On the back of two straight wins, Toronto FC returns to the pitch at BMO Field on Saturday for the third of five successive home matches that will decide their season.
A playoff spot is all but assured – TFC can clinch with a win and results elsewhere – but, as Michael Bradley has been fond of saying these past few weeks, the job is not done yet.
Saturday's match kicks off the final month of the 2015 MLS season, four matches before the MLS Cup Playoffs begin, and though some minor battles at the dividing line exist, much of the drama will revolve around who finishes where, in hope of avoiding the play-in matches.
The six points have been very helpful in easing any fears of a late-season swoon, but given the quality of the competition – both Colorado and Chicago are basement dwellers – there are plenty of questions that linger. Saturday's opponent will do little to respond to those concerns, but on the horizon, the final three will be more revealing: home matches against top of the table competition – Columbus and New York Red Bull, before a final-day away trip to Montreal, a team hot on Toronto's heels with the sprint underway.
For the second-straight week, TFC will be facing a team undergoing staffing turmoil, with Nick Sakiewicz out as Union CEO, and thus for a third-straight match there are elements of a trap awaiting.
Changes in the offing, stinging from a midweek shoot-out loss in the US Open Cup Final, and with their playoff aspirations hanging by a thread, Philadelphia will be a dangerous foe. Any expectant of an easy win do so at their peril.
The two clubs have already met twice this season, much of what was written before rings true, but still, a closer look at this weekend's opponent, the Philadelphia Union, is in order.
Jim Curtin's side enters Saturday's match in ninth-place in the East, on 34 points from 31 matches, a full eight points below the final playoff position in the conference – anything less than a win, and even then they need kind results elsewhere, will see them officially eliminated.
Their league form has been steady in past weeks, unbeaten in two, with just two losses in their last eight matches, though that has not been enough to make up for poor results earlier in the season.
Prior to the last meeting, Philadelphia were similarly in form, unbeaten in three-straight, but a loss at Toronto ended that run, starting out a run of four winless matches; losses in DC and against the Red Bulls followed by a scoreless draw away to Orlando.
In the midst of that run, Philadelphia's saving grace was the Open Cup, where a penalty kick victory over the Red Bulls and a 1-0 squeaker against Chicago saw them advance to this week's final, hosting the big event against Sporting KC on Wednesday.
Four days after dispatching the Fire in the cup, the two met again, playing to a rollicking 3-3 draw in Philadelphia.
A 0-1 win in Montreal would follow – their first in over a month – with Sebastian Le Toux the goal-scorer.
That same scoreline would prove their undoing the next week, falling 0-1 to a visiting New England side with Diego Fagundez the lone goal-scorer.
The up and down nature of their season would continue, with a win in San Jose – 1-2, Chris Wondolowski opened the scoring before a brace from Conor Casey turned the tide – and a loss against Columbus – 1-2, a Kei Kamara brace not undone by CJ Sapong's consolation strike – in quick succession.
But in the build to the cup final, the Union found some form, winning 2-0 against Houston – goals from Tranquillo Barnetta, his first in MLS, and Sapong – and drawing away to New England, despite resting several starters for the big match – Lee Nguyen scored a first-half penalty, but Fernando Aristeguieta responded in the 65th minute to earn a point.
It was a decision that would not pay off.
The Union took the lead in the 23rd minute through Le Toux, but Krisztian Nemeth pulled Sporting level in the 65th, sending the match to extra time and eventually penalties. And as if that were not enough drama, even the penalty kicks went to sudden death, lasting even until the sixteenth taker, Jordi Quintilla.
The loss will no doubt have been a bitter disappointment. Just how they respond to that defeat remains to be seen.
Of note, Philadelphia is unbeaten in their last four away matches, draws in Orlando and New England book-ending wins over Montreal and San Jose.
July 18 Toronto FC 2: Philadelphia Union 1
Another fine performance from Sebastian Giovinco helped power TFC to a 2-1 win over the Union back in July, racking up a second consecutive win over Philadelphia after going winless through seven encounters.
It was Giovinco's free-kick that proved the difference in the May meeting, and he played a key role in the opener, poking a ball forward for Marky Delgado in the 29th minute.
Delgado swung at the ball, appearing to redirect an attempted-clearance from Richie Marquez into the Union net.
Three minutes later it was another rasping drive from the Italian, this one in the run of play, that led to a second for TFC. The initial shot was parried by on-loan goalkeeper, Brian Sylvestre, falling back to Giovinco who continued his move, reacting quickest to deposit his own rebound into the back of the net.
Former Toronto striker Conor Casey would find minor consolation in the 91st minute, turning at the top of the box to sneak a low shot past Chris Konopka, soiling a potential clean-sheet in the waning moments – he loves playing TFC – but it was too little to late for the Union.
Given their exertions in the cup final on Wednesday, predicting just how Curtin will approach Saturday's match is uncertain. For all intents and purposes, their season is over, if not officially so, so the plan could be either to see out the season on a high note, hoping to carry that into next year, or use the remaining matches to make decisions regarding who will be with the club when the next campaign begins.
Every team in MLS has a handful of players who exist on the bubble, rarely getting enough playing time to really show their worth – dead-rubbers are a good time, if not necessarily ideal, to see who can contribute going forward.
Most recent injury reports have three players listed: goalkeeper Sylvestre is out, while both Fred and Maurice Edu are questionable with groin and hamstring strains, respectively. Edu did play midweek against Kansas City, so is not necessarily unavailable.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Andre Blake in goal; from right to left – Ray Gaddis, Steven Vitoria, Richie Marquez, and Fabinho across the back-line; Vincent Nogueira and Brian Carroll will sit deep with Sebastian Le Toux, Cristian Maidana, and Tranquillo Barnetta further ahead in the midfield; CJ Sapong will top the formation.
That lineup, with the exception of Edu in for Vitoria and Michael Lahoud in for Carroll, is the one that featured on Wednesday. Until they are officially out there is little reason to give up, and, barring any undeclared injury concerns picked up, those players will be eager to get back out there – on the field is the best place to get over disappointment.
There are plenty of options at Curtin's disposal.
The goalkeeping position, as it has been all season, is a bit of a toss-up. John McCarthy could reasonably come in for Blake, but given the form the young Jamaican international has shown of late – making some ten saves, many jaw-dropping, against New England last weekend – now is a good time to get some matches under his belt.
On the back-line, Edu could retain his starting role over Vitoria, or Ethan White could come in, while Andrew Wenger, who is just coming back from a lengthy spell on the sideline with concussion symptoms, played at full-back against New England and could get the run out.
Carroll is fresh, Lahoud less so, but Edu could step into the midfield two, while Warren Creavalle, who joined the Union mid-season, could come in to face his former side – not a bad tactic given TFC past.
Further afield, Wenger could take up a wide role, moving Barnetta into the middle if Maidana requires a rest, or Eric Ayuk Mbu could take up a wide position as well.
Up top, TFC killer Casey could get the start, but is more likely to play a substitute's role. Aristeguieta is a lively option is Curtin wants someone a little more active, while Antoine Hoppenot has found minutes a rarity this season.
One thing that Toronto will have to be especially wary of come game time will be Philadelphia's strength and aerial prowess up the middle, regardless of whether Sapong, Casey, or Aristeguieta gets the start.
Sapong showed his physical dominance against DC, shirking the attentions of Steve Birnbaum in collecting a ball from Maidana, muscling him to the ground before placing a finish past the keeper:
He is very mobile, making the most of his teammate's tendencies, and can threaten from set-pieces as well.
Set-pieces, or aerial challenges, are where Casey excels. Both his goals in a recent match against San Jose came from such deliveries. Gaddis provided an inch-perfect ball for the first, finding Casey below the penalty spot, while Barnetta's free-kick was met on a near-post run from the hulking forward who flicked on to the far-side unmarked:
Casey loves playing against Toronto with eight goals in seventeen appearances.
If Aristeguieta is selected, do not let his small size, compared to the other two, fool, he too can cause problems, making a near-post move of his own against Chicago.
Toronto's task will be to limit such dead-ball chances to a bare minimum, while tracking the run of play moves from the forwards. On set-pieces, it will fall to the likes of Damien Perquis and Josh Williams to be aware of the movement and match them stride for stride, preventing such free headers from occurring.
Aside from that attacking focal point, the Union will make use of width to gain territory, before seeking to move into the box. Sapong's goal against Columbus is a good example.
Le Toux from his wide right position, lays a ball down the line for Casey, who returns the favour, gaining further ground up the flank. Le Toux then muscles Tony Tchani off the ball before squaring to the streaking Sapong who sweeps a finish into the goal:
They performed a very similar move against Houston down the left side, with Nogueira, Fabinho, and Barnetta combining to find Sapong's near-post move – such a play is where the defensive tracking of the forward is key.
Barnetta's goal that same match was the more-or-less the same pattern – Le Toux and Maidana down the right – with the twist being the final ball pulled higher towards the top of the box:
Defensive contribution from the midfield, aiding the full-backs when they are outnumbered, is vital to shutting down those wide channels.
One final concern is the devastating, lightning-quick counters of which Philadelphia is capable. The six-goal roller-coaster of a match against Chicago provided two such examples. Fabinho's horribly-deflected strike was one such play – Barnetta curling in-field to find the full-back in space up the left – while Le Toux's would-be game-winner was textbook:
It goes without saying that the ball and possession is a precious thing. It need not be held at all times, but when and where it is turned over can be devastating. Toronto has been a little sloppy of late – such mistakes can be deadly in knockout football and must be eliminated.
At the other end of the pitch, Philadelphia has shown a certain frailty straight up the middle, as both Toronto goals in the last meeting evidenced. It is due to a combination of factors that have cost the Union time and again.
One of those issues is poor threat assessment and marking.
Consider a pair of goals: Fabian Espindola's come-from-behind game-winner and Kamara's first.
In the case of Espindola, the presence and movement of Alvaro Saborio as the ball is swung out wide to Chris Korb draws the attentions of both White and Gaddis, who in their panic, forget to mark Espindola, a dangerous finisher in his own right.
The result? A DC win.
Kamara was similarly left alone is acres of space on the back-side, giving him plenty of time to finish when Marquez' flicked-clearance fell to him.
The unifying feature of both those goals was that the Union were put under pressure, only to crumble.
One lesson that Toronto should take from those goals is the value of having multiple targets in the box. Defenders can often track one player, out numbering him, or can find the necessary space for a clearance when there is no pressure, but every additional body raises the likely hood of a chance being created.
Another issue is a hesitancy in stepping up to the ball. Giovinco created both goals from the central-top of the area in the last meeting, and Fagundez' winner came when Marquez allowed him to move in-field to get off a shot:
TFC has plenty of potency from those areas, be in Giovinco, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, or Benoit Cheyrou. If Philadelphia backs off, make them pay.
A third factor is that the Union have often been caught napping.
Defending is about being constantly alert, switching off for even a second, a momentary lapse of concentration, can prove costly.
In recent weeks there have been two examples of Fabinho wearing the goat-horns. In the first, he was slow to react to an Espindola shot, allowing Nick DeLeon to get to the rebound first, while against Chicago he left Patrick Nyarko alone at the back-side to touch a Kennedy Igboananike ball into the net:
Both goals were excellent exemplars of the value of making the effort to be in position. Make that run, follow up that shot, rewards will follow.
A final note, that combines the above points with the use of width, arises in the opening goal of that 3-3 draw against Chicago.
A Nyarko ball in from the right finds Igboananike, who gets ball-side on Gaddis for the finish:
In the course of the build-up, both Union centre-backs are drawn wide, leaving that central part of the box very vulnerable. Get the Philadelphia defense moving and off-kilter, lanes and space will open up.
This is the third meeting between the two clubs this season; Toronto has won both by a combined scored of 3-1.
The two clubs have met fourteen times over the years in MLS play with Philadelphia winning six, Toronto four, and four ending in draws.
Seven of those matches have been played at BMO Field, with TFC winning three, the Union two, and three ending level.
Prior to the July win, Philadelphia had taken points from their last three visits, while their 2011 2-6 win remains TFC's heaviest defeat.