When the Philadelphia Union play host to Toronto FC Sunday afternoon, it will be the beginning of another tough stretch of significant games for this third-year franchise.
Winners of two of their last three and playing some inspired soccer under interim manager John Hackworth, the Union will have their hands full versus much-improved Toronto FC. Toronto is coming off of a 1-1 draw at FC Dallas this past Wednesday.
What these two teams share in common is a managerial change. Since John Hackworth took over the Union’s top coaching spot, the club is 2-2-0 in league play, outscoring opponents 7-4. He has kept the defense strong while improving the offense with the changes he has made and with the way he's allowed players to express their freedom on the field.
He changed the Union formation to a 4-3-3 and made starters out of Jack McInerney and Amobi Okugo, while putting Sheanon Williams back in his original right back spot. Hackworth has also managed games well, relying on a subs bench that has given more playing time to rookie Antoine Hoppenot who has made something happen every time he steps onto the field. He was able to get something out of normal starters Gabriel Gomez and Lionard Pajoy as subs on Wednesday. Pajoy assisted on the Michael Farfan game-winner with a beautiful backheel pass vs. the Galaxy.
In a season of constant change, Hackworth is trying to bring some stability to the side which isn't an easy task when one considers this difficult schedule he's dealing with. Having just finished four games in 12 nights, the Toronto game will begin a stretch of three games in seven nights, concluding with a home game against the Montreal Impact. In between, on Wednesday there's that important Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal game vs. Sporting Kansas City. Managing player minutes will be vital over this next stretch.
As for Toronto FC, Paul Mariner is now their seventh coach in this their seventh season. When you talk about instability, this is the team that comes to mind. Mariner might be able to change that, and so far he has. Like Hackworth with the Union, Mariner changed the team’s on-field formation. Switching from a 4-3-3 of prior head coach Aron Winter, Toronto immediately went to a 4-4-2. After losing game one to Sporting Kansas City, they have been unbeaten since in their last five games.
The defense has improved under Mariner while the offense has been able to get the timely goals, most of them from Danny Koevermans. The Dutch striker has now scored a goal in five straight games. Mariner has given more playing time to some, and reduced the role and minutes of others over his six-game tenure. He also moved right back Richard Eckersley into a central defender position. A team that had a goal differential of –13 under Winter is a +1 under Mariner.
The standings will show that Philadelphia and Toronto are ninth and tenth in the Eastern Conference, but they are not playing like teams at the bottom of their division. Both teams, under new bench leaders, are playing with confidence for the first time all season.
Sunday's winner will pick up an important three points in the standings, but equally important, the winner will also be riding some momentum that can propel them towards that fifth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
See you at PPL Park, Sunday at 4 p.m.
Preview: Union vs. Toronto FC