Match previews

Preview: Union at Toronto FC

Photo: Paul Rudderow
What: Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC
Where: BMO Field
When: Saturday, June 1 at 6pm
Watch: TCN, Direct Kick, MLS Live
Match officials: Geoff Gamble; First Asst.: Joe Fletcher; Second Asst.: Phil Briere; Fourth Official: Drew Fischer

If there is one team you want to see following a high-scoring loss, it is Toronto FC. Struggling offense? Check. Porous defense? Check. Home field struggles? Check. Doneil Henry defending Jack McInerney? Won’t keep him in check.

Toronto is in the midst of a nine-match winless streak stretching back to the third week of the season. The Canadian side has failed to garner a point since April 20 and has looked dangerous about none of that time.

Does this sound familiar? It should.

The Union met TFC in a very similar situation last season and gifted the Reds their first points in what many fans call the lowest of low points for the Philly franchise. Since that meeting, both teams have shown that they live and die by a single striker. Toronto became a mid-table threat with Danny Koevermans in the lineup last year and regressed once the big Dutchman went down with a knee injury. Philadelphia is currently clinging to a playoff spot behind Jack McInerney’s five game-winning goals. (That’s one for every Union win for those counting at home.)

Opposition report

Toronto, much like Philadelphia, does not have a discernible “style” to their game. Too many lineups and too many players out of form have created a grab bag approach to offense that can resemble a lottery as much as a strategy. TFC scored a single goal in the month of May, and few would argue they deserve more.

On the defensive side, the back four have been in constant flux. The team continues to bring in more defenders, but an established central pairing has been as elusive as playing time for Danny Califf.

Toronto has used four different central back pairings in 12 matches. They have used 8 different back fours. The only consistent figure in the back has been Darren O’Dea, and with Steven Caldwell arriving from Scotland, even O’Dea is on the move from the center to the left. Gale Agbossoumonde, the big name who bumped Califf from the first eleven, has been relegated to the bench, indicating the former Union captain has fallen far enough down the pecking order to ramp up the inevitable (and justifiable) trade rumors.

As worrisome as the defense is for Toronto, the wingers are a bigger issue. Reggie Lambe has been replaced by a soccer-averse Reggie Lambe look-alike. Newly signed loanee Jeremy Brockie is playing as a more advanced midfielder/striker and appears a willing runner, though he has yet to sync up with Robert Earnshaw or playmaker Luis Silva.

And, finally, in what may be the most frustrating issue for TFC fans, their ready-made offensive stud has yet to establish a strong relationship with their star striker. Luis Silva is big, mobile, and ridiculously talented. He has gone the full 90 in four of the past five matches and recorded five shots on goal during that time. For comparison, no Union midfielder has more than six shots on target all season. Yet Silva and Robert Earnshaw can look like they came from different tactics meetings once they are on the field. If and when these two get on the same page, the Toronto offense will earn its first merit badge for resembling that of a professional team.

Union update

So Toronto is bad. And hasn’t shown signs of life since 2007 since forever in a long time. Yet, when these teams met in April, Toronto almost stole three points despite completing a woeful 64 percent of passes, including only 12 of 29 in the final third. Goalie Joe Bendik kept the scoreline even most of the match with nine saves, while Robert Earnshaw sprung through a sleepy Union defense to get a 71st minute goal. The Union would be saved by McInerney’s late header, which stole a point at home.

That’s right, “stole a home point” against Toronto.

Since that tie the Union are 3-3-1, with wins against DC United and Chicago (twice), losses to New England, LA and Montreal, and a tie with Seattle.

Philadelphia spent most of the last match against Toronto beating a path up and down the flanks. Nineteen unsuccessful crosses tells the story of a team that took the space Toronto gave them but failed to realize it was being given for a reason. TFC banked on the Union’s poor crossing record and were proven correct. Of the Union’s seven successful crosses, only three resulted in headed shots, with only one on goal (the header that McInerney followed up to tie, which was off a corner).

Toronto’s most reliable midfielders are stay-at-home, down-the-gut guys like Terry Dunfield. Philly was rarely able to move the midfield around to open space until late in the match when Kleberson and Michael Farfan entered and took up playmaking positions higher up the pitch. Prior to these changes, Keon Daniel was the sole central threat, and he completed a massive four passes in the final third all match, three of them short passes on the wing in the first 31 minutes.

Farfan and Kleberson should be well-rested and return to the lineup alongside Brian Carroll and Danny Cruz. While this group may suggest a 4-4-2, the coaching staff may want to take advantage of Danny Cruz’s natural inclination to treat tracking back with disdain and switch to a centralized 4-3-3.

The Toronto wingers have been weak while the central midfielders tend to play deep. Philly can deploy Cruz higher up the pitch and play three in the middle, with Farfan and Kleberson working together to pressure the Toronto midfielders when they have the ball. Additionally, this allows the Union to use two playmakers high up the pitch to connect with McInerney and either Le Toux or Casey (the latter may be preferred to challenge the burly TFC defenders in the air).


Recently, I made the argument that the Union could afford to drop points against the top teams in MLS if they continued to dominate the bottom-feeders. Toronto is one such bottom-feeder, and after leaving points on the table at home against TFC, Philadelphia needs to take all three in this road contest.

Controlling the ball early is vital. Farfan and Kleberson need to be involved from the outset if the Union want to exert control over the midfield and hold the ball in the final third. This is the not-so-secret secret to winning in MLS: Defenses struggle to retain organization under pressure. Push long enough without release, and you will find your prize.

The Union have never mastered this trick, but then again, they have rarely tried.

Prediction: Union 2-1 winners.

The Toronto defense may change again after last week’s defeat. Philly has been so bad tactically in recent weeks—particularly in the back—that predicting a shutout seems hopeful, even against TFC. If Farfan and Kleberson can’t create a breakthrough early on, expect Leo Fernandes to get an extended second half run. The highly skilled young player continues to impress, which should mean he gets a chance to show his stuff on the big stage. Then again, Roger Torres looked ready to light the world on fire in preseason, and he hasn’t seen the light of day in almost three months.

Preferred Lineup




  1. We couldn’t lose to Toronto?

  2. I like your preferred lineup, Adam.

    We need to keep in mind that the Union have scored a whole lotta goals on set pieces this year — espeically if we include deep Sheanon throw-ins as set pieces, which they essentially are.

    Aside from Sheanon, the guys who’s been doing the damage with delivery has been Seba. If he sits, we don’t really have anyone who’s terribly good at corners.

    To get on the other end of those corners we have Jack Mac, and Amobi Okugo has increasingly become a threat. Kleberson also had some nice headers that went just wide off set pieces. But the Big Bull in the middle is Casey. Plus, especially in a bunch of games early this year, he did a great job of holding up and showed great vision in releasing his colleagues with nifty touches.

    All of which is to say that having both Casey and LeToux on the field seems a much better tactic than playing Danny Cruz out wide. Danny did have two great goals, and has a couple of assists on nice crosses, but the overall contribution of LeToux and Casey is just greater.

  3. Mark teamerson says:

    Saturday is June 1st, not the 2nd

  4. Great One says:

    I like your preferred lineup, as I think it gets basically our best 11 players at this point on the field. The only problem here is that Casey is really not a wing forward type player, and while Jack could play there I don’t want to take him out of the middle. However I would take this lineup 100% of the time over having Daniel or Cruz in the game.
    I’m almost positive that Cruz will be starting, so given that I think Casey will be coming off the bench in the second half, along with the usual Hoppenot and Daniel. Although I prefer Hernandes over Daniel anytime.
    Writing this comment and trying to think of other formations really is making me how little options the Union really has anywhere on the pitch beside forward. Does anyone think Roger will make the 18 this week?

    • I believe Daniel has been called up for national team duty. If I’m recalling correctly, that’s at least one mid-field issue we won’t have this weekend.
      I suspect Leo Fernandes may get some playing time tomorrow, though probably not a start.

      • I read an interesting article this week about how Torres may be on the move out of Philly at the end of the season. It had me totally baffled because it said how he is one of the most popular players, most creative, has good vision, etc, but lacks size for the MLS game. I realize he is 5’5, 140 lbs, but I’m not sure I’m buying into that completely. Personally, I’m surprised we haven’t seen him at all this year though because with the addition of Kleberson, you have two players who can move the ball. Anyway, I’d like to see him get some first team experience and a team like Toronto would be an opportune time to do it.

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