Same teams, different coaches.
Philadelphia and Toronto meet this Sunday for the second time in seven weeks. Both teams are playing better soccer under new managers Paul Mariner and John Hackworth.
Mariner has guided his TFC side to a 1-1-4 record since taking over for Aron Winter early last month. His team is unbeaten in five games and slowly climbing out of the Eastern Conference basement after losing 9 straight games to start the season.
Toronto broke that doleful slump with a 1-0 victory over the Union on May 26th. Danny Koevermans' 88th minute goal earned the Reds their very first points of the season. Philadelphia is 2-2-1 all time against Toronto.
Key is the re-emergence of striker Koevermans, who has 6 goals in his last 5 games. All of a sudden, he's tied for third in MLS with 9 goals on the season.
The Dutchman appears to have found his rhythm under Mariner. An excellent poacher and box player, Koevermans is starting to convert shots that simply would not go in earlier this year. At six foot three, he's a menace in the air and must be accounted for at all times.
Forward Ryan Johnson is also playing better since the coaching change. The Jamaica international has 2 goals and 1 assist in the last four games. He leads the team in assists and has played every single minute of every game.
Toronto have converted from the 4-3-3 to a more conventional 4-4-2 under Mariner. With the departure of Joao Plata to LDU Quito, Reggie Lambe and Eric Avila have been playing right wing and left wing, respectively. Nick Soolsma and Luis Silva have been the first offensive subs off the bench in the last two games.
Mariner's most significant move was the insertion of Richard Eckersley as a central defender. Primarily a right back, Eckersley has joined Logan Emory in central defense for three straight games. They conceded just two goals in those three games, a major improvement for a backline that has given up a league worst 30 goals this year.
Ashtone Morgan is playing excellent soccer at left back. He's becoming a real threat on that flank, running the touchline and providing good service to Koevermans. Jeremy Hall seems to be locked in at the right back position.
Former German international Torsten Frings looks more comfortable paired with Terry Dunfield in the TFC midfield. Julian De Guzman is a quality option who can start and play 90 minutes, or come off the bench in a pinch.
Goalkeeper Milos Kocic has spent the majority of the season playing behind a leaky defense. There's no way to skew his statistics to demonstrate his quality, but he's an athletic netminder with very good reflexes and a comfortable feel for the game.
Keys to the Game
Under their new managers, Philadelphia and Toronto are a combined 4-3-4 in all competitions. That's a big difference considering that both teams struggled earlier in the season.
Toronto is playing better defense, and learning how to earn points in late game situations. After conceding disappointing late draws to Houston and New England, the Reds' backline seems to have "matured" over the last three games.
The TFC 4-4-2 is a bit more "stable" than the 4-3-3 previously employed by Winter. Whereas Torsten Frings carried the load in the midfield for much of the season, the addition of Dunfield and the tactical change has really helped to calm things down and provide a bit more structure in the middle of the park.
For Philadelphia, it's more of the same – keep playing attacking football. The Union have now scored seven goals in four league matches under Hackworth. Philadelphia is finding an identity with the 4-3-3 and the performances have been mostly consistent over the last month.
Both teams are still in need of points, but the gap between the bottom and the middle of the Eastern Conference table continues to grow smaller.