Match previews

Preview: Union vs Toronto FC

Photo: Paul Rudderow

What: Philadelphia Union vs Toronto FC
When: 4 pm EST
Where: PPL Park, Chester, PA, USA
Watch: 6abc, Direct Kick, MLS Live
Referee: Sorin Stoica

In 2012, Philadelphia Union rolled over like a well-trained puppy to give Toronto FC their first win of the season. The Canadian side that arrives at PPL Park on Saturday barely resembles the 2012 squad that played like they were seeking demotion.

Behind Robert Earnshaw’s finishing and a high energy level pushed by first year coach Ryan Nelsen, Toronto has earned five points in their first five matches. And get this: They have yet to play a team with fewer points than Philadelphia.

Nelson has put out a consistent lineup for the last four matches, with Danny Califf’s illness and Jonathan Osorio’s questionable start against Dallas making up the only changes to the first 11 since opening day in Vancouver. Since dropping that opener 1-0, Toronto is 1-1-2, with a win over Kansas City, a tough loss to Montreal, and 2-2 ties against LA and Dallas. The Montreal and Vancouver losses make up the entirety of Toronto’s road schedule thus far, meaning the Canadians come to Philly look for their first points away from BMO Field.

Along with consistency, Nelsen preaches blue collar work. It’s no surprise that his preferred centerback pairing is the Irish Ryan Nelsen and the American Ryan Nelsen. In order to pull maximum points from their brothers from another motherland, the Union need to control key areas of the pitch, finish chances, and win specific individual battles.

Early finishes

Since scoring two in the first half hour against Kansas City, Toronto hasn’t scored the first goal of a match. On the road, expect the Canadians to sit back early and seek to absorb pressure. This may mean more time for the midfielders, but it certainly won’t mean more space overall. As Califf told PSP this week, Toronto wants to pressure, but they don’t want to get stretched. An early finish will force TFC to leave their comfort zone and come after the Union. With only one legitimate scoring threat, this is a proposition the home side should welcome.

Break the link

With only two road games under their belt, Toronto doesn’t have a lot of numbers to look at. One goal in 180 minutes tells us little. Five shots on goal tells us a bit more. This is a team that has struggled mightily to create chances on the road.

That statement should be qualified by the level of competition. Vancouver and Montreal have proven to be two of the better organized teams in MLS thus far, and Toronto was supposed to be little more than a work in progress this year. But regardless of opponent, TFC has looked uncreative and uninspired going forward. Hogan Ephraim, the nominal link between midfield and Earnshaw, has one shot on goal in 2013, and none since moving from the wing into the hole behind the striker. In other words, he hasn’t been the complimentary threat Toronto need to pull pressure from the dangerous Earnshaw.

Luis Silva is the future hub of the Toronto offense. Struggling with injury, he has been slowly worked back into the side and put in a full half against Dallas. Silva gave the Union fits last season and if he can establish an outlet for the stodgy but organized midfield, Toronto becomes a much more dangerous opponent. This is particularly true on the road, where Nelsen will almost certainly have his men prepared to counterattack.

Bostock vs Gaddis

John Bostock and Darel Russell have formed an interesting partnership on the Toronto right side. Bostock isn’t afraid to probe from depth, but he can also play with the patience that the Union sorely lack. In the final third, he is composed and will settle for a free kick rather than attempt anything too ambitious. If Bostock gets into good positions, he has proven adept at finding the late runner and becoming the catalyst that opens up opposition defenses.

Ray Gaddis’ job is to keep Bostock from establishing himself below the 18-yard box. This means Gaddis will have to drastically improve his man-marking; Bostock will punish the overaggressive defender.

Who will join Mac?

Jack McInerney is one of the hotter strikers in MLS right now, and he will be partnered with either Sebastien Le Toux or Conor Casey. The smart money (and smart play) would be Casey, who can battle it out with the working class TFC center backs and leave the scraps to McInerney.

Sebastien Le Toux’s inclusion would signal that the Union believe they can knock the ball around Toronto. Le Toux and McInerney look most dangerous when a midfielder can turn and face the defense in the opposition half. While this has been a rare occurrence in the woeful Union midfield this season, the consistently intelligent runs of the Union’s all-time leading scorer and its current offensive leader could wreak havoc against a Toronto team that will be afraid of leaving too much space in behind.

Do the Union have a rhythm?

Danny Califf spoke about breaking the Union’s rhythm, which implies that one has existed this season. And, despite hearty criticism from the media (how much independent soccer media is left in Philly, by the way?), there have been fits and spurts of dominant soccer from the local lads this year. More than other teams, Toronto has sought to use possession to neutralize opponents on the road. Their possession numbers hovered around 50 percent against both Vancouver and Montreal, and it is likely that any clear idea of how to move from midfield to offense would see the mounties in a much better position in the table.

Instead, Toronto has handled possession but relied on quick, against-the-run strikes from Earnshaw to carry them along. Any time they have established a rhythm, they have looked comfortable with the ball but unable to establish themselves in the offensive third. Bostock has proven a good presence deep, but too often he has only one target and little support from the Dunfield/Hall pairing in the middle.

How should the Union set up?

Toronto is likely to come out in a 4-4-1-1. The Union could counter with a tight 4-4-2 diamond that draws in the Toronto midfield and creates space up the wings for Gaddis and Sheanon Williams. It’s a solution that seems well-suited to the Union’s strengths—offensive outside backs and mobile wide midfielders—but the lack of cohesion between Danny Cruz and Sheanon Williams has made the latter a slow starter offensively in 2013, and while Cruz and Keon Daniel are mobile, they have yet to show the intelligence to tuck inside early and create those wide lanes that Gaddis and Williams can exploit and use to pin back the opposition’s back line.

One thing is certain: Two deeper-lying midfielders will make as much tactical sense as buying a Danny Cruz Defensive Positioning instructional video. The Union need to press Dunfield and Hall in midfield and trust that their back line can both contain Earnshaw and account for the sitting striker at the same time. With Brian Carroll sweeping, links should be broken and the other central midfielder should have freedom to roam and put pressure on the opposition high up the pitch.


This is one of those early matches that establishes a tone for the season. The Union are 1-1 at home this season and have played teams at the top and bottom of the Eastern Conference. Toronto looks to be a close rival in the standings, and those are the games when home field advantage should shine brightest. Protecting the turf under the Commodore Barry is going to be the difference between the teams that sneak into the fourth and fifth playoff slots in the East and those that slink home to nurse their wounds and write “rebuilding year” letters to their fans.



  • GK: MacMath
  • DEF: Williams, Okugo, Parke, Gaddis
  • MID: Marfan, Kleberson, Carroll, Garfan
  • FWD: McInerney, Casey


  • GK: Bendik
  • DEF: Russell, DANNY BEARFIGHT CALIFF, O’Dea, Eckersley
  • MID: Bostock, Hall, Dunfield, Lambe, Silva
  • FWD: Earnshaw


  1. Kieran Murphy says:


    Thanks for your insightful analysis, I do not know
    as much about Toronto’s team, so this was helpful.

    I do know about their fans, whom we met on the First SOB
    bus trip to the MLS Cup in 2007- they are really cool people, and should be our friends…they went as a group to the Final, and Toronto was not even in the match!

    Personally, I would love to see an attacking line up
    for the first half of a game soon, with Jack, Conor and Seba all up front, basically keep the lineup you have
    put up here, but put in Seba, and take out Garfan.

    That, and ban Zac from punting the ball down field,
    have him Always look to rolling the ball to a defender
    to take up the field instead.

    See you Saturday !
    C’mon the U !

    • @Kieran – Thanks for the props! Much appreciated, since I’m never sure if people are actually reading these or just skimming to the proposed lineups.

      Great news on the Toronto fans. Maybe next time they are headed to PPL we can get in touch with a few and talk to them for the site. Thanks again.

  2. Nothing inspires confidence in seeing a reasonable midfield pairing like Hack saying that Kleberson “has to earn his spot” the day before the game.
    Carroll + Lahoud vs. Toronto = having to apologize to my friends for dragging them out to see the game of soccer butchered so thoroughly.

  3. Great job on the preview as usual guys, much appreciated, it’s a great way to quickly get up to speed on the opponent.
    As much as I would like slotting in Soumare for Carroll and moving Okugo, that’s not happening.
    That being said, I like your proposed lineup, I think it offers the creativity and effort needed, and could provide a great result Saturday.
    However… There is absolutely zero chance Hack doesn’t start 1-2 of Daniel/Lahoud/Cruz.
    My guess as to who will start:
    Williams, Okugo, Parke, Gaddis
    Marfan, Daniel, Carroll, Lahoud
    Macinerney, Letoux

  4. I am just posting this here to say the most frustrating thing about watching the Union is watching Jack Mac. I can’t count how many times I loomed at him and thought to myself “Grow a proper Mohawk already!”

  5. JediLos117 says:

    It’s a double doop day!
    Union 2, Toronto 0
    MacMath makes the save.

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