Match previews

Preview: Union at Toronto FC

Photo: Daniel Studio

Who: Philadelphia Union (4th in the East, 41 points, 11-11-8) at Toronto FC (1st in the East, 47 points, 13-8-8)
What: Regular season game
Where: BMO Field
When: Saturday, Sept. 24 at 5 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Ismail Elfath; Linesmen: Peter Manikowski, Phil Briere; Fourth Official: Silviu Petrescu

Toronto FC has a host of superstars, but none of them play defense. So it’s a bit surprising to find out that last weekend’s 3-3 tie with New York Energy Drinks was only the second time since June they have given up more than one goal.

With the most attack-friendly holding midfielder in MLS, last season’s MVP, and the league’s hottest striker, TFC are always going to score. But their defensive efforts — in front of a rookie goalie — have been impressive. The credit goes to Greg Vanney, who has not only fit four central players into his midfield, but also turned them into a well-disciplined unit that controls the middle of the park. It is no coincidence that they were consistently beaten early by Red Bulls’ strong wide play, and that their resurgence coincided with the introduction of a more centrally-inclined Mike Grella and the hasta la vista of Alex Muyl.

It is also no coincidence that Greg Vanney’s substitutions changed the match. He has proven to be a coach who can instill basic principles to such an extent that a change of shape can be achieved with relative ease. Toronto’s narrow midfield lost out to New York’s brilliantly organized pressure. So Vanney turned to a 3-5-2 to spread the pressing players and create space for Jozy Altidore through the center. It worked brilliantly.

(Finally) more than the big three

Even with their newfound tactical flexibility, Toronto’s success still largely rests on their stars. Michael Bradley possesses a unique skillset as a holding midfielder, able to distribute, tackle, and range across the field (not unsimilar to what the Union hope to get from Mo Edu soon). This allows TFC to play with four midfielders who drift to the center, because Bradley can ping balls into tight spaces or loft long, angled passes to advancing fullbacks. Tight spaces that many holding mids wouldn’t dare to attack are less daunting for Bradley, and this gives TFC a lot of flexibility in how they build an attack.

For example, when Bradley dropped between the center backs to pick up the ball against New York Red Bulls, Jesse Marsch would often push his pressure forward, looking to man-mark Bradley and both his simple passing options. Since TFC has multiple players comfortable checking back and starting attacks, they could send Will Johnson back to break New York’s pressure and move the ball forward.

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This presents problems for a defense — like the Union’s — that has a tendency to get stretched when they pressure the ball in the opponent’s half. Philly cannot afford to have three players passed through with a simple vertical ground ball, because their defensive system must remain compact if they want to prevent balls into Jozy Altidore’s feet.

Altidore hasn’t always been a great hold-up player, but Toronto’s narrow midfield helps him considerably because he can receive the ball and turn into space when defenders drop off to track inside runners.

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Above, you can see that when Altidore drops into midfield, Toronto has narrow runners on either side of him, meaning that a defender has to be on the big striker’s back when he receives the ball or quickly drop to prevent through-ball attacks.

Additionally, Toronto’s 3-5-2 setup means their wingers can spread the field in the buildup and attack the back line at angles when Altidore has the ball. So even if the defense stayed high, there is an opportunity for Altidore to quickly drop the ball so it can be dinked over the top to Tsubasa Endoh making the run off the right flank.

This is the essence of Toronto’s success: Even though their star players will be on the ball most of the time, take most of the shots, and produce most of the highlights, the supporting cast is always putting pressure on a defense instead of simply hoping the big names come through. Even though Bradley, Altidore, and Giovinco have approximately 57% of the team’s goals this season, that number is way down from last year’s 70%.

Not all rosy

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But there is a downside, or potential downside, to TFC’s free flowing, narrow midfield. When player don’t find spaces, they tend to move forward or backward, but not wide. Last weekend, New York exploited this for about 65 minutes before Greg Vanney’s switch to a three-back system finally gave Toronto advanced options on the flanks.

Beitashour and Endoh on the right recycled the ball and TFC quickly found Morrow and Lovitz on the left to advance it forward through NY's press.

Beitashour and Endoh on the right recycled the ball and TFC quickly found Morrow and Lovitz on the left to advance it forward through NY’s press.

Altidore provided a central point of focus for Toronto's attacks when they spread the field in the second half vs NY.

Altidore provided a central point of focus for Toronto’s attacks when they spread the field in the second half vs NY.

Before Vanney added Endoh to the right flank, Toronto wasn’t quite sure how to use their width. With all of their playmakers in the center, the wide men often become outlets who try to temporarily drag a defense wide then play the ball back inside to Bradley. Endoh’s willingness to attack with the ball meant New York had to close him down quickly, and this pulled the defense to the right. Toronto then switched the ball to the left, where Daniel Lovitz was already established up the pitch, allowing Justin Morrow to advance forward and slide passes through a disorganized New York midfield.

The result was stunningly effective. Toronto’s second half passing chart on the flanks shows that they often worked the ball to the right, quickly cycled it to the left, and advanced before New York adjusted. This is simply another method of spreading out the Red Bulls so they can’t use their pressure. The Union have, in the past, used fast, blind, long switches to achieve the same end. What is so impressive is that Toronto switched to this system in the middle of the second half and not only advanced the ball well, but immediately began to find Altidore in the middle. Thus, they both took control of the wide areas and simultaneously wrestled the center away from the Drinks. From a tactical point of view, that’s… awesome.

The Union are not the Red Bulls

And Toronto, rightly, will not be as intimidated by the Union’s pressure as they were by New York’s. Philly will need to put bodies close to Michael Bradley, and to do this they need to keep the pitch compact.

One takeaway from Toronto’s people’s elbow to the Union defense in August is that Philly needs to be wary of throughballs. Giovinco’s goal came from a wonderful Marky Delgado pass and the Italian could have had a second moments later when Altidore put him in behind again.

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But the truth is that the first goal was made possible by a defensive bulge created when Ken Tribbett dropped behind Richie Marquez, and the second came when Tribbett didn’t fully commit to stepping to Giovinco (once Tribbett knew he’d been duped, he 100% needed to foul, something that has hopefully been passed along by now).

The Union defense has become notorious for giving space to opposing forwards when they don’t need to, and that sort of play will make for a one-sided contest on Saturday. Even New York Red Bulls, who tend to hold a high line so extreme it should be sponsored by Mountain Dew, get caught up following Altidore deep when they don’t need to. They were almost punished for it Saturday.

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Union tactical adjustments?

The big positive from Portland was that the Union did create real chances in a very tough environment. Toronto will not be an easy place to play, and Philly may again find that they are more successful on the counterattack than they are establishing possession and building. But even with the sweet passes of Joshua Yaro out of the mix, the Union need to attempt to hold the ball and build from the back. TFC is not a great pressing team, and the more the Union work the ball around the back line, the more they make Altidore and (potentially) Giovinco use energy in defense.

And when they move it, they have to move it fast. With most of their midfield down the gut, TFC will push fullbacks high to defend. The Union can find numerical advantages if they are willing to move the ball side to side in back and advance it with center backs who draw defenders and then play the ball into midfield. If Philly can make Delgado or Osorio step to their central defenders, they will be able to access Chris Pontius and Fabian Herbers to build play and involve the Union’s dangerous fullbacks. Neither Fabinho or Rosenberry were very involved in attacks last weekend, and it made Philly much easier to defend.

The flip side of that coin is that Rosenberry and (especially) Fabinho need to be patient with the ball. Throwing crosses into the box in good situations is great, but holding the ball and making Toronto commit eight or nine players to defense is far more beneficial over the course of the match. Watch to see how often Philly is able to get all four Toronto midfielders in their own defensive third: That will say a lot about how well TFC can transition with numbers and create isolations for Altidore and Giovinco.

uniontorLineup questions

Zero. Unless Brian Carroll needs a rest, it’s pretty clear who Philly’s first eleven will be. In fact, the most interesting part of the lineup announcement will be the bench, where Jim Curtin hinted in his press conference on Wednesday that Maurice Edu’s name could appear.

More important than the lineup itself is how the names on the team sheet shape up offensively. In Portland, Ale Bedoya was noticeably reticent to move forward, and that cannot continue if Philly wants to do anything other than play transition offense. Bedoya’s forays into the offensive third have shown that he can make intelligent runs into the back line that drag midfielders deep and create space for Barnetta to operate. However, Philly’s compulsion to attack with speed has meant these runs often coincide with turnovers off forced passes into small spaces. Instead of being a net benefit, Bedoya’s moves forward tend to end with him sprinting back to help stop a counter.

Prediction: TFC 3-2 Union

I have to stick with this since it’s the prediction I made on the latest KYW Philly Soccer Show. And it is difficult to imagine that Philly gives up fewer than two goals if they play anything like how they have over the past month. That said, the Union’s issues have been relatively consistent over that time span, suggesting that they need tweaks, not an overhaul, to become more cohesive again. If those tweaks are made, this could be a far tighter match than currently imagined.

A point would be huge for the Union who, as commenters on the latest player ratings at PSP have pointed out, probably need a minimum of four points the rest of the way to feel safe about a playoff spot. Grabbing at least one of those points on the road would not only do a lot for their postseason hopes, but it would be a huge confidence boost for a team that is likely going to have to win away from home to make the playoffs more than a field trip.

They can do it, and they’ve done it this season. It starts with rediscovering the defensive shape.


  1. My biggest question regarding the lineup is who the backup CB is, especially if the decision is made for Edu not to be in the 18 (or if somehow Curtin decides to start him at the 6).

    • I guess Trusty. I think he’s been in the 18 once before.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Edu was slowing down after 20-25 last Sunday in Bethlehem. I’d Be very surprised if he started. 25-30 at the end of the game would be my bet.
      Trusty might have to, but if Edu does appear on the bench he’s the emergency center back. Player development says Trusty needs his ninety minutes, not aluminum stains on his shorts.

  2. Since no points will be won, Jimbo must play for the last 3 games, giving time to Davies over Sapong, Edu at 6 if at all possible, and Alberg in his highest and best use as a finisher, to maximize the playoff run.
    Except we know he can’t. Set your watch by the subs: 75 – Ilsinho for Herbers (who has more left in the tank than the rest of the offense combined), Edu for Carroll at ?, and Alberg for Pontius at 80 because TFC will be ahead.
    Jozy will toss CJ around like a rag doll – with a bum ankle (since May) and put up a brace against Ken & Co.
    It will take a monumental collapse to miss the playoffs, but a flame out in a play in game will give Big Ern the choice between keeping the coaching staff as a reward or picking more seasoned and confident coaches in ’17.
    In Earnie I Trust.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      I’d be surprised if a coaching change is on the table, barring a compete meltdown.
      The template is Jim Curtin’s to a significant degree and the template runs throughout the organization from u-12s to the first team.
      Changing that would be a major undertaking. For 2018, perhaps. , if there is little further progress.

  3. “It is also no coincidence that Greg Vanney’s substitutions changed the match. He has proven to be a coach who can instill basic principles to such an extent that a change of shape can be achieved with relative ease.”
    I wish we could say the same about Curtin. I fear that we will see much of the same this weekend, which has stalled and ceased working. We need a change of pace, a change of mindset, something to throw off TFC.

    • Vanney was also terrible with a high payroll for his first couple years. It’s almost like a young coach can learn and get better. Not saying Curtin will, but his ability to keep the team together and playing hard is a skill that people do not appreciate enough in a coach. It’s not like he didn’t use the blind field switch against the exact same opponent to turn the tide earlier in the season.

  4. Old Soccer Coach says:

    A quibble about the graphic of the bench.
    The signing of Kevin Kratz tells you that Anderson Conceicao is no longer on the roster because they had had 28 on the roster already, and they needed an international slot to sign Kratz.

    • There have been reports of Anderson still training with the team since the Kratz signing. I know the numbers don’t work but that’s what has been reported.

      • Could be part of the agreement in return for him being with BSFC the rest of the year.
        Since Anderson is a loan to the Union, I imagine that the Union could have had to get permission from his parent club to loan him to another team, even if that team was the Steel. Part of the agreement could have been that he still trains with the first team?

      • Training is one thing. My understanding was that the Steel and Union players had spent chunks of time together all year, with some academy players sprinkled in even from time to time. Being gameday roster eligible is of course a different matter.
        In any case, I doubt we see Anderson in the gameday 18. Gotta believe Mo is plan A, Trusty is plan B, and plan C is… a frightening contingency plan that if we’ve gone to means the game is lost. For the record, I’d slide Rosenberry into the center and stick Gaddis outside if it ever came to that. And that might still be a better plan than letting Anderson play at this point. We know he’s gone at year’s end. Don’t waste minutes on him.

  5. It seems like all of our strikers could benefit from a top pairing since none are getting it done alone. I had a little formation envy hearing how easily TFC could just switch things up.
    Any chance at all that we give CJ/Hebers or CJ/Alberg or even Herbers/Alberg a chance to try working off each other?
    If so, what does the rest of the formation look like?

  6. Curtin will never give up his 2 defensive midfielder safety blanket away to Toronto. He doesn’t have it in him to be that bold.

  7. I’ll be in Toronto for the match. I do not intend for the loss to spoil the rest of my time there. That is all.

    Edit: I am excited to see Ken vs. Toronto round 2. I think he has a bunch to prove to his coach, the fans, and himself.

    • @Truth – If you happen to take some cool photos at the game, don’t hesitate to email them my way! That’s a beautiful stadium.

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