Winless in three matches, having conceded eight goals in their last two, Toronto FC returns to the friendly confines of BMO Field on Saturday, looking to overturn a miserable start to the month of July.
Rollicking 4-4 draws are fun and all, every once and a while, but they are not good for the health, the sanity, or the standings. Despite that, Toronto still sits nicely in fourth place in the East, atop a three-way tie with Orlando City and New England on 24 points; in possession of games-in-hand on all teams in the vicinity, both above and below.
And their spirits after a tough few outings may be lifted by the return of three starters from the Gold Cup exertions, as Canadians Jonathan Osorio, Ashtone Morgan, and Quillian Roberts come home disappointed; so too does Jozy Altidore, dropped from the US side over 'fitness' concerns, as the squads shuffle before the knockout rounds.
The next few weeks, spanning the midpoint of the season, can go in either direction.
Following Saturday's match, TFC is on the road for two more – away to Columbus and New England, before returning home for ten of their final fourteen games. While it is far from vital that Toronto turnaround the recent struggles, collecting a few points would put the club in a good position to make the needed sprint through the final three months of the regular season.
But before that comes into consideration, Toronto must brace for a clash against one of the form teams in the league.
The Union come to town in scintillating form, having put a four-match losing skid at the end of a start that saw them win just once through the first eleven matches of the season firmly in the rear view. That woe prompted cries of indignation from the supporters; a wail that was heard, the club responding to collect five wins and a draw through their last nine.
The two clubs have met once already this season – much of what was written then (Parts One & Two) still hold true – but a closer look at this weekend's opponent, the Philadelphia Union, is in order.
As mentioned, Philadelphia have managed to turnaround that horrid start, rising up to seventh in the East, to sit currently on 22 points from twenty matches, while progressing to the quarterfinal stage of the US Open Cup, setting a date against the New York Red Bulls next Tuesday.
Suffice it to say, Toronto will face a very different team this time around, in spirit, if not in body.
The 0-1 loss to Toronto at the start of May was the third of a four-game losing slide, followed by a 3-0 thumping in Vancouver, spurring the aforementioned protestations.
The Union would go on to win three of the next four, beating DC at home (1-0), the Red Bulls away (0-2), and Columbus at home (3-0), losing a return fixture in DC, 2-1 in the middle.
Having gotten June off to a good start, Philadelphia would drop a match at home against New York City by a 1-2 scoreline – CJ Sapong put the Union ahead, only for a goals from Tommy McNamara and Patrick Mullins to overturn the result, before making good use of a bye-week to progress past USL side, the Rochester Rhinos, on 3-1 penalty kicks in the Open Cup after a scoreless 120 minutes.
That match kicked off a run of five matches in fifteen days.
Four days after those exertions, they would be dismantled in Los Angeles – no shame in that, as TFC can attest – falling 5-1 on goals from Baggio Husidic, Juninho, Gyasi Zardes, Stefan Ishizaki, and Sebastian Lletget; Sapong provided some minor consolation in the 58th minute.
And four days later, the Union would muscle out a 1-0 win over Seattle – Maurice Edu saw his penalty kick saved in the first half, but Sapong's 69th minute goal was enough to withstand the challenge of the West-leading Sounders.
A 2-2 draw against Montreal continued that unbeaten run – Eric Ayuk opened the scoring in the eighth minute, but Ignacio Piatti and Jack McInerney put the Impact ahead, before Edu struck in the 76th to secure a point; stretched to three with another win over DC, this time in the Open Cup, to close out the month of June, Fabinho scoring the odd-goal of three leading to a 2-1 win after Jairo Arrieta and Ayuk exchanged goals, powering through a 24th minute red card to Sapong.
Picking up that form after a lengthy period of inactivity, Philadelphia returned to league play last Saturday with a 3-0 win over Portland – Andrew Wenger breaking his goal-scoring drought and Vincent Nogueira adding a pair; a match several players proclaimed their most complete of the season.
And for fun, they had a friendly on Tuesday, facing off against English Premier League newcomers, AFC Bournemouth, falling 1-4 in the process.
May 2, 2015 Philadelphia Union 0: Toronto FC 1
A sumptuous 34th minute free-kick from Sebastian Giovinco was enough for Toronto to finally get the better of Philadelphia, who had bossed the series over the past three seasons. It was Toronto's first-ever win in Philadelphia, ending a three-game winning and seven-match unbeaten run.
Giovinco's right-footer from over 35 yards away, looped over the assembled wall, dipping to find the left-side of goal as John McCarthy dove to his right, unable to reach the well-struck effort.
Playing in the last of seven-straight road matches to kickoff the season, TFC would survive some late scares – Fernando Aristeguieta found the back of the net in the 79th minute, denied by a very tight offside decision and the last ten minutes passed nervously, with the Union mounting pressure – to collect the full points in a second-straight away from home, ensuring their return to the renovated BMO Field would not be with too large of a deficit to overcome.
It was also the first start for Chris Konopka, kicking off a run of eleven-straight matches that will come to an end, as the Toronto keeper was suspended by the Disciplinary Committee for a rash tackle on Andoni Iraola in New York last weekend.
Heading into Saturday, there is one major wrinkle hanging over Jim Curtin as pertains to his starting eleven. Club captain Edu collected his eighth yellow card of the season and will not be available, leaving a gaping hole in the centre of defense.
Aside from Edu, four players are listed as 'out' on the most recent injury reports: Michael Lahoud, Fernando Aristeguieta, Eric Bird, and Steven Vitoria. Vitoria appears to have feature in the second half of their match against Bournemouth midweek, perhaps indicating he will slip into Edu's place on Saturday to play in his home town. It should be noted that Ethan White, another centre-back that rarely features, played the first half; it's a toss-up between the two out of favour defenders.
The projected starting lineup is as follow: Brian Sylvestre in goal; from right to left – Ray Gaddis, Steven Vitoria, Richie Marquez, and Fabinho across the back; Vincent Nogueira and Brian Carroll with sit deep, while Sebastian Le Toux, Cristian Maidana, and Andrew Wenger will span across the attacking midfield; CJ Sapong will top the formation.
There are any number of changes that Curtin could choose, but given the recent good form, it seems unnecessary to tinker.
John McCarthy has looked solid, but raw, whereas Sylvestre has collected some five clean-sheets through ten matches, locking down the position.
Sheanon Williams is an option at either full-back position, usually the right-side. Fabinho has shown some of his best play since joining the club, and Gaddis is as solid as they come, so no need to rock the boat. Rookie Raymond Lee saw some time in the friendly, having featured for twelve minutes all season.
Given that neither Vitoria or White have featured in league play for some time, it is difficult to grade one above the other. Vitoria has the added benefit of experience, while White is the more spry of the two. Curtin needs both those to face-off against Toronto.
In midfield, Zach Pfeffer is the odd man out of that projected eleven; he too has started to show the quality that had the Union sign him as a fifteen-year old back in 2010, the club's first homegrown player. He is more a candidate to take either Maidana's or Nogueira's roles, though he has seen some time in the wide positions.
Eric Ayuk Mbu is a right-sided attacker, more fleet of foot than Pfeffer to fill in for either Wenger or Le Toux. Fred is more that veteran calming midfield presence than a starter; look for him to come in to protect a lead or give a different look to the Union. Antoine Hoppenot, the once super-sub, has found minutes sparse this season.
Up top, Conor Casey an option who loves playing against Toronto – he has seven goals in fifteen appearances against the club for whom he played 56 minutes back in 2007 before leaving.
Recently, draft pick Dzenan Catic has moved to the sub's bench, so he too could get a runout.
A few updates regarding strengths and weaknesses:
Sapong has been in scintillating form since his transgression, scoring five goals and registering an assist in their last eight matches, including a four-game scoring streak through a busy June.
He is a big target in the air – getting on the end of a Williams ball against Seattle:
Solid in the area, making space for himself near the penalty spot against LA:
And has been making very strong runs in recent weeks. He can even add a little bit of hold-up play-making, setting up Ayuk against Montreal.
On top of all that, like Casey, he enjoys playing against Toronto, scoring four goals and adding two assists in ten appearances against the Reds.
Toronto will need to match Sapong step for step, mark him close, and keep an eye on him throughout the game.
But it is Maidana who really makes them tick, occupying that central attacking role and pulling the strings. He will drift all over the pitch, regularly popping up on the right, adding a difficult dimension to the Philadelphia attack.
With Le Toux and Wenger on either side – they will swap flanks throughout the match – Maidana will move out wide, stretching play, often crisscrossing his movement with that of the two outside attackers, who tend to work in from those wide channels.
This Nogueira strike against Portland from the weekend is a perfect illustration. Maidana playing to Le Toux, then making an overlap as the Frenchman moves in-field. Le Toux plays Maidana down the side of the area and he picks out the late-arriving Nogueira for the tidy finish.
That pull-back threat is another concern, with the front four bursting forward apace, it leaves a lot of space for Nogueira at the top of the area – Toronto's midfield will need to be aware of that concern to provide the required coverage.
Philadelphia is also capable of devastation on the counter, they get forward quickly, as Wenger did against Portland, showing that same inside movement from wide. The cross-field passing ability of Maidana makes those counters even more troublesome, as he can open up the opposite side of the pitch with pinpoint accuracy.
On the other side of the ball, it would serve Toronto well to focus on Marquez as the weak-link on the back-line. He has been good, stepping up to the MLS level, but can be had in the air, or caught flat-footed, making the odd mistake
It was his weak back-header that allowed Husidic to collect a long ball, playing to Zardes, and pouncing on the rebound to give the Galaxy the lead in that five-goal outing:
And it was he that was easily crossed up by McInerney to put Montreal ahead in their meeting. Get him isolated, as McInerney did, and Giovinco will have a field day with the second-year defender.
There is an element of hesitancy on the Union back-line that TFC can turn to their advantage. Against Montreal it came when Piatti was allowed the time and space to pick his shot, despite being surrounded by defenders.
New York City's McNamara profitted from a similar situation, finding the space for his long-range equalizing bomb after a midfield turnover put Philadelphia on the back-foot:
The down side to such a free-flowing attack is that when caught by an inopportune turnover, the defense can be exposed. Toronto should look to catch Philly leaning forward to get them moving backwards and the gaps will open.
The two clubs have met thirteen times in league play, with Philadelphia winning six, Toronto three, and four draws. In the six meetings in Toronto, each team has won twice, drawing the other two – Philadelphia have taken points from their last three meetings: winning in 2014 0-2 on goals from Casey and Wenger, both set up by Williams, and settling for 1-1 draws in 2012 and 2013.
Philadelphia also laid the worse-ever home defeat on Toronto back in 2011, winning 2-6 at BMO Field.
The two teams meet for the third time this season on 3 October.
Maurice Edu was featured in a couple of pieces at the official Union website that are worth a read, Toronto gets a mention or two – one and two.