Game: Toronto FC vs. Philadelphia Union
Date: Wednesday, October 26th
Time: 7:30 PM EDT
Venue: BMO Field (Toronto, ON)
Referees: REF: Baldomero Toledo, AR1: CJ Morgante, AR2: Ian Anderson, 4TH: Silviu Petrescu
Television: ESPN2, UniMás
Streaming: WatchESPN, MLS Live
All-time record: Philadelphia has won six, lost six, and drawn Toronto five times. In the playoffs, the Union have lost both games they played against the Houston Dynamo by a combined score of 3-1. Sebastien Le Toux is the only Union player to score in the postseason. Toronto FC is 0-1 in the playoffs, having lost their only playoff match 3-0 to the Montreal Impact in 2015.
What Toronto FC will look like: Toronto FC is a team that I’ve been saying all year is my favorite to win the MLS Cup. The big knock on Toronto in 2015 was their defense. They addressed that by signing center back Drew Moor, right back Steven Beitashour, and goalkeeper Clint Irwin to go along with CBs Eriq Zavaleta, Justin Morrow, and Nick Hagglund as well as left backs Mark Bloom and Ashtone Morgan (although Morgan will miss the playoffs with a fractured foot). Toronto’s defense conceded just 39 goals in 2016 - second behind only to the Colorado Rapids.
As impressive as the defensive unit is, Toronto’s offense is definitely in the conversation for best in MLS. Central defensive midfielder Michael Bradley anchors the TFC midfield, usually with Armando Cooper and Will Johnson as the central mids with Jonathan Osorio as the attacking mifdielder in the diamond formation behind the forward pairing of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. TFC scored 51 goals this season - good for seventh overall. Their +12 goal differential was third in the league, behind only the New York Red Bulls (+17) and LA Galaxy (+15).
Toronto is beatable though. The Union drew them 1-1 back in September in Toronto. Alejandro Bedoya’s chip of Clint Irwin made highlight reels nationwide, however a defensive blunder allowed Justin Morrow to place one past Andre Blake with about 20 minutes to go. Giovinco was out of the September match injured, so they’ll need to account for him at all times on Wednesday. The CDM will have to drop back and help herd him toward the outside back so the center back pairing of Ken Tribbett and Richie Marquez can get a more favorable matchup against Jozy Altidore. The Union also cannot concede free kicks from 20-30 yards out - this is where Giovinco makes his money and has absolutely killed the Union (and many other teams) before. If the Union can put the onus of scoring on players not named Giovinco and Altidore, they stand a chance.
What the Philadelphia Union will look like: The Union come into the playoffs on a seven-game winless streak and goal differential over the New England Revolution. As good as goalkeeper Andre Blake is, he can only do so much. The back four has seen the emergence of both Rookie of the Year candidate Keegan Rosenberry and center back Richie Marquez into solid MLS players. The problem is that they’re only half of the unit. Josh Yaro will be out with an injury to his MCL, so it will be Ken Tribbett at center back and Fabinho at left back. Both Tribbett and Fabinho have seen their good moments outweighed by mistakes and mental blunders lately, and this simply cannot happen against a team as talented as Toronto FC. If the defense can minimize the mistakes then the Union stand a chance.
The midfield is starting to come together, but it has to be a cohesive unit against Toronto or else the Union are in for it. Alejandro Bedoya is a good player but it’s obvious he’s not completely comfortable as an 8. His partner, be it Warren Creavalle or Brian Carroll will have to serve as the bridge between the center backs and Bedoya. It’s a tough task, but both men are fully capable of that. The high midfield of Chris Pontius on the left, Tranquillo Barnetta at attacking midfielder, and Fabian Herbers or Ilsinho on the right have to make runs in to help draw the attention of Moor and Zavaleta away from forward CJ Sapong. The midfielders should also look to take shots to keep the Toronto defense honest. Again, these are things this unit is fully capable of doing and they’re going to be critical factors on if the Union can win. Sapong simply has to get help from the midfield in the box.
What to expect: Forget what you know. Forget what you think you know, what you think you might know, and what you think you might think you know.
This is the playoffs.
And as crazy as things get in the playoffs in most sports, this is the MLS playoffs. Nothing you thought you knew applies here. A top seeded team hasn’t made the MLS Cup Final since the LA Galaxy did it in 2011, when they faced the Houston Dynamo - who eked into the playoffs by a single point over the Columbus Crew.
Either the Philadelphia Union or Toronto FC will advance, with one club winning its first-ever playoff match. There’s no reason it can’t be the Union. If the Union can remain calm under pressure, minimize the mistakes, and capitalize on their opportunities, they’ll be back at Talen Energy Stadium on Sunday.