Match previews

Preview: Union vs Toronto FC

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Toronto FC
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: Saturday, May 2 at 4 pm
Watch: 6abc, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick
Whistle: Armando Villarreal; Linesmen: Corey Parker, Kyle Longville; Fourth official: Robert Sibiga

To get a sense of how bad things are in Philadelphia right now, Jim Curtin was asked at his weekly press conference if Saturday’s matchup against Toronto is a must-win game… even though the Union are less than three points from a playoff spot.

Sure, Toronto has three games in hand on Philly, but Orlando, currently holding down the last playoff spot, only has one game in hand. The Union have been very, very bad in 2015 but this is far from a lost season.

That said, nothing can excuse the team’s performance in Columbus. Fans may say, “Oh no, not again” and throw up their hands when the opposition suddenly drops a goal into the middle of an otherwise fairly even game. But the players have no such luxury. They have to put their personal grievances and frustrations aside and rally together as a team.

And, as Curtin indicated at the start of his Wednesday presser, they absolutely must acknowledge the fans who invest in them both monetarily and, more importantly, emotionally. The fact that, in an age when it is incredibly easy for players to directly interact with fans through various social media outlets, it was left to the head coach to apologize to the traveling support in an old fashioned press conference is disturbing and disappointing.

Philadelphia Union have had many trials and tribulations in the club’s short existence, but there has always been a close connection between the fans and the players. To see that break down at a time when so many other issues are dogging this club would be a true low point in the the franchise’s existence. So kudos to Curtin for his open apology, but this should not be an issue that lies unaddressed for four days after a match.

On and off the field: Where are the Philadelphia Union players?

Toronto: A very winnable game

After watching Columbus pass around and through them with ease, the Union will have a much different challenge against a Toronto side that takes a more hands-off approach to the ball. Unlike the Crew, TFC cannot recycle play through technical central defenders. Instead, they look to get the ball out of the back as quickly as possible so the high-skill players — and they certainly have a few — have time to pick out passes before the defense sets up.

The struggle for Toronto has been less in the transition from defense to midfield (where the Union have struggled mightily) as in from midfield to the key offensive players up top. Giovinco is averaging almost five shots a game, but Altidore is only at two shots per match, which is a number that should rise considerably when TFC is playing well.

Bradley remains a dominant midfield presence, and Toronto seems to have accepted that their star midfielder is more comfortable in a holding role that allows him to spend more time on the ball and make hard-charging late runs into the box. However, Bradley has had difficulty figuring out how to link to the strikers without going directly through Giovinco (which, let’s be honest, is hardly a bad option). Ideally, though, Bradley would be able to spread the ball wide and scuttle out to collect it from his wingers or fullbacks. By pulling midfielders to the flanks, Toronto can open more space through the middle for Giovinco, who can absolutely destroy a defense if he finds any gaps between the lines. Orlando had Amobi Okugo sitting in front of the back four to shield against Giovinco; a smart move.

TFC all passes vs OCSC: Two goals despite almost no final third penetration.

TFC all passes vs OCSC: Two goals despite almost no final third penetration.

But things are not ideal in Toronto right now. Despite last week’s win, they can hardly claim any sort of tactical breakthrough (35.2% possession is Unionesque). The wide midfielders that should help alleviate pressure have been largely uninvolved recently, often sucked inside to help defensively then too slow to get back to the touchline. This would be less of an issue if the TFC fullbacks showed an interest in overlapping and taking up those wide positions.

Ashtone Morgan and Justin Morrow have done no such thing. As bad as the Union defense has been, Toronto has kept pace, albeit in fewer games; Philly is letting in 1.88 goals/game while TFC is at 1.83. Greg Vanney compensated against an Orlando side that has struggled to break down opponents at home by keeping his fullbacks firmly in the back line: No freelancing, no pushing. Just sit. Stay. Force crosses.

And it worked. The Toronto back four is nothing special, but the eternally overrated Nick Hagglund and Damien Parquis can certainly handle their box. The Union should take note: Whoever Jim Curtin turns to on the wings, they need to be prepared to hold onto the ball or drive at defenders rather than dropping crosses into the box. Toronto may not be very good, but they are starting to figure out that forcing teams to attack wide can minimize pressure on the wobbly defense.

And really, Toronto only needs that defense to be good enough to allow the wide players to release upfield. By adding width to the attack, TFC can play an inside-outside game with Bradley able to quarterback further up the pitch. If that kind of offensive setup develops for Toronto, the defense will just need to hang out, because there is enough offensive talent to carry the squad through the tepid Eastern Conference.

Union setup: Primary goals

Given that Toronto has difficulty creating opportunities unless the wide players are involved, Philly should have two primary goals and two secondary defensive goals on Saturday. The primary objective should be to track and/or get physical with Giovinco far enough from goal that he can’t threaten with set pieces. This ties into controlling the other big threat, Altidore, by preventing him from isolating a center back (you better believe Jozy has Steven Vitoria’s face on the dart board this week).

Giovinco really is that good: He’s quick, intelligent, and he plays at a fast pace all the time. Michael Lahoud will have to close him down quickly even if it means leaving the back four exposed to a run from midfield.

There are two options with Altidore. Philly could keep a second defensive midfielder to clean up the second ball when Toronto plays long to their big striker or the back line could play much tighter than usual and seek to limit the space in the channels where Altidore can hold off a defender and drive at goal. The lack of production Toronto has gotten from wide areas suggests the latter may be the preferable option. Whereas Meram and Finlay tortured the Union’s fullbacks, TFC offers no such threat, meaning Williams and Gaddis (yes, those are the starting fullbacks. No question about it.) can play more narrow and help on the main threat up the middle.

Morgan and Morrow in the first half - very deep and uninvolved even as Toronto struggled to get out of the back.

Morgan and Morrow in the first half – very deep and uninvolved even as Toronto struggled to get out of the back.

Union setup: Secondary goals

The secondary defensive goals involve something Jim Curtin stressed in his press conference: Smart pressure. Philly has a tendency to engage in lone wolf pressing, where a single player gets out ahead of his team and closes down the man on the ball before his teammates can get in position to cut off outlets. Thus, the Union must press as a unit, even if it means sitting slightly deeper or pushing the defense slightly further forward than they have been this season.

The other secondary aim is to force Toronto to play through the back line. This means recognizing which players don’t want the ball and pushing play that way. Nick Hagglund does not want the ball. Damien Perquis does not want the ball. Ashtone Morgan really does not want the ball. Force those players onto the ball, then don’t just close them down, but limit their options so they have to make a difficult pass.

It is a stone cold guarantee that if Morgan receives the ball, he is looking to play quickly to one of the central midfielders. The only time Morgan and Morrow try anything like a passing combination is when their matching midfielder has so much space that they almost have to play the ball upfield. Recognizing this, the Union can minimize the involvement of Giovinco and Altidore by executing smart defensive pressure in the opponent’s half rather than trying to deal with the two big guns once they already have the ball.

Going forward

Toronto’s wide players are often caught too narrow to help build a transition offense. In contrast, Philadelphia’s are often too far upfield or too wide. When Jim Curtin talks about making personnel changes, he is also talking, less directly, about using players who are willing to adjust their games to the team’s needs.

Andrew Wenger and Sebastien Le Toux may have the best intentions, but this season they have acted like players who want the ball played to their comfort zones. The Union are not good enough to provide such service right now, so the wingers need to be willing to come inside or deep to offer simple outlets to the fullbacks and Michael Lahoud. Though Lahoud’s confidence pinging long balls remains shaky, his ability to turn out of pressure and play a simple release pass has never been better. The problem: He often has nobody in position to receive a simple release pass.

Assuming the Union can add Fernando Aristeguieta back to the mix, look for more combination play between the wide men and the big striker. Such movement and interplay has been sorely lacking as all three front players have found it difficult to connect passes when the wide men are so intent on going vertical.

Pulling the wingers a bit deeper to offer a short option in transition allows Aristeguieta or Cristian Maidana to tuck out wide and likely starter Zach Pfeffer to step into a familiar advanced central role. It all sounds very difficult to pull off, but the Union did it consistently for almost two months last season, albeit with the high-class movement and distribution of Vincent Nogueira in the engine room.

Predicted Lineup

Predicted Lineup

Prediction: Toronto 3-1 Philadelphia

I predicted a 3-1 scoreline on the podcast before I had a chance to closely examine just how disconnected TFC remains as an offense. But I will stick with it and happily take the flak when proven wrong (that is, if the players begin to re-engage with fans).

Both teams will struggle to build from the back, but if the past is any indication, the deep defenses will leave space behind the midfield that should result in plenty of opportunities. If the Union settle for crosses, they will have to hope Aristeguieta fares better than Orlando City did against a defense that does one thing well. However, should the Union find a way to push the ball through the center of the pitch, with Pfeffer forcing Cheyrou to follow, there will be good chances all match.

Toronto will do what they are built to do: Play the ball to Giovinco and let Altidore bully and outthink the defense (don’t be fooled by the big man’s strength — he’s successful because he’s smart).

This is no must-win, but fans need to see the fire that was so easily doused in Columbus. The hard tackles, the passion, and the team-centered attitude that characterized the very bad but very loved early Union sides can return. That seems to be what Jim Curtin is asking for from his players. And that is definitely what the fans are asking for.

Will they deliver?


  1. pragmatist says:

    Effort. Intelligence. Creativity. These are the things we need to see demonstrated on Saturday. Not an endless series of long passes ending with aimless and naively optimistic crosses.

    The proposed lineup is just about the best that we have to offer. Noguiera is the only name missing (understandably). Aside from him, this is the best XI Curtin has at his disposal, and it’s not even something that anyone can argue right now.
    (Ok…I just realized that Blake needs to get in goal…but we can probably all agree on the 10 field players.)

    Edu should be able to handle Jozy for most of the match, if he stays disciplined. It will become a question of finding someone who can stay with Giovinco. Vittoria on a bum wheel isn’t the answer, and I’m not sure a 20-year-old has enough experience.

    Hopefully the Columbus game was a wake-up call and they’ll get back on track here. I’ll be there, and I’m hoping to leave as a very happy fan.

  2. Let’s hope this is our lineup, McCarthy aside. I think these guys actually have some decent talent and a chance to win. No Carroll this game at all. Pass and move pass and move. Don’t blast it over the top, we have some horses up top, feed them.

  3. el pachyderm says:

    Altidore. Bradley. Giovinco. Cheyrou. Findley.
    I’ve been beaten into submission. I can’t see through the forest anymore. Until this team strings together something resembling a working knowledge of how to play well or even remotely well – in successive games …. they receive only the expectation of defeat from me and treatment as such.

  4. There’s no question that this is the best XI we can field for this week (with the exception of the GK, which is debatable, assuming Blake really isn’t 100%).

    But my worry with this lineup is that, with Lahoud shielding the back line, Pfeffer pushing forward, and Maidana pushing up to the wing to find space and attack, there will be no one in the middle of the park for the Union. I foresee the usual big gap between the midfielders and the defenders being even larger this week, unless Pfeffer plays more active defense than usual, and Maidana gets back on D as well (which is problematic given his sub-90-minute fitness). Bradley is likely to find a ton of space to operate.

    Also, because Maidana and Pfeffer should start, I think Fred needs to be on the bench instead of McLaughlin. Makes no sense to have 3 wingers on a 7-man bench.

    • el pachyderm says:

      This is exactly why the defenders have to push up and shrink the size of the field…. see short term fix to the problems of the Union in response to nagjs1 in Farnsworth article.
      The gaping hole between midfield and defense is easily fixable IMO. I requires a balls out approach to the game.

      • Exactly, if a club is keeping proper shape…….there is maybe thirty yards between the striker and back four……….not sixty to eighty!

      • Agree completely. And 3 of the four back line defenders should be quick/athletic enough to play a higher line like that and be able to recover.

  5. This is exactly what I said would happen. Last week we have an entire article saying how optimistic people are about McCarthy and how good he is going to be. Now everyone is ready to string the kid up. This is why rookies should not play in goal for at least 2 to 3 seasons. You give them one maybe two starts in a US Open cup game (vs lower level competition plus friendlies)and they should learn and study the veterans. Oh wait that is right the Union have no veteran goalkeepers because of the FO and a little tournament in Brazil.
    Put it this way it won’t matter who is in goal and who plays since it is going to be more of the same because that is what this organization does. There is no change or growth. It is sad. An in form Altidore gives them 2-0, Gio makes it 3-0, and on a free kick or corner Bradley may makes it 4-0. And toronto isn’t even good.

    • el pachyderm says:

      Like an angel, standing in a shaft of light, rising up to paradise….my time coming any day…..
      since I’m on a Dead kick thanks to XPN.

    • I think you have the TFC part right, but their defense is awful & I can see the Union getting chances in a sloppy, end to end game. One worry is Bendik for some reason stands on his head every team he plays Philly, and I don’t have confidence in McCarthy v. Altidore & Giovinco. 3-2 TFC in a match that will not be pretty.

  6. Better start baking more cookies for the COUD now.

  7. George H says:

    Since we swept Toronto in those back to back games last fall, our record in MLS play is 2 Wins, 6 draws and 8 losses.

    That’s so depressing.

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