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Preview and tactics: Union vs TFC

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

What: Union vs Toronto FC

When: Sunday, July 8 4:00pm EST

TV: 6abc, MLS Live

When John Hackworth replaced Peter Nowak, the talk was of better ball control and improved organization. But in the end, there was only one thing that Hackworth had to change: The number of times the ball conferred with the opponent’s net. Since Hackworth took over, the Union have scored seven in four games. So far, so good.

For Paul Mariner, the task was twice as difficult. Not only was his team goal shy, their jerseys often formed a red carpet that escorted opponents into the box. Mariner seems to have the offense on track. The defense, however… Well, there was a good reason the Canadians perked up when Danny Califf hit the trade market.

Dicey defending

Toronto gave up 1.91 goals per game over the first 11 games of the season. During their five-match unbeaten streak, they have reduced that number to a still unimpressive 1.80 goals/game. If you’ve ever really wanted to say, “Too bad Danny Koevermans can’t play defense too,” this is your shot. Go ahead, do it. We can fist-bump when you’re done.

There appears to be a pattern to Toronto’s back end struggles, and, counterintuitively, it starts in the front. During their unbeaten streak, TFC has scored eleven goals, all of them in the first half. Once that second whistle sounds, the Canadian offense can’t get going. The resulting pressure on a defense that wasn’t very confident (or good) to begin with quickly chops three points down to one.

If Antoine Hoppenot is reading this (fingers crossed), he should make sure he has his best Balotelli impression ready. There could hardly be a player in MLS more likely to abuse the TFC defense in the final half hour of a match.

Strong early

Early in the LA match, the Union fell prey to Robbie Keane’s movement over and over. Luckily, Robbie Keane fell prey to Robbie Keane’s finishing over and over as well. Danny Koevermans is a different type of striker than Keane. He won’t run the channels or outsmart an offside trap. But when Koevermans is in the box and he meets The Ball, he almost invariably introduces it to his good friend The Net. During his recent streak of five goals in five games, Kovy has made this introduction in the first 31 minutes 4 times. Twice he has done it in the first six minutes.

If the Union are lucky, Koevermans will sit out and nurse his infrapatellar fat pad irritation (which is either his injury or his underground emo band). If he doesn’t sit, Okugo and Valdes will have to send an early message. One of the defining performances of last season was Carlos Valdes’ tough play against Eric Hassli when Vancouver came to PPL Park. Valdes must do the same thing to Koevermans to keep the game close early.

Manage the midfield

With Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud in the middle, the Union have a tendency to sit back and break up play rather than effectively pressuring the opposition when they first receive the ball. If Toronto start with Torsten Frings and Julian de Guzman in the middle, Philadelphia has to adopt a more high pressure system. Frings and de Guzman like to dictate play from deep. Both are strong passers who lack mobility, and they can pick apart a defense if given enough time. Philly got a pass when David Beckham was suspended midweek, but they will have to prepare for more depth in attack when TFC comes to town.

Valdes and Okugo have speed to burn, and this should allow the Union to play higher up the pitch in general. And while the Union have plenty of zip in the back, their midfield is less mobile and more prone to losing shape and getting picked apart. One way to manage this issue is to shorten the field: Bring the midfield closer to the strikers; bring the defense closer to the midfield.

Mobile Marfan

If it seems like Marfan is a common topic in these previews, it’s because he is so important to the Union’s success. Want to know what Jac Mac is bringing to the team? Check the scoreboard, or count how much time the opposing center backs spend with their hands on their knees. Marfan, on the other hand, has the complex job of acting as an axis in the middle while also stepping wide to establish the isolations that almost inevitably lead to outside backs wondering why they didn’t just kick his ankle during the first stepover.

Above, you can see how Marfan’s role changed from the Houston match (L) to the Los Angeles match (R). Against Houston, he stayed in the middle third of the field and rarely got into the areas where he could use his ball skills to great effect. This is fine and dandy, but the quality that Marfan brings that Roger Torres does not requires him to get wide and get some moments alone with a defender who suddenly discovers he’s having a bad day at the office.

Even though they haven’t lost in five games, Toronto has rarely controlled play. They have averaged 40% of possession and been out-passed 423 to 278. If there is one player who should benefit from time on the ball, it’s Marfan. And the Union have to make sure he gets it.

Starting lineups


  • GK: MacMath
  • DEF: Williams, Okugo, Valdes, Garfan
  • MID: Carroll, Torres, Lahoud
  • FWD: Pajoy, McInerney, Marfan


  • GK: Kocic
  • DEF: Morgan, Emory, Eckersley, Hall
  • MID: Avila, Frings, de Guzman, Lambe
  • FWD: Koevermans, Johnson



  • OUT: FW Chandler Hoffman (L big toe fracture); FW Krystian Witkowski (concussion symptoms)
  • DOUBTFUL: DF Bakary Soumare (R knee meniscus recovery)


  • OUT: GK Stefan Frei (L lower leg)
  • QUESTIONABLE: FW Nicholas Lindsay (L knee surgery recovery); DF Ty Harden (R adductor strain); DF Adrian Cann (R knee sprain); DF Doneil Henry (illness); FW Danny Koevermans (R infrapatellar fat pad irritation); MF Terry Dunfield (R eye contusion)


  1. Infrapatellar fat pad irritation sounds more like a Grindcore band. If it isn’t a band it is a song. Probably by Carcass.

  2. Dan Walsh says:

    I have 2 extra tickets to Sunday’s game. Anyone want them? They’re free. No catch. Email me at dwalsh@phillysoccerpage.com, and I’ll transfer them via email.

  3. u win 6-2

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