Photo: Paul Rudderow
Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Toronto FC
What: MLS Regular Season
Where: PPL Park
When: Saturday, October 5 at 7:30 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live
Referee: Armando Villarreal; Linesmen: James Conlee, Matthew Nelson; Fourth official: Sorin Stoica
Philadelphia Union have had an up and down season. It is the type of season that can frustrate even the most dedicated of fans. After 30 games, nobody from the coaches to the players to the pundits seems to know what a good Union win would look like. At this point, you have to scrap the idea that Philly will win anything but ugly and just accept that having a group of players that never, ever give up on a game is far from the worst situation to be in.
Take Toronto, for example. A flurry of off-season moves set the table for a run up the table from 10th to 9th (although it’s more like DC United fell than Toronto climbed). While the Union are already eight points above their 2012 finish, Toronto just passed last year’s dismal 23 point total last week.
TFC turning the corner?
But TFC is coming off of a huge 4-1 win over the Eastern Conference cellar dwellers, and for once it’s a game they can say they really and truly dominated. Perhaps the most notable takeaway from the performance was the efficient counterattack that made United pay for mistakes in the back. Ryan Johnson has been a huge success in Portland, but last season he left enough counterattacking goals on the table for Toronto that you could play the entire instrumental portion of Freebird behind his blooper reel and still have high quality bloopers left over.
After relying on ill-fitting forwards like Robert Earnshaw (who has played well when healthy) and Justin Braun, Toronto has finally picked up the type of striker that truly fits their system. That system, of course, is to use central midfielders with broad yet mediocre skill sets and place them in ambiguous roles. Union fans have seen what an unproductive middle of the park looks like, but they’ve never seen anything like what Toronto has produced most of the year. If you were to ask TFC fans how their midfield is set up, you’d be hard pressed to get anything like a coherent answer.
Last week offered the first real light at the end of the tunnel, with Jeremy Hall and Darel Russell showing something like a real understanding with each other. Russell acknowledged that a link between the midfield and the front line was necessary and connected seven passes with his strikers. Hall finally seemed to grasp the limitations of his game and sat deeper as the match went on.
Bright light at the end of the tunnel
Another notable from Toronto’s win last week was the play of newly acquired Bright Dike. Dike has been all over the map since arriving in MLS. He was drafted 12th overall by Columbus but didn’t make the opening day roster. Portland picked him up and loaned him out before giving him a chance late last year, and he took advantage by scoring 5 goals in 11 appearances. An ACL tear in February kept him out most of 2013, and when he returned Portland sent him east so they could pick up the shiftier Maximiliano Urruti.
Dike has the body and finishing ability to play a Conor Casey role on a team that needs hold up play and a good return from few chances. Toronto has consistently paired speedy strikers with competent wingers since Danny Koevermans went down, so a true target man is a sight for sore, Canadian eyes.
Only two weeks ago, Toronto narrowly fell to Sporting Kansas City in a match eerily similar to the one that the Union won last Friday. Playing at home, TFC actually won the possession battle, but they created no chances and completed only half their passes in the attacking third. The big difference in the game was that KC created two clear opportunities, and CJ Sapong finished both of them.
Farfan: Point man?
Against the Union, KC again created two big chances but finished neither, and John Hackworth’s first real tactical shift in quite some time resulted in a single chance that Conor Casey duly converted.
Michael Farfan has been rightly maligned since his failed conversion from a winger into a playmaker. The only thing consistent about Farfan since his rookie season has been his inconsistency and the brief flashes of brilliance that serve as reminders to keep giving the talented young man chances to play.
When John Hackworth decided to play a 4-2-3-1 on the road, Farfan was the only logical choice to sit atop the midfield. No other player offers the combination of defensive work rate and passing range that highlight Farfan’s game when he’s playing well. Before you type that angry comment, note that nobody is saying the situation was ideal, only that Farfan was clearly the best choice once Hackworth decided he wanted a bunkering five-man midfield with two defensively questionable wingers on the pitch.
And Farfan came through. Philly’s central midfield has been unable to connect with the team’s attackers since mid-August. Farfan offered an outlet for Michael Lahoud and found Conor Casey four times. Additionally, he offered Danny Cruz a simple square outlet when Cruz became stuck on the wing, finally freeing Sheanon Williams from the self-made touchline trap created whenever Williams sends the ball forward to Cruz only to get it back under pressure. Finally, Farfan took the shot that ended up at Casey’s feet and eventually in the back of the net. All in all, it was a performance to fit the Union’s game: Ugly but effective, and certainly better than the past month.
Is TFC a bogey team?
Absolutely. Every single point matters for the Union, and Toronto is full of individual players hoping to avoid the inevitable post-season clear out. Furthermore, TFC have developed solid wing play over the past few weeks by installing Alvaro Rey and Bobby Convey and giving them freedom from defensive responsibility. If Toronto has even a single scout with average vision, they will recognize that the Union are content to slop in crosses from the wings even if Casey is the only player in the box. This means TFC can keep their wingers high and put low pressure on the Union’s wide players while stacking the box and playing for the counter.
Oh, you want an ugly game? Toronto FC can do that.
Prediction: Union 1-0 TFC
Even if we admit that Toronto seems to have stumbled upon something resembling a strategy, the Union should need nothing more than a stout defensive effort and a few good counterattacks to secure three points. TFC’s defending remains haphazard, with Gale Agbossoumande and Doneil Henry an athletic, talented, but ultimately immature pairing in back. John Hackworth needs to figure out how to supply his strikers through the middle if he returns to a 4-4-2 at home. If he reverts to a Daniel-Carroll or Lahoud-Carroll midfield with no linking player, the Union will look exactly the same as they did throughout September: Tough but impotent.
With Columbus and New England playing the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, only Chicago (vs. DC) looks poised to win this weekend. Three points could restore some of the distance between the Union and the teams chasing them for a playoff spot.
But Toronto, as bad as they are, won’t make it easy.