The long slog that is the MLS regular season is in the home stretch now and for the Philadelphia Union (7-9-9), crunch time has officially arrived. The club is in 7th place in the Eastern Conference, but only 3 points out of third and has only 9 league matches left to make up that ground. Several of these are against key conference opponents. The next two are especially intriguing: a quick home-and-home set versus Toronto FC, which has been making headlines over the last few days for a boat load of backstage melodrama.
TURMOIL IN TORONTO
On Sunday, Toronto sacked its entire coaching staff—everyone from Manager Ryan Nelsen to the Strength and Conditioning guy. Apparently, fourth place wasn’t good enough for management after an off-season marked by big international acquisitions and sky-high expectations (sound familiar, Union fans?).
Then, yesterday, the club announced that it had received a near record offer for one of those new players, star striker Jermain Defoe, to return to Europe (probably to the English Premiere League from whence he came last year). Management mulled-over the mega-bucks deal from an unnamed club before opting to keep Defoe. One can only imagine how hard the league office was holding their breath over this one; only months removed from the MLS’s greatest off-season in terms of luring overseas talent, how bad would it have looked to see one of the biggest names in that star-studded group swimming back across the pond?
NORTH OF THE BORDER BUMBLING
There’s no telling how much these distractions will affect Toronto’s play on the field Wednesday night (and Saturday when the two sides meet again north of the border). What we do know is that hours before Sunday’s blood-letting, the club delivered a lifeless 3-0 loss to New England at home. Other recent tilts were no more encouraging: a 2-2 draw against bumbling Chicago and a 4-1 drubbing by Sporting KC. In fact, Toronto (9-9-6) has failed to beat any of the league’s top teams since match number one when they grabbed a 2-1 decision from Seattle back in mid-March.
Defoe’s been good (11 goals, 23 shots on net in 16 starts), but it doesn’t matter. He was on the shelf last week with a right adductor strain (I’ll let you hit the medical books to figure that one out) and he’s officially listed as OUT on this week’s MLS Injury Report. The other big off-season haul, Michael Bradley (of U.S. National Team fame) has been a bust, scoring only only one goal and one assist in 16 matches. Former threat Dominic Oduro (13 goals with Columbus two seasons ago) has 2 in 2014. First-year Brazilian forward Gilberto has fared better with six scores and two helpers; he may be the player to watch on Wednesday.
CARRY ON, MEN!
The Union has had a few hick-ups recently, but has generally been a club on the rise over the last couple of months. In it’s last 10 league matches, Philadelphia is 4-2-4 (not to mention a string of wins that has the Union in the U.S. Open Cup Championship game in a couple of weeks). The offense has been well distributed, although Sebastien Le Toux has assumed the role of primary offensive threat; he’s been playing like a Frenchman possessed. His 11 league goals (and 5 assists) don’t tell the whole story; Le Toux has also been scoring in the U.S. Open Cup matches and a few friendlies. The club is coming off a spirited 4-2 victory over San Jose at home a week and a half ago and should be well-rested for Toronto.
FOR CLUB… OR COUNTRY?
The Union is losing a few players to national team call-ups over the next week or so, but only a couple of them were locks to play Wednesday, anyway: defender Carlos Valdes (Columbia) and goalie Rais Mbolhi (Algeria). In Mbolhi’s case, Zac MacMath is an able replacement. Midfielder Michael Lahoud (Sierra Leone) and Zach Pfeffer (U-20 U.S. National Team) are also away this week. Forward Brian Brown and goalie Andre Blake will play for Jamaica later on (September 9), but are available on Wednesday. Toronto has five players all going to the Canadian National Team, but that club’s match isn’t until September 9th, so the expectation is that all will be available on Wednesday.
On the injury front, Union midfielder Fabinho is out with a bum knee and midfielder Cristian Maidana is listed as questionable for about the 6th straight week with a sore left hamstring. In the past, this has alternately meant everything from “he’s sore and out”, or “in and looking great”. Flip a coin. Five players are listed as out for Toronto, but the most significant is Defoe.