Beat Toronto at home. Or even scratch out a single point.
That's all the Union need to do to secure the franchise's first-ever postseason appearance.
On the surface, the task looks easy enough. After all, this is a Toronto team with one road win and a minus-23 goal differential. The Union blasted TFC, 6-2, at BMO Field earlier this season. It was the worst home defeat for Toronto since joining Major League Soccer in 2007.
But this is hardly the same Toronto team that Philadelphia dismantled on the road.
Of the starting XI in that May 28 game against the Union, only one Toronto player featured in the team's most recent match, a 1-1 draw against New York.
Toronto has been experimenting all season long, as first-year head coach & technical director Aron Winter rebuilds the club from the bottom up. The former Dutch international is meticulously implementing the so-called "Ajax model," shaping his team in the image of the influential Amsterdam side.
The rebuilding has actually been more of a demolition, as Toronto shipped players back and forth all summer long, making a number of trades and acquiring two Designated Players.
While the MLS season is a wash, Toronto did find success elsewhere. The club won its third consecutive Canadian Championship, and has been playing well in the group stages of the CONCACAF Champions League. Toronto has seven points in group C and can clinch a spot in the knockout rounds by defeating FC Dallas in Frisco on Tuesday.
It remains to be seen how Winter will manage his squad against the Union, considering the importance of next week's Champions League contest.
“If you’re going to think that you’re going to save and spare a lot of players in the game in Philadelphia, it could also be negative for the game after,” said Winter, whose TFC squad hasn't played since October 1. “I want to have a good feeling for the whole team ... because most of the players haven’t played for two or three weeks, only training. That’s not good to get the feeling back."
He then hedged, however, admitting that he won't shy away from resting players if he deems the situation appropriate.
“Of course, I always want to play with the strongest team," he said, "but in my mind, I’m always thinking if during the game it is possible to take some players off, then I’m going to do it for sure.”
It all begins with the addition of DP Danny Koevermans. The 32-year-old Dutchman came over from PSV in the summer transfer window and already has seven goals with the club. The team's second highest goal scorer, Maicon Santos, was shipped off to Dallas.
Koevermans is one of those strikers who can do a little bit of everything. He's a handful in the box at 6-3, and he's shown his aerial goal-scoring ability. He positions himself well, uses his body well, and adds much-needed quality in and around the penalty area for Toronto. Koevermans won MLS Player of the Week in September after scoring a home brace against the defending champion Colorado Rapids. His first goal was a simple finish from a low, driven cross. The second was a clinical glancing header after an excellent service from Nick Soolsma.
Koevermans is dealing with a knee issue, but he's listed as probable for Saturday. He scored in last week's matchup with New York and looked to be in good enough health.
Torsten Frings is the second DP signed in the summer, and he adds more quality to the defensive end. The former German international was a defensive midfielder in his prime, playing the holding role for many years with Werder Bremen.
Frings has been asked to be versatile for this Toronto side. He's played in the midfield. He's played center half. He's even played sweeper in the odd 3-4-3 formation. At age 34, Frings is in the twilight of his career, but he's a really good fit for a young side that needs veteran leadership and experience. Frings currently wears the captain's armband, and he's helped to settle TFC in the defensive third.
Still, Toronto could use some additonal stability on the backline. It's been a rotating cast of characters on defense this year, with the only sure bet being Richard Eckersley, a young right fullback on loan from Burnley. On a team that set a record for most players used in one season, Eckersley has been the most consistent of the field players. His 1,953 minutes played are second on the team behind only goalkeeper Stefan Frei. Eckersley won't see the field on Saturday, though, already ruled out with a hamstring injury.
Toronto's most recent CB pairing was Ty Harden and Andy Iro. Iro was picked up from Columbus over the summer in a trade for highly-touted second-year midfielder Tony Tchani. Iro has struggled to adjust and has been inconsistent since the trade, though he's played better recently. Harden was the lone holdover from the original starting XI against Philadelphia, and he's also done better since the wholesale changes.
20-year-old Ashtone Morgan seems to have secured the left fullback/midfield spot. Center backs Dicoy Williams and Adrian Cann are both injured and will not play Saturday. Danleigh Borman and Doneil Henry should be available off the bench.
Offensively, Joao Plata is listed as questionable for this match. The 19-year-old has three goals, five assists, and plenty of upside. He's been a solid performer, even when Toronto was struggling throughout the early part of this season.
Four new faces have been seeing time in the Toronto midfield and attack. Ryan Johnson has been playing better since coming over from San Jose. The Jamaican international seems to fit well as a wide player in Toronto's three-man attack.
Peri Marosevic should be on the other side of the three-pronged formation. After seemingly going nowhere with FC Dallas, the 22-year-old Michigan product has enjoyed a solid start to his Toronto career, scoring twice in his first two appearaces.
Eric Avila and Terry Dunfield are the other new additions to the midfield. Avila has seen more time than Dunfield, but both started and played a full 90 against New York.
Toronto still has original DP Julian De Guzman available, along with Soolsma, Javier Martina, Nathan Sturgis, Matt Stinson, and a slew of other options.
The "Dutch" method
The important thing to understand about the Dutch system is that it's not just a formation or style of play. It's really a philosophy.
More specifically, the "Ajax model" starts in the youth ranks, teaching players technique and skill on the ball. It starts before children even turn age 10, with small-sided training and lots of repetition. The goal is to get the youngsters ready for senior team play by the time they turn 18, 19 and 20. Just this week, TFC fittingly broke ground on a brand-new, 14-acre, multi-million dollar academy and training facility.
On the field, the Ajax system favors the 4-3-3, an attack-minded formation that requires skilled wide players and fullbacks who can get up and down the field and add to the offense.
Winter went right to the 4-3-3 when he came to Toronto, but he didn't necessarily have the personnel to play the system the way he wanted. Similar to the way Kansas City plays the 4-3-3, you need a rock solid central midfielder and a striker who can play at the top of the formation successfully. Koevermans and Frings help fill those roles.
But instead of ramming a square peg into a round hole, Winter has experimented with the shape a bit, even using the aforementioned 3-4-3 on more than one occasion. In this shape, center halves are given room to man-mark strikers who play higher in the opponent's formation. With Frings sitting deep, he essentially serves as the sweeper, cleaning up behind the center halves.
In this day and age, it's rare to see the sweeper role in world football. While a lot of young Americans grew up playing in a diamond defensive shape with a sweeper and stopper, almost every single professional team now uses a flat backline with two true center halves.
Furthermore, the Ajax system is very similar to the system used by Barcelona. It emphasizes cohesive attacking, skill on the ball, and also high-pressure defense. Both styles value possession and one-touch passing. Players are encouraged, when they lose the ball, to swarm the opponent and regain possession.
In any case, the ambition to replicate that model in Toronto has been impressive. While Winter's first year has been a trying experience, this is a TFC side that could be a playoff contender in 2012.
On Saturday, they'll simply be a much tougher opponent than the Union were faced with earlier in the year.