Date: Saturday, August 20th
Time: 7:00 pm
Venue: Talen Energy Stadium, Chester, PA
Referees: REF: MARK GEIGER; AR1: Claudiu Badea; AR2: Kevin Klinger; 4TH: Rubiel Vazquez
Television: The Comcast Network (Philadelphia), Sportsnet 360, MLS Direct Kick
Stream: MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick
This is the kind of match that the Union and their fans have longed to host. Second place Toronto FC is coming to town with their big stars healthy and are red hot. They march in with one of the best defenses in the league but have also been scoring goals at a sensational rate lately. The Union are nipping at their heels in the standings and sport one of the league's best offenses. A win would also mean a lot for both teams. The Union would further cement their playoff position and gain confidence against a potential playoff foe while Toronto could potentially take the lead in the Eastern Conference.
What to expect from the Union
Outside of new faces, the biggest change from last year's Union is the consistency of the lineup. We know what to expect with Curtin's 4-2-3-1. Alejandro Bedoya debuted last week as the Vincent Nogueira replacement and Tranquillo Barnetta regained old form as the 10 and the rest of the lineup almost falls into place. Blake will protect the net while Fabinho, Richie Marquez, Ken Tribbett and Keegan Rosenberry will man the back line. Warren Creavalle will again partner with Alejandro Bedoya as the two deep midfielders. Chris Pontius, Tranquillo Barnetta and Ilshino figure to man the attacking spots. The only question remains the health of CJ Sapong whose head injury puts him as a question mark at best. Curtin expects him to be "cleared to play" but the Union have a history of being conservative with injured players.
If Sapong doesn't go the logical choice to start will be Charlie Davies. Neither he nor Fabian Herbers can replace the hold up play of Sapong, so the Union would have to adjust their style for the replacement either way. Toronto figures to focus on their defensive shape and the Union should have a fair amount of possession which will actually minimize the need for holding up the long balls typical sent forward by the defenders and midfield. With the Union bringing the ball up with less pressure, starting Davies might actually play into the Union's hands as Davies will be more adept at finding space in Toronto's packed defense.
Adding to the drama, Bedoya will make his home debut for Philadelphia and will start opposite his national team compatriot Michael Bradley. The Union haven't had a national team rivalry on the field since Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman squared off, and there is no doubt these friendly foes will enjoy the opportunity to beat the other.
What to expect from Toronto
Did I mention Toronto FC is red hot and their stars are healthy? In their last five games they have out scored opponents 13-3 and drawn once and won four times. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore are just rounding back to health and Sebastian Giovinco remains his MVP-level self. Toronto sports a unique 3-5-2 formation with Bradley anchoring the five and Altidore and Giovinco likely to pair up top. Toronto will no doubt play defensively against the home team Union but will also get their share of shots. They lead all teams with shots taken on the road with 13.1 per game due to the shot taking of Giovinco. About that Toronto defense - they have just once...ONCE...in the last 14 matches allowed more than one goal. They've allowed just 0.64 goals per game over that stretch. You don't want to know what the Union have allowed recently.
(1.86 - told you, you didn't want to know).
What to expect from the referee
If Toronto's star power wasn't enough, Philadelphia has the honor of witnessing PRO soccer royalty this week as Mark Geiger will come to town. Geiger is no stranger to controversy, but statistics show he is a relatively mild and fair referee. He calls fewer fouls, yellows and reds than the average MLS referee according to this analysis from American Soccer Analysis. He's also as decorated as American referees get as he became the first such referee to oversee a knockout stage match in the World Cup in Brazil.
What to expect by 9:00 pm Saturday night
The Union don't historically perform well against teams that are primarily committed to defense and Toronto will sit deep and try to take advantage of their power and speed of their forward pair on the counter. But I see the Union inspired by Bedoya's home debut and able to pull out a late 1-0 win.