The Philadelphia Union is back at PPL Park on Saturday (4 p.m., 6abc) in a match against an opponent with a horrific history, a dramatically revamped line-up, and only so-so results so far this season.
Toronto FC is 1-2-2 in the early going. The franchise, which in six tries has never made the play-offs, is trying to erase the memory of what may have been its most regrettable campaign of all. The 2012 schedule began with an MLS-record nine-straight losses and ended with fans wearing bags over their heads at home games.
This year’s squad? The front office is revamped, the manager is new, and there are at least twelve new players on the pitch, including former Union fan favorite Danny Califf (number 3 in your scorecard) who, one assumes, is still his old feisty, tattooed self manning the defensive midfield. Gone, oddly enough, is last year’s leading scorer, Ryan Johnson (11 goals).
Toronto’s new-look squad is off to a better start (not saying much, since 1-8 would have actually been an improvement), but already, there’s at least a bit of Toronto-style embarrassment going on. Last week’s “Man of the Match”, energetic defender Richard Eckersley, may not play on Saturday because of a hamstring injury suffered last week—not during regular play, but during a goal celebration, according to the team’s website.
The Union, meanwhile, are coming-off an important road draw with the Columbus Crew last week that may have given fans a clue as to how Manager John Hackworth envisions his club moving forward. For the first time this season (and one of few times in his two-part Union career), striker Sebastian Le Toux was not in the starting line-up. Instead, veteran forward Conor Casey took his place and provided an energetic boost to the offense. Le Toux was brought in along with super-sub Antoine Hoppenot late in the game as Philadelphia pressed for a win. The Union has had problems scoring more than one goal a game (they’ve only done it once in five league matches this season) and even though last week’s strategy did not improve things on the scoreboard, it did seem to create a few more chances—and against a very good Columbus squad. In fact, the late subs almost got the game winner.
If ever there was a time to figure-out the offense it’s now. The Union continue to cling to the fifth and final play-off position in the MLS Eastern Conference, just a point behind Columbus and only 2 points behind Houston. Adding to the interest on Saturday is that Toronto is in sixth place, only a point behind Philadelphia.
So, what to make of this match? It would be easy for Union fans to fold Toronto’s sorry history into the story and stroll into PPL Park on Saturday brimming with confidence. But a closer look is deserved. Last season, the Union had three chances to best Toronto, but only managed a 1-1-1 record. In fact, it was Philadelphia that provided the so-called Reds with their first win of the season, snapping that horrendous losing streak. Also, Toronto’s only win this year came against Sporting Kansas City, the same team that handed the Union their worst loss (3-1 on opening day).
On the other hand, the Union’s victory against Toronto last season on July 8 (hey, wasn’t that 6abc Day at PPL?) was one the club’s most impressive of the season, 3-0. And while Toronto may be better this year, the Union most certainly is, too. In truth, this seems very likely a match-up between two similarly skilled clubs in a year in that portends a good deal of parity across the league.
It should be a great day for soccer with lots of sun and a game-time temperature near 60. Hopefully, Union fans will be smiling about more than just the weather at the final whistle.