The past few months have been unkind.
Flash back to the middle on July, when TFC had one loss in their last ten matches, sitting comfortably in the playoff spots with the potential to push towards the top of the tables.
Seven weeks and eight matches later Toronto has gone off the rails. Ryan Nelsen was sacked, his entire coaching staff was let go, and as for the much-heralded Bloody Big Deal? Well, it’s been bloodied, and that once assured playoff spot has become more tenuous with each passing disappointment.
With nine matches remaining, TFC sit in fourth place, tied with three teams on 33 points – one of which is south of the dividing line, with three more teams in close pursuit, within five points of the coveted fifth-spot.
Despite all the tumult and turmoil, destiny remains firmly in the results; a turnaround now and all is forgotten (or at least overlooked), though each setback comes at a price.
That was hardly the start that Greg Vanney would have hoped for, losing 1-0 away to Philadelphia, but he’ll have another bite at the cherry, as the two sides line up for the return match in Toronto.
Saturday provides the perfect chance to reboot. An away match, mere days removed from the hiring of the new coach, was always likely to be difficult and though injuries and suspension will continue to wreck havoc, a home match should be an entertaining prospect.
So, what to make of the opponent, one of the sides chasing TFC for post-season consideration, the Philadelphia Union?
Well, since the last meeting was on Wednesday, this preview will take a slightly different tact, looking at what was said before – Parts One and Two - and comparing those concerns to how the recent match played out.
A closer look at this weekend’s opponent, the Philadelphia Union, is in order.
Philadelphia will enter the match in good form, having won their last two and lost just once in their eight matches, falling 2-0 on the road to Houston on August 15.
Of some hope for Toronto, the best of the Union’s good run has coincided with a string of home matches. They have not won in their last four road games, picking up draws in Chicago and Kansas City, as well as losing away to Dallas at the start of July.
They have thirteen points from fourteen away matches: seven losses, three wins and four draws.
They did progress in the US Open Cup away to Dallas, but needed penalty kicks to decide a 1-1 draw.
The Union are unbeaten in their last six matches against TFC, having won the last two and drawn the three prior to that, each by a 1-1 score-line.
The two have met five times in Toronto, with TFC winning two to Philadelphia’s one – that 2-6 result back in 2011 – and drawing the other two in their last two visits.
September 3 Philadelphia 1: Toronto 0
Wednesday night’s match was the first meeting of the season between the two sides and Philadelphia weathered an energetic, if fruitless, Toronto start to expose gapping holes in the Toronto defense on several occasions.
The return of Cristian Maidana helped the Union move the ball well, forcing Joe Bendik to come up with several saves, first getting down low to prevent a Conor Casey snap-shot in the area before clawing an Amobi Okugo header off the goal-line in the second half. Bendik would parry a dangerous Andrew Wenger shot later in the match to keep the match close and did well to push a Sebastien Le Toux free-kick over the bar.
Dangerous on the break, the Union would find the opener in the 55th minute. Doneil Henry and Ashtone Morgan were both caught high, stepping into Maidana at the half, allowing the Argentine to scoop a ball into the space behind them for Le Toux to chase. Nick Hagglund was slow to cover and Mark Bloom let Casey get goal-side, resulting in a tidy finish at the near-post once Le Toux played in to the big forward.
Toronto would have their chances. Dominic Oduro was twice sprung, only for Zac MacMath to race off his line to snuff out the threat. MacMath came up big in the minute after Philly took the lead, getting a strong hand on a Gilberto shot from an Oduro cutback having burst in to the right-side of the area.
Any hopes of a Toronto come back were quashed when Hagglund dawdled on the ball, hit pass blocked by Le Toux, who raced in on goal alone. Morgan was drawn into making a last-ditch effort to slow the attackers run, who took advantage of an arm on his shoulder to tumble to the ground, drawing a red card for the TFC defender.
There are no new injuries listed for the Union, with only midfielder Vincent Nogueira currently listed as ‘questionable’.
As such there is little reason, other than the short rest, to predict many changes to the starting lineup. One consideration is the upcoming US Open Cup Final, which will be played a week Tuesday, the second of three matches in seven days, so if there are any concerns, Jim Curtain may wish to take some preventative action.
Their projected lineup for Saturday is as follows: Zac MacMath in goal; from right to left – Sheanon Williams, Ethan White, Maurice Edu, and Ray Gaddis across the back-line; Amobi Okugo and Brian Carroll sitting deep with Sebastien Le Toux, Cristian Maidana and Danny Cruz through the midfield; with Conor Casey atop the formation as the lone strker.
Andrew Wenger got the start on the left-side of the midfield three on Wednesday, but Cruz provides a little more defensive work than does Wenger, which may be a valuable asset on the road. That said, and given how effective he was, it would be no surprise if there was no change.
Left-back Fabinho is fit again and was on the bench on Wednesday, he could come in for Gaddis, but that is unlikely, while Austin Berry will have had a few more training sessions under his belt and may be in line to replace Edu in the centre of defense. If so, expect Edu to return to the midfield, pushing Carroll out of the starting lineup.
Further ahead, Maidana has only just returned to the lineup, so a second match in short succession may be a stretch too far. Normally, Nogueira would take that position, but if he is unavailable, Leo Fernandes in an option, as too is Fred, who used his experience to prevent TFC from building any momentum in the second half. Corbon Bone has seen limited action since joining the club, but he too is familiar with the position and could be used to solidify the middle of the park.
Up top, if Casey does not get the nod, Jamaican striker Brian Brown is an entirely different prospect, adding speed to the counter that Casey cannot. The same goes for pesky Antoine Hopponot, though he is more often a substitute.
Should they look for a target forward other than Casey, Aaron Wheeler and Pedro Ribeiro both fit that mold.
When reviewing the game film for Wednesday’s meeting, two observations regarding the play of Casey were highlighted, his ability to find spaces in the box and his uncanny ability to get on the end of plays.
His first chance, that low shot saved by Bendik, was a good example of him finding those little pockets. Luke Moore, who had been marking Casey on the initial free-kick was caught ball-watching, allowing the big man to get off his quick-shot:
Toronto must do a better job of not allowing those scrambles to turn into chances, clear those balls immediately.
His goal in the 55th minute exhibited both Casey’s ability to drive to the near-post – much like this goal against Colorado, as foretold in the preview – but also how threatening a Maidana-inspired attack, paired with the pace of Le Toux, can be.
In fact, it was nearly identical to a break against Vancouver that was featured in the preview, where the right-side of the Whitecaps defense are draw to Casey, who plays a neat one-two with Maidana, who in turn spring Nogueira into the vacated space on the attacking left. The play ends with Nogueira squaring to Le Toux for a first-time finish at the back-post.
On Wednesday, it was the left-side of the Toronto defense that collapsed, allowing Maidana to spring Le Toux, who found Casey driving to the near-post.
Toronto will have to do a much better job of staying organized at the back. Henry cannot get drawn out of position like that, while Hagglund and Bloom must do a better job of recognizing and closing down the danger than they did there.
That Morgan’s red card came from a very similar break, a mistake under the pressure of the intelligent pressing of the Union, will be of some concern. Toronto will be pressing forward in search of goals, but they cannot leave such an inexperienced back-line exposed like that and caught so far up the field.
MacMath played very well in his return to the lineup for Philadelphia, but as a young keeper, he is still prone to the occasional mistake. Consider his excellent save on Gilberto:
A fine save no doubt, but were it not for an alert intervention from Williams, that juicy rebound would have been put into the net by Moore. Toronto need to test MacMath and follow up those shots.
That Oduro was able to power his way into the box and setup Gilberto’s chance is another positive. The Union back-line is far from impenetrable. Toronto has the pace to really threaten them on the counter, the weighting of any balls over the top must be much better and TFC has to stretch the field with width to open up channels in an at-times packed Philadelphia defense.
One final note, something that has vexed all season, is how terrible TFC’s set-pieces have been. From Michael Bradley taking out his frustrations on the wall (the ball goes over or around), to over-hit and under-hit corner kicks, Toronto has struggled to make the most of those obvious chances.
They simply must do better. Time is ticking.