The road trip continues with Toronto FC Philadelphia-bound ahead of Saturday's match with crucial Eastern Conference implications.
The Union have been impressive this season, hovering around the top of the East for much of the year. The last few weeks have seen a dip, but still they sit in fourth place on 34 points, three behind TFC, equal in matches played. Should a winner emerge, they will have put themselves in a good position to contend for the eastern crown as the campaign reaches into its final stretch.
Question the First
This season has been a fantastic one for Philadelphia, riding high in the standings and finding a level of consistency that has hitherto been unattainable. The recent additions of Alejandro Bedoya and Charlie Davies, as well as the fact that Maurice Edu has yet to feature in 2016 can only serve to strengthen the side as the playoff race heats up. To what, or whom, should this success be accredited? And how do you see the three USMNT pool players fitting into the side?
The majority of the credit for the Union's turnaround should go to Earnie Stewart. Stewart came in and immediately instituted an air of professionalism that frankly wasn't there before. Stewart got rid of players that underperformed or were on bad contracts (or both), and through shrewd drafting and trading has assembled one of the best teams in MLS. You're also seeing the Academy and Bethlehem Steel FC (the Union's USL club) paying dividends in the form of Homegrown Player signings Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty. In all fairness, much of the groundwork for this system was laid before Stewart arrived, but he's using it really to its fullest potential.
The addition of Bedoya and Davies has been huge. Ever since Vincent Nogueira left, the Union really struggled to find someone to play the 8 role effectively (more on this in a bit), however Bedoya fits that need perfectly. He looked great against the New England Revolution this past week, and that's not having played competitively since May. Him being able to come in and really handle himself well with just a week to train with the team has Union fans really excited for what else he can add.
Striker was always a concern for the Union, not so much because anyone thought CJ Sapong wasn't capable of being the lone striker in the Union's 4-5-1, but more because there was no real depth to speak of at the position. Fabain Herbers was the only backup, and while Herbers appears to have a good future in the league ahead of him, the rookie forward is still a bit unpolished - and can get hurt as well. We saw a game earlier in the season where Sapong and Herbers were both injured and the Union had to use Roland Alberg - a career attacking midfielder - as the target striker in the formation. It did not go very well, so enter Charlie Davies. Davies is more than capable of filling in for Sapong should he be injured or need a rest, and perhaps more importantly it will allow Herbers to get valuable minutes with Bethlehem Steel FC - minute he might not have gotten with the Union'd first team.
Getting Mo Edu back will be a huge lift for this club both in terms of having a guy with his resume on the field, but psychologically as well. Edu is still the captain of the team, so to see him coming back down the stretch as the playoffs draw nearer has to be a massive boost. It's been a long time coming, but the Union are doing it the right way. They haven't rushed him back - stress fractures take time to heal, and the plan is to get him some training with Bethlehem Steel FC before bringing him back into the first team plans. It's been tough on Edu - I've talked to him about his road back, and you can tell he wants nothing more than to be out on the field. But he also understands that this is something that you have to be patient with, because if you try to rush the process you can wind up re-injuring the fracture and you have to start the entire process over again.
Once everyone is healthy, look for Bedoya and Edu to sit in the deep midfield and pull the strings on a very potent Union attack.
Question the Second
Very much against MLS trope, Philadelphia has found this level of success with a very inexperienced back-line and a youthful keeper. Just how have the likes of Andre Blake, Richie Marquez, Keegan Rosenberry, Ken Tribbett, and Josh Yaro managed to navigate the season without a veteran leader to guide the way and is there a risk that as the matches become more and more important, the pressure of the situation will see them falter? If injury were to strike, who amongst them is the most necessary? And, how is former TFC midfielder Warren Creavalle fitting into the side?
The defense does have some veteran leadership. Left back Fabinho is 31 and has spent his eleven year career in his native Brazil and Australia's A League before coming to MLS, and while Andre Blake is young, he does have experience in MLS as well as with the Jamaican National Team. I think another influence has been MLS veteran Brian Carroll, who at central defensive midfield works closely with the rest of the defensive unit and provides guidance and leadership. But the majority of the guys are still young guys and prone to making mistakes, and perhaps with the playoff race heating up you may see the pressure ratcheting up but I don't think it'll effect the club too much. There are veterans in the locker room that can speak to the young guys and help them remain focused.
I think the key piece of the Union's defense has to be Andre Blake. His goalkeeping has been phenomenal, earning him 10 Save of the Week nominations and starting the MLS All-Star Game. He's athletic and smart, and perhaps the best thing about him is his positioning. He always seems to be in the right position to make a save. Losing him would be a bitter pill to swallow for sure.
As for Warren Creavalle, he's had some fantastic games and some forgettable ones as well. It seems when Warren is played as a central defensive midfielder, he excels. He's got great defensive vision and can be physical when called to be - having Brian Carroll around to mentor him has also helped. I think as Warren continues to grow and mature into his role that he'll be a solid MLS player. Warren has run into trouble however when played out of position. He was one of the options that was tried in the 8 in the absence of Vincent Nogueira, and it didn't go very well. As good as he is on the defensive side of things, he's not very adept on offense or in transitioning from one to the other - that's not his game. I think with the addition of Bedoya, you'll see less of Warren in the 8 and more of him in the 6 - especially with Edu and Carroll out (Carroll injured his plantar fascia against D.C. United a couple of weeks ago.
Question the Third
Toronto is a club that has had a propensity for eating its own – see the Dwayne De Rosario trade, the 'early' retirements of Danny Dichio, Jim Brennan, Steven Caldwell, and Torsten Frings, and the Julian de Guzman contract, one that was always liable to be an albatross. Building history for young franchises, especially ones without a pre-history to lean upon, can be a difficult process, and it's fair to say that Sebastian Le Toux is the closest thing the Union have to a club legend. His move to Colorado is the second time the Philly fan-base has had to say goodbye to the Frenchman. What does he mean to the club, what was the rationale given for the trade, how have the fans, never ones to not voice opinion, reacted to this move and given he's already returned once what is the likelihood that Le Toux pulls on a Union jersey one more time?
Sebastien Le Toux is a club legend for the Union. He holds nearly every club offensive record, and truly loved this city and the fans. When Le Toux was traded to the Colorado Rapids, I went on the Brotherly Game twitter account and asked for people to tell us their Sebastien Le Toux stories because everyone has one. Fans were tweeting us for a few hours, telling us of the times that Le Toux would be the last man getting on the team bus because he was busy signing autographs and taking pictures with fans, or how they met him at some random place and how nice the guy was. It was heartbreaking to see him go, but the move made good business sense.
Le Toux had a big contract ($300,000 per year) and was behind Ilsinho on the depth chart at right wing, so I think most people understood - especially after the club turned around and used the money from the Le Toux deal to bring in Charlie Davies. Of course you have some that were really upset and threatening to give up their tickets, but I think over time these people will realize that it was the right move to make - especially if the club goes on a deep playoff run.
While I can't see into the future, I would not be surprised that when Seba decides to hang up his cleats for good if the Union did something to honour him. I could see them signing him to a one day contract so he could retire with the club and perhaps instituting a Ring of Honour so that his legacy with the club stands the eternal test of time.
Andre Blake; Fabinho, Richie Marquez, Ken Tribbett, Keegan Rosenberry; Alejandro Bedoya, Warren Creavalle; Chris Pontius, Tranquillo Barnetta, Ilsinho; CJ Sapong (although Sapong is currently undergoing concussion protocol, so if he is unable to go look for Charlie Davies to get the nod).
I think this is going to be a great game between two teams that are brimming with confidence, and while I can see this going either way I think between home field advantage and the fact that the Reds have so many players on the injured list, I'll go with a Union victory.
Waking the Red's responses to Eugene's questions can be found here.
Many thanks to Eugene for taking the time to provide some insight into all things Union – he can be followed on Twitter @GolazodelGringo and the site's handle is @BrotherlyGame. Be sure to check out Brotherly Game for all the latest coverage heading into the match.