This year was supposed to be different for Toronto FC. Splashing the cash in the offseason to acquire Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Gilberto was supposed to make the Reds not only a playoff team but the envy of the East.
Injury woes and a string of lopsided losses has Toronto looking more like the team you want on your schedule for a late season playoff push - the one they've been more often than not in previous seasons. All the promise and expectation of the offseason has turned sour, as Toronto fans find themselves in an all too familiar position of getting to know a new head coach for the seventh time in eight seasons (ninth time if you count the two interim coaches).
A 3-0 loss to the New England Revolution seems to have been the final straw, as the Ryan Nelsen experiment - the one where you pull a stalwart defender directly from the Premier League and hand him a coach's whistle - ended on Sunday with the house cleaning of Nelsen and his entire coaching staff. The next shoe to drop could be the loan of Defoe, who has performed well when healthy. Defoe has notched 11 goals in 16 games, however could be headed back to England. Toronto rejected a sizable offer from England at the transfer deadline on Monday, but loans can still happen.
The timing couldn't be better for the Philadelphia Union, who find themselves just below the red line in the table and in need of points. It promises to be an exciting fall battle between every team not named the Montreal Impact, DC United or Sporting Kansas City for three playoff spots (DC and Kansas City are in; Montreal is definitely not).
That first-ever playoff berth that looked so certain for TFC just weeks ago is now hanging by a thread; whether the Union can tear that red string loose will be a key storyline entering Wednesday night's game in Chester.
Toronto's loss to a Jermaine Jones-rejuvenated Revolution on Saturday while the Union had the weekend off was made worse by the fact that it was at home and was the fourth time this season they'd lost by three or more goals - the 3-0 losses to Real Salt Lake and DC United and a 4-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City were all on the road.
New coach Greg Vanney doesn't have much time to restore order and prepare for a Union team on the cusp of playing for its first trophy (the US Open Cup Final is on September 16) and flying high after an impressive offensive output last Sunday at home against the San Jose Earthquakes. You may recall a Crystal Palace team playing admirably under similar circumstances to Arsenal a few weeks ago in the EPL so it certainly can be done (Arsenal did manage to escape with a late winner though).
Looking at Toronto's woes makes it easier to be optimistic about the Union, but the reality of the situation is that these clubs still aren't all that different (it takes more than a couple of wins to rinse the bad taste of John Hackworth out) or at least not as different as the schadenfreude-prone Philly faithful would prefer.
While I haven't been able to get the phrase "kick them while they're down" out of my head since I saw news of Nelsen and company's firing on Twitter on Monday, a home win followed by a giant egg in Toronto is still very much a likely scenario. These two clubs - one so seemingly destined to make the playoffs before a single ball was kicked, the other seemingly destined from day one to a sixth or seventh place finish - might just end up taking each other down and restoring a natural order where the Houston Dynamo somehow make the playoffs again.
National team call-ups could be a factor in the rosters for both clubs - six players received calls for the Union and five for TFC, but the losses will be greater for the Union with Carlos Valdes, Rais Mbolhi, Michael Lahoud and Zach Pfeffer out for both games. Toronto announced Monday that Doneil Henry and Ashtone Morgan were recalled from the Canadian National Team camp to travel to Philadelphia.
Defoe won't be playing in either game and half of the Toronto backline is still out (Steven Caldwell and Justin Morrow are both nursing injuries), so pessimism aside the Union will have an edge if they can ride the hot hand (foot?) of Andrew Wenger and Sebastien Le Toux on offense and keep Bradley, Jonathan Osorio and company from delivering those against the run of play sucker punches the U defense has seemed so prone to conceding this season.