Match previews

Preview: Union at Toronto FC

Photo: Daniel Studio

Who: Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: BMO Field
When: Saturday, July 18 at 4 pm
Watch: CSN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Whistle: Jorge Gonzalez; Linesmen: James Conlee, Kyle Atkins; Fourth Official: Silviu Petrescu

After chopping down Portland  in breathtaking fashion, Philadelphia Union turn their attention to a string of Eastern Conference opponents that stretches until the end of August.

The first challenge will be Toronto FC (7-7-3; 4th). The Canadian side is winless in three and have allowed eight goals in their last two matches. Canada’s underwhelming Gold Cup performance, along with the underwhelming fitness of Jozy Altidore, will restore all but Michael Bradley to the home locker room this weekend.

Though Altidore is the biggest name to return from international duty, a pair of Canadians may prove more valuable on Saturday. Ashtone Morgan is likely to slide back into the left fullback position, replacing the inconsistent Daniel Lovitz. Morgan is a far cry from Old Faithful, but he still should help a back four that has been a sieve in recent weeks.

Jonathan Osorio has played all across the midfield, but he may have difficulty squeezing back into the lineup if Altidore is healthy enough to start. Although both Jackson and Robbie Findley were largely ineffective last weekend, they each earned an assist by exploiting one of the worst collective defensive performances of the MLS season. It would be more tactically simple for Greg Vanney to insert Osorio for Jackson, as both players tend to drift to the middle while Findley prefers to dance on the chalk.

Definitely not simple
When Warner dropped too deep, space between midfield and defense was easy for NYC to own.

When Warner dropped too deep, space between midfield and defense was easy for NYC to exploit. Here, they end up with an extra man in the middle.

But while Vanney may not be the most tactically astute manager in MLS, he has rarely been simple. A prime example came last week in Yankee Stadium as Toronto played a high pressing game with the 34-year-old Benoit Cheyrou chasing about the midfield in front of the perpetually conservative Collen Warner. Warner’s pass to Jackson that released Giovinco for his second was, to be fair, quite ambitious. However, a lane that wide and long is only open when playing against NYCFC or drag racing.

Pressing with Cheyrou, Findley and Jackson was always ambitious, but it became closer to suicidal in the second half when Jason Kreis moved Mehdi Ballouchy into the right channel, pushed Chris Wingert into the middle of the back four, and proceeded to wear out a midfield that was never going to be able to sustain high pressure for more than sixty minutes.

Giovinco's movement is stellar. On this play, he sits on Shay Facey and when the defender drifts too high, follows before ducking into the space left behind to chase Cheyrou's lob. The defense collapsed and opened lanes for Jackson and Findley to join.

Giovinco’s movement is stellar. On this play, he sits on Shay Facey and when the defender drifts too high, follows before ducking into the space left behind to chase Cheyrou’s lob. The defense collapsed and opened lanes for Jackson and Findley to join.

Toronto survived because Giovinco is the best player in MLS right now and because New York City’s defense is the Terminator Genisys to the early season Union defense’s Terminator Salvation (both were awful, but you can still go out and pay to see one be awful right now).

For large portions of this season, it has been unclear what Toronto FC’s tactical goals are. Do they want to win the ball back quickly? Do they want to sit deep, let their big central defenders clear crosses then counter? Do they want to push the ball wide so Michael Bradley (who will be on international duty Saturday) can crash the box as he does so well, or do they want to continue to ask Bradley to create from deeper positions?

None of those questions have been answered after 17 games. But the quality of Giovinco and Altidore up top — with 17 of the team’s 26 goals — has carried an otherwise moribund side up the Eastern Conference ladder.

Altidore from the start?
Here the Toronto defenders have far too much space between them and don't recover their shape after winning the ball. A quick turnover then allows David Villa to send an easy pass behind the entire back line.

Here the Toronto defenders have far too much space between them and don’t recover their shape after winning the ball. A quick turnover then allows David Villa to send an easy pass behind the entire back line.

The biggest decision for Vanney on Saturday is whether to start Jozy Altidore or bring the big striker off the bench. Altidore went 71 minutes in late June against DC United, but he looked well off the pace in the Gold Cup. Considering that TFC plays nothing but the top half of the Eastern Conference until the end of August, resting Altidore against a Union side that has only earned five points on the road this season may be good long-term planning.

Should Altidore sit, Osorio could slot into an attacking midfield role and allow Cheyrou to sit in his more comfortable holding role. Such a move would have the added advantage of pushing Collen Warner to the bench, where his spacious idea of defensive pressure won’t turn Cristian Maidana into an assist machine for the second consecutive match.

Even though Toronto’s midfield should not have been expected to sustain high pressure for ninety minutes, the conceptual idea has some merit. TFC has been terrible at building and sustaining offensive possessions, and Bradley’s passing range has painted over what would other be an incredibly troubling problem area. By pressing the opposition high up the pitch, Toronto hopes to create turnovers that will simplify the attacking process, replacing lengthier buildups with quick releases to the ever-ready Giovinco and Altidore.

However, a less than perfect press exposes the far less than perfect Toronto defense. Vanney has yet to find a balance between pressing to maximize his offensive talent and dropping back to close the gaping holes in front of his back four. Last week, Warner overcompensated by dropping into the back line at times, and David Villa spent a considerable portion of the first half working dangerously close to the edge of the box without a body in front of him.

Three goals
Toronto's fullbacks are not great on the ball, even with Ashtone Morgan returning. Forcing Toronto to play through them will help Philly.

Toronto’s fullbacks (first half passing vs NYC) are not great on the ball, even with Ashtone Morgan returning. Forcing Toronto to play through them will help Philly.

There should be three major tactical goals for the Union on Saturday. First, do not let Giovinco run at the defense unimpeded. Brian Carroll has played Tweetybird to quite a few playmaking Sylvestres in recent weeks, but Giovinco is a more daunting assignment than Ignacio Piatti or Gaston Fernandez. And the hide-and-seek game Giovinco plays by slipping around the defensive line before checking deep makes Carroll’s job even more difficult.

Carroll will be responsible for maintaining the Union midfield’s depth, which means holding the middle of the pitch and not pressing too high against a Toronto midfield that could sit quite deep. The large gap TFC tends to leave between their midfield and strikers can benefit the Canadian side if they draw the opposition midfield out and play balls into Giovinco’s feet. The Italian has yet to meet a central defender he can’t make weak in the knees (though seeing him against Mo Edu would have been a fun matchup to watch).

Ethan White is the likely starter with Edu suspended, and Philly can ill afford to let Giovinco face up to a defender who is far more comfortable chasing throughballs than making an open field tackle. Particularly with Michael Bradley missing, it cannot be overstated how central Giovinco is to the Toronto offense. Eight assists is a ridiculous return when the second leading scorer on the team has six goals (and only one since May 10) and the leading scorer on the team is… yourself.

Second, the Union need to exploit Toronto’s mediocre fullbacks. Andrew Wenger finally found success by moving off the left wing and searching for space along the front line. Sebastien Le Toux will look to build on a promising return to the lineup by isolating Ashtone Morgan early and often, especially if Jackson continues to drift high and inside to anticipate turnovers. Le Toux and Wenger must obey one simple rule for attacking Toronto from wide areas: Beat your defender and look for late runners (or keep dribbling and shoot).

Toronto's wingers - Jackson and Robbie Findley (1st half vs NYC) tend to stick to roles: Jackson drifts inside while Findley hugs the touchline.

Toronto’s wingers – Jackson and Robbie Findley (1st half vs NYC) tend to stick to roles: Jackson drifts inside while Findley hugs the touchline.

TFC tends to collapse to the edge of the penalty area and set up a wall. This means that getting below the box can throw their defensive strategy into some level of chaos. It also means that Wenger and Le Toux have to be confident and patient on the wings, willing to recycle play until they get the matchup and space they need to attack; the wait will be worth it.

Third, Philly must maintain the speed of play from last week that saw them slice through Portland like a chainsaw through a tree. Maurice Edu’s absence is a lot to overcome since he is capable of picking out longer passes and more carefully choosing his targets. Ethan White has shown a marked lack of confidence on the ball this season, but with Giovinco lurking and the Union in need of quick releases, the Maryland product will need to come back into the side with a touch of fellow Terrapin Edu’s near-trademarked swagger.

Prediction: Toronto 1-2 Union

Philly should win this match. Without Michael Bradley, Toronto will be leaning even more heavily and Giovinco and Altidore. The Carroll-Nogueira partnership has proven adept at suffocating the center of the pitch for extended periods of time. By cutting off Giovinco, the Philly midfield can neuter TFC and look to isolate their fullbacks.

The Union are far from the finished product. But the progress made in recent weeks has been very promising, and that is more than can be said for a Toronto side that is stumbling in the dark, albeit with two very bright headlamps leading the line.

Philly’s 11 goals in nine away matches is third-most in the East. 22 goals allowed on the road, however, is second only to New England for worst in the conference (and the Revs have played two more road games than the Union).

In short, the Union can beat Toronto if they can play disciplined in the middle and choke the narrow, limited TFC offense. But with Edu missing and Giovinco flying, can they?

Possible Union lineup: Brian Sylvestre, Fabinho, Richie Marquez, Ethan White, Ray Gaddis, Brian Carroll, Vincent Nogueira, Cristian Maidana, Andrew Wenger, Sebastien Le Toux, CJ Sapong


  1. I recognize NYCFC had a porous defense this past week but Sebastien Giovinco was a world class menace and if he displays half that accumen against us he will account for a brace– he was absolutely brilliant. Brilliant.
    But apparently not an All Star.

    • It’s a shame that Giovinco apparently played too many matches to picked by the Commish.

    • 1) The absence of Giovinco, combined with the selection of Gerrard and Lampard, has convinced me once and for all that the All-Star game is a complete joke, and from now on I refuse to even watch it.
      2) Giovinco could easily have had 5 or 6 goals on that game, he was so on point. However, you can’t get that many golden opportunities unless the defense was truly putrid, which indeed it was. And Toronto’s was scarcely better. This could be a very entertaining game to watch.

      • John Ling says:

        The full rosters haven’t been announced yet. All that’s been announced is the popularity contest… er, I mean the fan voting… and Garber’s two picks. Giovinco will undoubtedly be on the roster once it’s announced.
        I don’t like Garber’s picks either. I think they were terrible decisions. But Garber’s picks won’t exclude a player like Gio making the team.

  2. I think Toronto is beatable. Union need to keep up their current form and not make any mistakes.

    Though this team has managed to get the opposite result of what thought they would almost every match this year except for LA, so there’s that.

    • Unfortunately, I think we’re going to see the value of Mo Edu today. Ethan is a huge step backwards and covering Giovinco and a pissed-off Jozy is going to be quite a large task for this back 4 without Mo. I know we need to run off a string of consecutive wins here, but I would absolutely take a point here. A win would be extraordinary.

  3. Outstanding analysis as always, Adam. But what happened to your little pitch map with the starters’ jerseys on it???

  4. Also, MLS released salary figures today. It’s shocking to see that Steven Vitoria, who is making $400K, is now seemingly behind Ethan White on the depth chart. Dude is making more than M’Bolhi.

    • John Ling says:

      And it seems Mo is our only actual DP this year. Everybody else looks to be under the threshold – including He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

    • John Ling says:

      The Vitoria number is really interesting, actually. If it’s accurate that his loan – like Fernando’s – was only for a half-year, then the Union would be smart, I think, to simply let him walk. That would free up 400k on the cap, as well as an international slot.
      Speculation has been that the Union can’t do anything until He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named was gone. But it sure looks like Vitoria is a viable alternative for getting cap space and a roster spot.

      • Anybody But Sakky says:

        Vittorio was for the full year, as was clarified at the time when they leaked we might be losing Nando.

      • John Ling says:

        I missed that. I recall, for some reason, that both were half-year loans. *shrug* I’ll blame it on old age affecting my memory yet again…

      • Anybody But Sakky says:

        Wishing something is true is not a faulty memory. Otherwise Nick Sak would only be a bad dream.

  5. I should know better than to watch interviews with the LA Galaxy and Steven Gerrard and Toronto FC and Sebastian Giovinco. I want so much for this team and fan base. I’m trying to keep a positive attitude when the Union do well against teams not starting their best because they know this team is not good. I try to tell myself that the Union have also been undermanned due to injuries and poorly timed call ups. It’s just hard for me to know that most of our so called starters except for 3 wouldn’t be given a 2nd thought as starters on most teams. I try to say any given day anything can happen especially in the East. I tell myself to hold on until the team is out from under that asinine contract of Mbolhi’s. But I see Salkiewicz and that twisted smerk and I feel disgusted.

    Sell this steam to a competent and financially competitive ownership!


  6. The Union has to pray that Altidore is in the starting lineup, For if he is not starting, There might be trouble for the Union.

  7. The Little Fish says:

    Let me guess….Altidore sits this one out. Toronto has some big games coming up and views the union as empty tomato cans that basically the wind could knock over. I hope we stomp them just like Portland. I predict we’ll be sharp coming off the Bournemouth friendly.

  8. Actually, Altidore who is relatively ineffective, will get in Giovincos way. Gio is way superior to Altidore, and given room, could dismantle the Union by himself

  9. Joey has been out of form and fitness for sure, but everyone acting like he stinks are crazy. He commands attention and gives Gio even more room to roam.
    Also, this game screams for Williams on the right making runs and putting in service. Please Jim, don’t Just go by one comment u made.

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