Match previews

Preview: Union vs Toronto FC

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union vs Toronto FC
What: Regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: 7pm, Wednesday, Sept. 3
Watch: CSN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick
Whistle: TBD

Well, it took a while. But Philadelphia Union are no longer the only club to dump a manager this season. Unfortunately, they are in the unenviable position of facing off against a talented Toronto FC club that has just had a fire lit under them.

So… predicting this one should be fun.

What to expect from TFC

Um. Uh. New head coach Greg Vanney did say he would keep the team’s 4-4-2, but he will almost certainly change the shape of the midfield. Toronto played both central midfielders deep, not unlike the Union have under Jim Curtin. As both PSP and have noted, the double-pivot is difficult to execute and can lead to gaps in the middle of the park defensively. Without the Union’s high-RPM counterattack, TFC was languid and dull against New England. The 3-0 scoreline featured two long distance gems, but it was a fair result.

Vanney will likely twist his midfield into a diamond, pushing Michael Bradley into a more advanced position in front of Collen Warner. Jonathan Osorio’s position is probably safe if he can play a disciplined role on the wing, leaving Dominic Oduro as the most likely victim of the dreaded “new coach first eleven shakeup.”

Not that Oduro isn’t deserving of some time on the pine. 6/10 passing with one forward pass and no shots of any kind? There should have been some alarm bells ringing long before the 68th minute for Ryan Nelson.

Michael Bradley key passes/assists/shots vs (clockwise from top left) Chicago, KC, Columbus, NE.

Michael Bradley key passes/assists/shots vs (clockwise from top left) Chicago, KC, Columbus, NE.

As bad as Oduro has been, it will be the tactical shift in midfield that will reap the biggest benefits for Toronto. Jermain Defoe’s intelligent running made Michael Bradley’s deep positioning seem reasonable. But Defoe has been hurt recently, and indifferent before (Luke Moore looked more dangerous after replacing Defoe against Chicago).

Without the English striker, Ryan Nelson’s questionable tactics have been exposed. Against New England, Bradley completed two passes in the final third. Only one of them forward. And that is with Toronto holding 60 percent of possession.

Bradley’s last four games have featured few moments of creativity. One shot on goal (from far, far out), no shots from anywhere close to the 18-yard box, three non-corner key passes. Maybe such a lull would be alright if the team was not completely built around Bradley. But it is. It very much is.

Touch tight

The Union know that Toronto needs an electric Bradley to jumpstart the offense. The deeper-lying midfielder(s) will have to track where Bradley tries to set up shop and stay close to him. This will be difficult since there is no Greg Vanney gameplan to scheme against. But the new coach will try to play through Bradley, and he will get his star closer to goal one way or another.

The catch is that Gilberto has become quite adept at dropping in between the lines to try and link play. He has had to by necessity since Toronto’s midfield plays so deep, but he will continue even if Bradley is closer to him. Vanney needs sparks between Bradley and Gilberto that fall on the Keane-Donovan continuum to stay in the playoff picture while Defoe nurses his injuries.

TFC fullback play vs NE shows very little in the opponent's half. Don't forget a combined 0-4 crossing.

TFC fullback play vs NE shows very little in the opponent’s half. Don’t forget a combined 0-4 crossing.

Turn the tables…

As the Union know, a team can be energized by a coaching change. Toronto is going to come out faster than they normally would on the road, and Philly can take advantage on the counterattack. Without Justin Morrow, Toronto’s fullbacks are a sorry sight. Nick Haglund got high but was a hesitant contributor to the offense (to be fair, though, he was effective when he did stride forward). And what can you say about Mark Bloom that hasn’t already been said about a traffic cone?

Thus, it is key that Philly manage to create the 1v1 matchups at which Andrew Wenger and Sebastien Le Toux excel.

…and follow the play

To keep the counterattack effective, the Union need to continue to push one of the holding midfielders forward on the break. Assuming Collen Warner plays as the lone holding midfielder (which he, or someone else, will), he will follow Vincent Nogueira. The space left behind is the key zone of the match. If Edu 0r Okugo beat Bradley to the spot, it will either force Warner to stay more central (giving Nogueira space) or force the central defenders to play high or play on the back foot.

Have a backup plan

Even with Steven Caldwell out, Toronto still has some size in the back. Conor Casey must win battles against Doneil Henry and Bradley Orr (if Vanney sticks with them) so the Union still have an outlet if Toronto plays tight on the wings. With Nogueira in the advanced midfield role, Casey’s hold up play has been in the spotlight. Nogueira has a well-documented penchant for checking into wide areas, and Casey must drift back into the space left behind.

As Eli noted in his San Jose analysis, the Union might consider moving Pedro Ribeiro up the depth chart of Casey replacements. The rookie’s size and skill should make him a useful late game tool even if his movement won’t be as natural Brian Brown’s.

How big is this game

This match — and it’s dance partner on Saturday — may be the biggest in Union history since 2011 (though they will only hold that title until the Open Cup final).

Both New England and New York have to play a cornered Sporting Kansas City side, so at this time next week the Union could easily find themselves in third place in the Eastern Conference.

Over the course of September, the Union will play four games out of five games against teams that start the month within three points of Jim Curtin’s team in the standings. And while New York must face DC, KC, and Seattle, and New England must catch KC off a pair of bad losses then close the month at Sporting Park, Philly, Chicago, Houston, and Columbus all have a chance to separate from the others.

Making room for Maidana should be easy… this time

The question remains: How to fit Cristian Maidana into the first eleven? Given the fine form of Le Toux and Wenger on the wings, and Amobi Okugo’s improving performances since his goal in Dallas, the most vulnerable starter against San Jose may be Ethan White.

But Jim Curtin gets a pass on that decision for the time being. Valdes is off with Colombia this week, so Maurice Edu will likely join Ethan White on the back line. While that is far from a bad option, it means the double-pivot midfield will again be shaken up, making it harder for Okugo to establish a rhythm and understanding with his partner.

A Nogueira-Okugo pairing behind Cristian Maidana should still make for a very strong midfield, and it should allow Nogueira to slip off to the wings and Okugo to play a more traditional holding role in the center. During the first 30 minutes of the match, it will be interesting to see whether the Union midfielders are given the freedom to play their more natural roles or if they try to fit into the two-deep setup that the team has used so effectively over the past two and a half months.

I mean, this just pretty much has to be the lineup.
I mean, this just pretty much has to be the lineup.
Prediction: Union 2-2 Toronto

An in-form Union and a motivated TFC are going to be difficult to separate. The main thing the Union have going for them is that after Defoe, Gilberto with six, and Luke Moore with 5, are the top scorers on the Toronto roster. But both of those players had a strong month in August, with Gilberto racking up four goals and Moore collecting two goals and a trio of helpers.

Both teams will be missing players, though the Union’s absentees are considerably more important to their success. Carlos Valdes and Rais Mbohli need to stay in the side if the team is going to establish a solid defense before the final leg of the season.

And if 2-2 seems like a high scoreline, it’s nothing more than Toronto and Philly have earned. TFC has scored two or more in seven of 12 road matches, while the Union have done the same in 12 home games.

This home-and-home series was going to mean a lot to Philly no matter what. Now it is also the proving ground for Toronto’s new head coach (note the absence of an interim tag).

A year ago, the Union lost all three September matches 1-0, before October needing a 95th minute miracle free kick from Kleberson to best a much less talented Toronto FC team, 1-0. If 2014 is going to be any different, Philly needs to have at least 33 points on Sunday. And the easiest way to get there is to win at home.


  1. Game time is listed as 7pm on the Union site, not the 8pm listed above. I got excited – I like the idea of an 8pm midweek game much better.

  2. Also, I didn’t note this in the preview, but Warner is one caution away from a suspension. So Philly should make it a point to attack him if he’s on the pitch.

  3. I agree that the lineup pretty much has to be what you’ve listed. And it’s a fine lineup. But what about the weekend game? Assuming no injuries, do we trot out the same XI and assume that however tired they’ll be, Toronto’s starters will be even more tired???

    • As we stand right now I would say, yes. I think that’s our best lineup. Best case scenario for us is to go up 2 or 3 zip by the half and allow us to make some key player subs early. Like Maidana for Fred, Casey for Brown or Ribeiro, Wenger or Le Toux for Cruz. This will hopefully allow us to run out a very similar lineup saturday and making those subs accordingly. Fabinho could be hungry for a start to spell Williams or Gaddis.
      We could potentially get a 6pt swing her. We need to get it now while TFC is on the ropes and struggling. At a minimum we need 4pts, but I want to be the ones to deliver the 5 finger death punch to TFC and take them out of the playoffs.

      • Would you show them their ripped out heart before you throw it into a paper bag or simply rip their head off & fling it away?

        I’d opt for the former. It worked pretty well for Lloyd Christmas.

  4. Looking forward to these next two games. Feel like must – wins. Six more points by Saturday evening would be great. Most of all, I’m hoping Maidana is 100 percent and creating chances for us.

  5. Big game. Let’s see some big results, boys.

  6. The U need to come out fast , score first, & hold the lead at home. Big confidence boost if they can.

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