes after Wondolowski leveled and Wenger sealed the result with his second of the match seven minutes after that, sparing the Union the indignity of suffering another comeback.

Part Two of the preview, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses, as well as highlighting some points of interest will be posted first thing tomorrow morning.