Question the First
Without a win in their last seven matches, it has been said that the Philadelphia Union backed into the playoffs. That may be a little unfair – they earned the points they have, but the criticism is fair, even with the consideration that nothing that came before will matter when the two teams take to the field on Wednesday night. What has gone wrong for the Union side over this past month-plus?
Quite simply, Vincent Nogueira left. Nogueira was the Union's best player and the cornerstone of the team. Playing the 8, Nogueira had vision and skill that are uncommon in MLS. It was his ability to transition smoothly and quickly from offense to defense and back again that really allowed the Union to flourish on the counterattack. When he left, it left a huge void.
The Union have since brought in Alejandro Bedoya to play this role, however he's not a natural 8. While he's doing well at the position, I think next season will see him out on the right or at the 10 with a new 8 brought in from elsewhere. But without the ability to transition effortlessly, the Union find themselves exposed defensively and unable to pose much of an offensive threat.
I think the dynamic with Alejandro at the 8 is different and can work, but the Union just haven't gotten it to click yet. Alejandro brings a ton of offensive ability and a good vision. If the CDM can get some help from the full backs and the wings in transitioning, then I think it will work well. Unfortunately we haven't seen much of that, as left back Fabinho is often far too eager to go up into the attack and Fabian Herbers and (especially) Ilsinho don't always get back on defense fast enough to help. If these players can rectify this, it will go a long way in stabilizing both sides of the ball.
Question the Second
Philadelphia gave Toronto a tough time in the last meeting, earning a 1-1 draw at BMO Field in September. With that memory fresh in the mind, what is the mood, both in the squad and amongst the fan base, heading into this crucial affair?
You can tell that the run of form is wearing on players and fans alike. During the match against the New York Red Bulls it seemed to boil over a bit, as players were yelling at one another and the fans hit the exits early. But I think people are also excited to be in the postseason. Everyone realizes it's a brand new season, and that anything can happen - especially in a one-off play-in match. A lucky bounce, a fortunate call, a fluky goal - anything can really help re-shape things and return the swagger the club had when they were winning.
Honestly I think there are a lot of people who don't think the Union can win against Toronto. I don't necessarily agree. I think Toronto is certainly a very good team and the Union have been underperforming, but I also know what can happen in the pressure cooker of the playoffs - especially when you ratchet that pressure up by playing for places as passionate about their teams like Toronto and Philadelphia. It will be difficult, but not impossible.
Question the Third
If come Thursday morning the conversation is about how Philadelphia came into Toronto and won, what will be the key talking points? Who needs to step up, what do the Union need to do to both contain TFC, while making the most of the chances that come their way? Will it be their defense that wins the day, or the attack; basically, do they defend their way to the next round, or rely on their scoring prowess to get the job done?
I think you don't have one without the other. The Union are caught in a vicious cycle where the defense is poor because the offense doesn't relieve the pressure by scoring, which in turn makes it harder to defend. If they can score early and defend the lead, they will have put themselves into a good position to win. If they concede a goal early and Toronto's defense starts to bunker, it could be very difficult to come back.
The Union have to play smart. That means they can't commit silly fouls between 20 and 30 yards out. They can't allow Jozy or Giovinco to get into space and get good looks at goal. They have to be patient in the attack, but be smart enough to take the opportunities that will be presented to them. Multiple guys have to go into the box on the attack - it can't be CJ Sapong or Tranquillo Barnetta by themselves. Toronto is a very good team, but they're not unbeatable. No one is.
Andre Blake; Fabinho, Richie Marquez, Ken Tribbett, Keegan Rosenberry; Alejandro Bedoya, Warren Creavalle; Chris Pontius, Tranquillo Barnetta, Fabian Herbers; CJ Sapong (although you may see Brian Carroll for Warren Creavalle and Ilsinho for Fabian Herbers)
Anything can happen.
Many thanks to Eugene for once more providing some insight into the upcoming opponent – he can be followed on Twitter @GolazodelGringo