Photo: Daniel Studio
Who: Philadelphia Union (6th place, 42 points, 11-14-9) vs. Toronto FC (3rd place, 54 points, 14-9-11)
What: 2016 knockout playoff game
Where: BMO Field, Toronto
When: Wednesday, October 26 at 7:30 pm
Watch: ESPN2, UniMás, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Baldomero Toldedo; CJ Morgante and Ian Anderson; Silviu Petrescu
For the first time since 2011 and only the second time ever, Philadelphia Union are in the playoffs. Barely. They’ll enter their knockout match in Toronto on a seven-game winless streak, and if they pull off the upset, it will be their first win in two months.
As for Toronto, they have struggled since Sebastian Giovinco’s injury on Aug. 27 cut short what looked for a seven-game unbeaten stretch to finally be the best team in MLS displaying their best form. Instead of walking off with a Supporters Shield, they muddled along to a third place finish.
Tonight’s match is a one-game season for each team. The winner moves on to a two-legged playoff match this weekend, while the loser goes home for the off-season.
Which Toronto team will show up?
Toronto is an unpredictable team right now.
From July 23 until Giovinco’s injury on Aug. 27, Toronto went 6-0-1 and outscored their opponents 18-5. The hot streak coincided with striker Jozy Altidore’s return from injury and saw him score five goals in seven games, many in appearances off the bench.
Altidore’s hot streak continued after Giovinco went down, with five goals in his next eight games, but Toronto’s unbeaten streak ended. They went 1-2-3 without Giovinco before drawing and winning upon his return.
Giovinco looked a bit rusty against Chicago, missing several good chances, but his idea of rusty also includes getting all those chances, drawing and converting a penalty, and assisting on another goal. Still, he went the full 90 and will be expected to do it again three days later tonight. If the Union are lucky, they’ll see a Giovinco not yet back to full fitness.
And they best hope so. Giovinco and Altidore caused the Union — particularly center back Ken Tribbett — fits back in August, when they combined for three goals.
How do you stop Giovinco?
They used to say about Michael Jordan, “You can’t stop him. You can only hope to contain him.” That’s the Union’s defensive agenda for Giovinco.
In every game he has played this year in which he did not leave early due to injury, Giovinco has taken at least four shots, and he has put at least one on goal in every one of those games.
The question is where those shots will come from. Giovinco likes to come in from the left, although he’s capable of unleashing a shot from anywhere, including well outside the 18.
This puts the responsibility on Tribbett and right back Keegan Rosenberry, but also whoever the right attacking midfielder is, and it will probably be Fabian Herbers, because Ilsinho’s defending is generally lacking.
Expect Brian Carroll to be tasked with sitting deep and cheating to Giovinco’s side. That may run the risk of exposing the aggressive but often defensively challenged Union left back, Fabinho, but it’s one they’ll probably have to take. If you give Giovinco the space and time, he will beat you, guaranteed. The Union need to force Toronto’s other players to beat them.
Additionally, the Union need to ensure they don’t give up fouls in dangerous positions. Giovinco can make them pay on set pieces from almost anywhere.
What formation will we see from Toronto?
Toronto has played much of the season in a 4-4-2 diamond, with Giovinco as a floating second striker often coming in from out wide. This plays to the Reds’ surplus of quality central midfielders and dearth of wide players, putting the burden of width on Toronto’s very good fullbacks, Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow.
On Sunday, however, Toronto head coach Greg Vanney trotted out a 5-3-2 formation that functioned like a 3-5-2 in attack. Beitashour and Morrow flanked three center backs, and Toronto ran roughshod over a hapless Chicago Fire.
The formation change highlighted what were already season-long tendencies: Toronto’s fullbacks have to get forward to give the team width. Morrow, in particular, has flourished in attack, recording a career high five goals (on just 15 shots, although six have come in the last five games) and four assists. Of the two, you can expect Morrow to more often ghost in toward goal, coming into spaces vacated by defenders tracking Giovinco, while Beitashour lays back a bit.
Regardless of formation, the key man directing traffic will be Michael Bradley, who is playing solid ball as a deep-sitting playmaker while Marky Delgado plays as an advanced destroyer ahead of him. Panamanian international center midfielder Armando Cooper has cracked the starting lineup recently since signing mid-season, and you can expect him beside Bradley, though Toronto has excellent center midfield depth and can deploy Will Johnson, Jonathan Osorio or Benoit Cheyrou without losing a step.
The value of the rest and fitness
The Union have one major advantage over Toronto: Their key veterans will be more rested.
Union head coach Jim Curtin chose to start Sunday’s game against New York without C.J. Sapong, Tranquillo Barnetta, Chris Pontius or Brian Carroll in the starting lineup. Each should be better rested than, for example, Giovinco.
That could make a difference, particularly for a club like Philadelphia that likes to run a high press, though whether they’ll do that on the road against Toronto remains to be seen. The Red Bulls had success doing that back on Sept. 18, with their own high press leading directly to two goals early against Toronto. Philadelphia’s high press hasn’t been as effective of late, with the team tending to get stretched, but when Philadelphia was clicking earlier in the year, the high press often clicked as well.
The Union veterans’ rest may not be enough though. No MLS team has fared as well in the league’s final 15 minutes as Toronto, who have outscored their opponents 14-4 this season after the 76th minute. This is a team that wins games late, and it speaks to their fitness.
Tribbett vs. Giovinco
Many eyes will be on the Union’s back line. Tribbett’s defensive nightmare back in August obscured a fantastic set piece goal he scored that same game, but since he has regained a spot in the lineup, he has been largely effective. Of course, Giovinco was injured when Philadelphia played Toronto again last month.
Under different circumstances, Curtin could have opted for the quicker Josh Yaro at right center back to help neutralize Giovinco, but Yaro has been ruled out of Wednesday’s match with both a knee sprain and the aftereffects of the concussion he suffered on Oct. 1.
So that means Tribbett and the Union will revisit the nightmare defensive scenario of August. Tribbett has already earned some measure of atonement for that game. A solid showing Wednesday should fully clearly the slate.
He isn’t the only one who will have learned from that game’s mistakes. Surely, his coaching staff has learned too, and they’ll take steps to enact a different team approach to the matter of Giovinco. We can focus on Tribbett all we want, but defense is a team effort, and if Keegan Rosenberry is too far up field, Carroll forced to cover holes on Fabinho’s side, or Herbers unable to help, it won’t make a difference what Tribbett does.
Prediction: Toronto 2-1 Philadelphia
Toronto has legitimate championship aspirations, and they looked like the best team in MLS before Giovinco’s injury in late August. Further, they’ll be playing before what is likely to be a sold out crowd in what has become one of the best stadiums in MLS.
The biggest challenge for the Reds will be how well they, particularly Giovinco, can bounce back after going 90 minutes three days ago. A tired Giovinco will be easier to contain.
Union head coach Jim Curtin rested several of his regulars Sunday, so his key veterans will come in fresher. That could make a big difference, and it’s what gives Philadelphia an outside chance of an upset. In a one-leg knockout match, normal 90-minute draws go to overtime and penalty kicks, and that favors the fresher and fitter team.
Despite the Union’s late season collapse, never forget that this team is as talented as almost any club in MLS. Anything could happen Wednesday, including an upset.