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Defensive lapses prove to be the difference in Philadelphia Union loss to FC Toronto

Two second half goals sunk the Union in just their third loss of the season on Saturday night

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s not overreact to a loss against a Toronto FC team on the rise after underperforming in the beginning of the season.

Alejandro Pozuelo played every bit of the role you’d expect from an MLS Best XI and potential Player of the Year, and one could argue that Pablo Piatti was the most dangerous outside threat the Union have seen since Sebastián Blanco in the MLS is Back Tournament. But the game last Saturday night was there to be had for the Union, and if not for two lapses in the box, one minor and one major, the Union could have stolen three points after Sergio Santos’ early goal forced the semi-hosts to press for most of the game.

The big question following the loss to Toronto is how do the Union beat their top rivals? Orlando, Columbus, and now Toronto, are all ahead of them in the East, and if the season were to end today, a potential opening-round matchup against New York City FC doesn’t have the same comfort as maybe New England or the New York Red Bulls, whom the Union have overwhelmed in recent victories. But does this loss predict the Union’s chances of reaching their first MLS Cup?

The Union’s matchup against the Toronto showed comparable midfields that control the game and attack, which made moments in each half wide open as one team tried to exploit the other’s shape following turnovers and quick restarts. But for the Union, the early goal played into their strengths as Toronto broke down the sides but had tremendous difficulty in the box with the final service. In the first half, Jakob Glesnes and Mark McKenzie had better tactical positioning and challenged every duel, snuffing out Jozy Altidore and Ayo Akinola.

The game turned when Toronto had to make two substitutions due to injury. Tony Gallacher came on for Justin Morrow midway through the first half and Altidore limped off early in the second half, which pushed Akinola up higher instead of his wider position at the start. The two players combined to score the first goal in which Akinola snuck behind Mark McKenzie to head home Gallacher’s cross.

The first goal started from a quick transition out of the back, one that had shadows of the Columbus goal the Union conceded to Lucas Zelaráyan. When Gallacher received a long pass from Marcos Delgado, he had time to control the ball and attack with speed down the left flank. With the Union midfield three tucked in centrally, Olivier Mbaizo became the closest player to the ball. At times, Mbaizo has done well to pressure the ball out wide, but other times he’s shown his tactical immaturity in failing to step at the right moments. And it was the time and space that allowed Gallacher a clean delivery while the rest of the Union defenders dealt with the Toronto players inside the box.

“We didn’t do a good enough job getting out to get pressure,” Curtin said about the cross that led to the first goal.

Akinola’s run wasn’t special, a simple drifter toward the back post enhanced by McKenzie’s ball watching, which drew comparisons to Gonzalo Higuaín’s bicycle kick attempt last Sunday night that dinked the woodwork. McKenzie, who typically excels in these duels, lost track for a second, and the elite strikers will punish him if he gives them that chance. McKenzie tried to recover but was already behind the ball and unable to rub Akinola off before the header. One rare mistake in the first sixty minutes evened up a game that the Union could otherwise have been leading by two.

The second goal was a defensive breakdown, a major mistake that we haven’t seen from the Union often this season, perhaps not since the Timbers loss. On the corner, they somehow managed to leave the best player on the field open, which meant a lack of communication and focus, likely shared by many, including Andre Blake. Before the ball was played in, the Union had the front six covered zonally and the rest of the Toronto players man-marked, however, they missed the cheekiness at which Pozuelo began well outside of the box then drifted in once he realized no one had picked him up. Toronto won the initial header, and you saw why the Union were so concerned with that first ball, but there are really no excuses for leaving Pozuelo that open, and that was a goal that will fall on the team more so José Martinez, who allowed Pozuelo to enter so freely. The second goal changed the game for the Union, as they were forced to press with Aaronson off the field and Przybylko doing little to expose the Toronto defense.

So what does all this mean in the big picture? Not much. They were beaten in key moments by a good team. Are the Union still considered a top contender in the East? Yes. Captain Alejandro Bedoya said very much the same despite the loss. “We’ll have another chance at Toronto at home and with Columbus,” he said. “we’ll go there and try our best. But when you look at the games we’ve played, it’s not like we play with fear or just sitting back, we play our game and our style and we take it to them.”

What separates the Union from Columbus and Toronto is that their rivals have exposed those rare mistakes and the Union have not. And that may be the only difference between the first seed and the fourth. Some could even argue that the Union were good enough to earn three points in both of those games, but they’ll certainly need to eliminate these mental mistakes heading down the stretch because success in the one-and-done will depend on their ability to snuff out attacking players, which they’ve been able to do for a majority of the season.

Luckily, for the Union, they’ll have two shots at redemption when the face Toronto at home on October 24 and when they travel to Columbus, again, to close out the season on November 1. Both will be pivotal games as the arrangement of the top seeds in the East will likely come down to that final weekend.