Ahead of Toronto FC's upcoming match in Philadelphia against the Union this Saturday, WTR touched based with Eugene Rupinski of sister SB Nation site The Brotherly Game for a question exchange. We did a little deeper on their aspirations this season, as well as offseason additions Oguchi Onyewu and Jay Simpson.
Question the First
The season is young and most, if not all, teams are still shaking off the cobwebs of a short winter break, but Philadelphia, like Toronto, took a well-earned point on the road from a Western Conference team in the opening round. With the Eastern Conference very much up for grabs, what kind of aspirations do the Union and their fans have for this season? And, given how 2016 ended, will they come into Saturday's encounter with a point to prove against the team that persevered in that feisty knockout-round tie at the end of October?
The Union tasted the playoffs for the first time since 2011 last season, and the expectation is that the team will do better than a first-round knockout (thanks for that, by the way) this year.
The deficiencies of 2016 were addressed. The club needed a centre-back, and went and got Oguchi Onyewu (more on Gooch in a minute). The club needed a midfield upgrade, and brought in Bosnia & Herzegovina international Haris Medunjanin as well as giving homegrown player Derrick Jones an opportunity to shine. The club needed help at striker, and went and got Jay Simpson (more on him in a minute as well).
The Union believe that these upgrades, on top of a very solid young core of players, will help propel the club toward the ultimate goal - winning an MLS Cup.
Question the Second
More than a few people where scratching their heads when Philadelphia announced that one of their big offseason acquisitions would see Oguchi Onyewu return to the pitch for the first time in what seems like years. There is no doubt he cuts an imposing figure, but given his injury troubles, what sort of role will he play for the Union this season? Harkening back to before the playoff meeting, it was queried as to whether a young and inexperienced back line - Fabinho aside - could stand up to the constant pressure that TFC's attacking might would apply. Will Onyewu's veteran savvy and been-there, done-that kind of confidence infuse a talented group?
With Josh Yaro out for a few months with a shoulder injury and Ken Tribbett being a bench option, Gooch will be the Union's primary centre-back alongside Richie Marquez. Onyewu's grizzled-old-veteran's savvy was on display against Vancouver last week, but he was exposed a couple of times by the Whitecaps’ speed.
If a team is able to exploit that weakness, then the rest of the defence will need to pick up the slack. Luckily, Gooch is paired with Keegan Rosenberry on the right and while not the fastest guy on the pitch, Rosenberry is quick enough and has the tactical acumen to usually be in a good position to cover for his partner.
Question the Third
And similarly, the Jay Simpson transfer seemed more than a little peculiar. Though hardly in the glory tour category, whether he will prove to be a judicious application of TAM remains to be seen, especially given the context of a side that often plays with a single striker and has both CJ Sapong and Charlie Davies already in place. What was the thought process behind this move, what is expected from the former Arsenal journeyman and what other recent arrivals should Toronto fans be aware of heading into the match?
The Union under Earnie Stewart are always on the lookout for players that they feel are undervalued. Maybe it's a good player on a bad team, or a player who doesn't fit his team's system - those are the sorts of players the Union seem to target. Haris Medunjanin, for example, is a very good player who played for a Maccabi Tel Aviv - not exactly known for being a world powerhouse. Jay Simpson fits that mold - he had a couple of superb seasons with Leyton Orient, but their owner wasn't known for his stability and replaced the coach. The new manager's system didn't really fit Simpson's style of play, so he didn't perform as well. The Union saw him, however, and thought that he'd fit into their system.
As for the other recent additions, the aforementioned Medunjanin and homegrown player Derrick Jones compose the core of the Union's midfield. Both players had very good games against the Whitecaps, with Jones picking up a spot on the MLS Team of the Week bench. Those two clicked and if they can continue to develop chemistry not only between themselves but with Alejandro Bedoya as well, it could be a very special midfield unit for the Union.
Blake; Rosenberry, Onyewu, Marquez, Fabinho; Medunjanin, Jones; Herbers, Bedoya, Pontius; Simpson.
I don't think either team really has things fully figured out at this point. If this was in August I might feel a little more confident in my answer, but Saturday will be a toss of the dice. I'll say a 2-1 Union win.
Many thanks to Eugene for taking the time to provide his insight on the Union – he can be followed on Twitter @GolazodelGringo. And be sure to check out The Brotherly Game for all the build-up into the match – they can be found @BrotherlyGame.