Feeling good after last week's win in Orlando, Toronto FC returns to the pitch on Saturday afternoon, closing out the seven-match road trip in Philadelphia with an eye on the long-awaited home-opener, which is finally just around the corner.
Beginning the season with a long road trip was never going to be easy. A realistic reading of the future hoped that by the time May 10 rolled around, TFC would have collected a handful of points – one per game seemed like a comfortable target.
Through the first six matches, Toronto has achieved that mark, good enough to sit in sixth in the East, primed to climb up the table with solid home form. A point from the weekend will keep that base stable, anything more than that would be sheer gravy.
For a while, mired in a four-match losing streak, there was a risk that TFC would find themselves drifting further and further away from the race in the East. It is early in the season and there are many matches still to be played, but one never wants to start in too deep a hole.
Currently eight points off the conference leaders, they will have their work cut out for them in hunting down New England, DC, and New York, but with a win in Philadelphia that gap will at least not get any larger.
There is of course a danger in looking too far ahead. Philadelphia may be down on their luck, but they are still a very good side, capable of causing trouble and hungry to turn around their struggles.
A closer look at this weekend's opponent, the Philadelphia Union, is in order.
After replacing John Hackworth in June last season, Jim Curtin impressed sufficiently – leading the side to a sixth-placed finish, missing out on the playoffs by seven points - to have the 'interim' tag removed, taking over the head coaching duties on a permanent basis.
In the off-season, he set about addressing several of the holes in the Union lineup.
Starting up top in the striker position, Curtin reinforced with the additions of CJ Sapong, acquired in a trade with Sporting KC, and Venezuelan Fernando Aristeguieta, on loan from French club FC Nantes. Conor Casey, the old battering ram, re-signed after having his option declined initially. They also drafted Dzenan Catic 31st overall in the draft.
There were however losses in that position as well: Jamaican speedster Brian Brown is no longer with the club, his option was declined, while Pedro Ribeiro, the impressively large rookie forward, was selected by Orlando City in the expansion draft and Aaron Wheeler, the centre-back turned forward, was waived.
In the midfield, veteran Brazilian Fred was re-signed, Eric Ayuk Mbo, a lively Cameroonian attacker entered on a free transfer, and Eric Bird was selected 41st overall. Meanwhile Amobi Okugo departed for Orlando in a trade, while Leo Fernandes and Danny Cruz left on loan – to New York Cosmos and FK Bodo/Glimt, respectively.
At the back, Canadian-born defender Steven Vitoria was acquired on loan from Benfica, and full-back Raymond Lee was selected in the later rounds of the SuperDraft. Carlos Valdes, who disappointed after returning from Colombia, was sent back out on loan to Nacional in his homeland, while Austin Berry was surprisingly loaned to Korean side FC Anyang.
They also made changes in goal, sending Zac MacMath on an intra-league loan to Colorado, while signing local product John McCarthy, who excelled in USL with Rochester.
No MLS side has utilized the external loan system to the extent that the Union have: they have two players on loan and five out on loans – it is a curious development that should be interesting to watch.
For all those machinations, the Union have cut a very similar look to last season; there is some value in that consistency. And for their struggles this season, there have been myriad reasons.
Injuries have played a role. The injury report currently lists seven players, with Antoine Hoppenot, the super sub, out, and four potential starters – Vincent Nogueira, Brian Carroll, Aristeguieta, and Vitoria – listed as questionable.
Discipline too has been a factor. Both Fred and Zach Pfeffer have seen red cards, against Chicago and Dallas, respectively, each leading to losses.
While consistency, or the lack their of, has been to their downfall. Rais M'bolhi has looked horrible and how now left the team, while Philadelphia has been unable to field a stable back-four, forced to draft Mo Edu into a centre-back role as Ethan White struggled to find his form.
For all that, their margins of defeat, aside from the Columbus loss, have been small. Fortune has largely not been on their side in close matches.
Further complicating the lineup predictions, Curtin stated after the 4-1 loss in Columbus last weekend, that there would be changes.
Their projected lineup is as follows: John McCarthy in goal; from right to left – Sheanon Williams, Maurice Edu, Steven Vitoria, and Ray Gaddis across the back; Eric Ayuk, Michael Lahoud, Cristian Maidana, and Andrew Wenger through the middle; Sebastian Le Toux and CJ Sapong up top.
After going 4-4-2 successfully through much of the preseason, Curtin was forced into reconsidering his plans when Sapong suffered a concussion early in the season. Since then he has flirted with a variety of lineups.
The M'bolhi affair having come to an end, MacMath out on loan, and Andre Blake still recovering from a long-term knee injury, has forced the Union's hand into fielding a rookie keeper in the 22-year old McCarthy. He has looked solid, aside from that Columbus result. Blake is likely to take over the starting duties at some point, but Saturday's match comes too soon.
On the back-line, Vitoria is a little banged up, but will be risked if he is able. Otherwise White would be drafted back into the starting eleven. Philadelphia has options in the outside back position, with Fabinho a left-sided option and Lee a right-sided one; Gaddis has featured on either side as well, depending on who Curtin has chosen for the other side, providing yet another option.
Carroll could take Lahoud's spot in that lineup, but given he is nursing a hamstring issue and Lahoud has made himself a presence in recent outings, that is unlikely. Curtin has at times opted for a double-pivot in that part of the field, playing Nogueira or Pfeffer there as deep-lying playmakers, or doubling down on the defensive aspect with both Lahoud and Carroll in place.
That would be the most likely formation change, reverting to a five-man midfield in hope of shutting down Toronto's ball-movement.
In attack, Maidana makes the side tick, but Pfeffer and Nogueira have both seen time in that central attacking role. Out wide, Le Toux and Wenger have failed to click, while Ayuk has looked lively, if a touch wild. Sapong too is an option, driving in-field from wide.
And up top, if fit Aristeguieta must be watched carefully, while Casey is a pain that TFC should be well familiar with, by reputation, if not experience, though he is more likely to feature from the bench.
If Curtin does go with the 4-2-3-1, expect to see Le Toux and Wenger on the wings, with Sapong, or Aristeguieta, if fit, up top.
The Union currently sit in ninth place in the East having collected six points from nine matches – they are tied on points with TFC and New York City. Their horrendous goal difference (minus-seven) is what places them at the bottom of the three-way tie.
With seventeen goals conceded, the Union are by far the league leaders in that category, double most teams, and treble what Seattle have conceded – though, in their defense, Philadelphia has played more matches than most.
They have won just once, drawn three, and lost five matches. Their only win came at home, against expansion New York City. They drew their first home match and lost the other two.
Having opened the season with a scoreless draw at home against Colorado in which Clint Irwin stood on his head to deny the Union, Philadelphia would draw 3-3 in Salt Lake the following week. Javier Morales opened the scoring, only for Aristeguieta to pounce on a pair of Salt Lake errors. Jamison Olave scored at both ends in a three-minute span to level and then reinstate the visitors lead, but Alvaro Saborio's controversial late penalty kick would ensure a splitting of the spoils.
A Pfeffer red card for throwing an undisciplined elbow into the face of Mauro Diaz would prove costly against Dallas, the visiting side scoring twice in the second half with the man advantage through Tesho Akindele and Ryan Hollingshead to take home a 0-2 result.
The following week it was Fred's red card for a petulant swat at Harrison Shipp in the 72nd minute that limited their ability to respond to a first half Adailton flicked header from a corner kick. Chicago would see out the 1-0 win, their first of the season.
Further late dramatics would prove costly in Kansas City. Saborio's penalty may have been a harsh call, but this collapse was entirely of their own doing. Philadelphia twice took the lead inside the opening nineteen minutes – a Jacob Peterson own-goal and an Aristeguieta header from a free-kick – only for Dom Dwyer to capitalize on M'bolhi missing a delivery for Sporting in the 16th minute. Protecting that lead into stoppage-time, Philadelphia would concede twice in three-minutes, with Jalil Anibaba scoring in the 91st and Krisztian Nemeth in the 94th, to overturn what would have been a very positive result for the visitors, who remained winless on the season.
Philadelphia would respond to that shock, winning their first, and only, of the season against New York City. Pfeffer scored the first, only for David Villa to respond shortly after half-time. But it was the Union's turn for some late-game heroics, with Nogueira nabbing the winner in the 92nd minute.
Five days later in the return fixture, the two clubs would draw at Yankee Stadium, again thanks to some late magic. Mehdi Ballouchy put the hosts in front in the 57th minute, but Sapong responded, slamming home a goal-mouth scramble.
Philadelphia failed to capitalize on that momentum, falling 1-2 to New England on short rest. Maidana opened the scoring in the 42nd minutes, but with the Revolution surging and the Union tiring, Charlie Davies and Teal Bunbury scored after the hour mark to overturn the result.
And most recently, Philadelphia fell 4-1 at Columbus. Kei Kamara, Ethan Finlay, and Justin Meram scored first half goals. Ayuk grabbed some consolation, only for Finlay to restore the three-goal advantage and seal the night.
The Union enter Saturday's match on the back of two-straight losses, riding a three-match winless run.
Part Two, hitting the game film for strengths and weaknesses, will be posted shortly