What: Union at Toronto FC
When: 4:30pm ET
Where: BMO Park, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
TV: Comcast Network
Referee: Juan Guzman
Update: Zac MacMath and Gabriel Gomez are ruled out.
It has been a season of surprises and disappointment for the Philadelphia Union. A season in which some games have been near unwatchable while others could only be viewed with stunned disbelief. There have been highs too, but not nearly enough.
So when fans and players look at the standings and see expansion Montreal dancing one rung above them, it is a real blessing to look down and see Toronto.
Until they show up on the schedule.
At this point, a match against TFC is the only one on the schedule that one can honestly say the Union “should win.” The Canadians leak open play goals, they can’t generate a consistent offense, and they have had the lead for a total of… wait for it… one minute all season.
A psychological battle
Toronto needs this match badly. If they lose, their next winnable game isn’t until June 23 when New England comes to BMO. TFC will be nervous but excited. They will look at the Union’s visit to Dallas and see opportunity. An early lead would give the Canadians all the confidence they need to earn their first points of the season.
And, honestly, a tie is as good as a loss for the Union. They need full points from games against teams like Toronto, Montreal and New England if they are going to make anything of the 2012 season.
Andy Jasner’s article on the Union website calls the team “cautiously confident,” though it’s unclear if that means anything. Why be cautious if you are confident? Are you unconfident about your confidence? This cautious confidence has the same name but is a different beast from the 2011 Union’s state of mind. Back then, they were shutting everyone out without scoring many goals. Everyone, it seemed, was confident that the goals would come, and the only caution came from knowing they were good but being unsure precisely how far they were from peaking.
Now cautious confidence signifies a continued but possibly faltering self-belief. Certainly, a loss to Toronto FC will do damage to the Union’s confidence, independent of all modifiers.
In eight of ten MLS matches, TFC has given up the opening goal within the first 31 minutes. They have never scored first.
Three of the last four matches have seen the Canadian club go behind in the first seven minutes (twice in minute one!). There is a tendency to think that attacking formations come out flying, while more conservative setups take time to impose themselves on a match. This has not been the case for TFC.
For a counterattacking system like Toronto’s to work, the team’s defensive shape has to be organized and consistent. Playing with three midfielders, the opposition is going to have space, so the question becomes what can they do with it? Early in the year, TFC inexplicably let strikers check back into space unmarked. This allowed other teams to set up shop in the Toronto final third with nary an extra pass wide. At this point, a 4-3-3 is at sixes and sevens. The wingers have to chase back, the midfield has to decide whether to collapse centrally or close down the wide players, and, if the ball is won back, nobody is prepared to, y’know, counter!
Lately, the Canadian side has improved its defensive organization only to find they have forgotten how to guard set pieces. After taking the lead against Chicago, Toronto quickly gave up a set piece goal. They allowed two more in the 7th and 93rd minutes against Real Salt Lake, and in their last match Dwayne de Rosario scored off a free kick in the first minute.
All of this suggests the Union need to come out and score early. But that does not mean come out and push the ball forward with abandon.
Three Ps: Possess, pick apart, and please-score
Scoring early implies a relentless assault on the opposition goal, but in this case it means something else. In Sheanon Williams and Carlos Valdes, the Union have two of the best ball-handling center backs in the league. Combining this advantage with the ability of Amobi Okugo, Keon Daniel and Freddy Adu to maintain possession and move the ball with purpose, Philadelphia should direct their early assault on the TFC energy reserves and confidence.
In other words, the Union need to play not like the hungrier bad team, but like the better team. Possession, ball movement, and well-chosen chances will be the true destabilizers. Much like penalties in hockey come after a team holds the puck in the opponent’s zone for a long period of time, the Union can earn free kicks in dangerous areas by keeping possession and moving the ball about the final third.
Lio Pajoy appears to be a legitimate aerial threat, and since he is all but guaranteed to be in the starting lineup, the team can take advantage of his emerging skill set by generating set pieces.
Against Dallas, the Union came out with Keon Daniel pushed so far up on the right wing that the Texas side was able to move through the midfield like a coyote through sleeping cattle. It wasn’t until the Trinidadian was pulled back to the left side that any semblance of organization appeared in the middle third, and it wasn’t until the wandering Michael Lahoud was replaced with the less wanderlust-afflicted Josue Martinez that a shape solid enough to dictate play truly emerged.
Once a shape did emerge, there seemed to be no stopping the Union. An inexperienced Dallas team cowered in their own end under a near-relentless assault led by fringe players Martinez, Okugo and a rejuvenated Pajoy on the left wing.
Coming out with an intent to control the middle of the park is more important for Philly than merely flying forward and throwing crosses into the box. Remember: Toronto is a bad counterattacking team, but they are still a counterattacking team.
4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-5-1. These numbers can only tell you so much, and usually it isn’t enough.
Regardless of formation, the team needs to create multiple layers to move the ball through the midfield. Coaches often talk about passing triangles, and what are they but the simplest way to move a ball five or ten yards up the pitch without dribbling? The Union have not done well creating anything like layers in the middle or final third this season.
In the first half against Dallas, Sheanon Williams resorted to pumping balls forward when he found nobody checking into the space ten yards ahead of him. Instead, a horizontal line of midfielders hung out around the half-line, apparently assuming Williams would don face paint, signal for his horse and lead a Braveheart-styled charge into the Dallas half.
I’m not saying The Sheanomenon shouldn’t do just that, but I am suggesting that if the team thinks Le Toux’s contract demands were unreasonable, they probably won’t spring for a decent horse.
And I’m saying that the Union don’t use their undoubted midfield talent to dictate pace and play as much as they could. Toronto, with the space they offer to opposition, is the perfect place to try and control a match from the outset.
Danny Mwanga: Shoot the ball
I don’t have any analysis here. I just want to add my voice to the chorus.
Mwanga has yet to dominate a defender this season, and as strong as he was against Dallas, Matt Hedges came out the winner.
So here is a direct appeal: Danny, you know what it looks like when a defender is afraid of you. Act like they feel that way from the outset, and they will actually feel that way. Take people on, charge into aerial challenges like every one of them is taking place in the 95th minute of a tie game. Defenders say they don’t do it, but they will take their defensive cues from how a striker plays. If you hesitate, they’ll be a lot tighter.
You can do it. Now go do it.
- GK: Milos “The Milosnaire” Kocic
- DEF (R to L): Jeremy “With the candlestick in the” Hall, Adrian “Tin” Cann, Doneil “It’s pronounced Thierry” Henry, Ashtone “Not Alex” Morgan
- MID: Torsten “Onion” Frings, Juan “of Guzman” de Guzman, Eric Avila, Reggie “Chop” Lambe, Joao “Clean your” Plata
- FWD: Ryan “The Finisher” Johnson
- GK: Chris Konopka
- DEF: Michael Farfan, Sheanon Williams, Carlos Valdes, Raymon Gaddis
- MID: Freddy Adu, Amobi Okugo, Brian Carroll, Keon Daniel
- FWD: Lionard Pajoy, Danny Mwanga
- OUT: FW Nicholas Lindsay (L knee surgery); GK Stefan Frei (L lower leg); DF Aaron Maund (R eye hyphema); DF Logan Emory (shoulder subluxation)
- DOUBTFUL: DF Miguel Aceval (L quad strain)
- QUESTIONABLE: DF Dicoy Williams (R knee surgery); DF Torsten Frings (shoulder sprain)
- OUT: GK Zac MacMath (concussion symptoms); FW Krystian Witkowski (concussion symptoms); DF Chris Albright (L big toe sprain); GK Chase Harrison (L ankle sprain); MF Gabriel Gomez (L quad contusion)
- PROBABLE: DF Carlos Valdes (head laceration)
- Porfirio Lopez, Zach Pfeffer