The first match following an international break is always full of surprises, and the Union were caught off-guard by an organized, tightly-packed Charlotte FC side last Saturday. Now they return to Philadelphia with the Eastern Conference crown still within their grasp but knowing they need to beat Toronto FC to ensure they finish on top.
The biggest question for Jim Curtin’s side following last weekend’s struggle is the health of team captain Ale Bedoya. The veteran midfielder provides the balance and organization that was missing in Charlotte, and his minor injury has coincided with the team’s first sustained attacking issues since the first third of the season.
For Curtin, Bedoya’s injury is a big loss, but not an irreplaceable one. It does, however, introduce an extra, and extra-thick, layer of uncertainty to game planning. Bedoya’s career has almost been defined by critics doubting the value his intelligence and consistency bring to a lineup. Jack McGlynn may be a better passer than his captain, Paxten Aaronson a better creator, and Quinn Sullivan a more direct attacking threat, but none bring Bedoya’s ability to adjust on the fly to the pace and shape of a game. These adjustments are the platform that supports Jose Martinez’s aggressiveness, Olivier Mbaizo’s early forward runs, and they fill in the gaps when Julian Carranza floats away from his position in search of space.
The other huge question is at left back since the suspended Kai Wagner misses his first match of the season. Young defender Anton Sorenson may not be ready to assume the duties, but Matt Real and Leon Flach can both take over depending on how Curtin wants to set up his midfield. A potential injury to Jack Elliott adds another wrinkle as Real may need to slide inside if Curtin opts to use him as cover instead of giving a difficult debut to Brandan Craig (one advantage of turning to Craig — he brings the best set play service of anyone in the organization outside of Wagner).
Toronto FC is also looking for veteran leadership as they close out a forgettable 2022 campaign. Midseason signings Federico Bernadeschi and Lorenzo Insigne — two obscenely talented Italian National Team vets — failed to carry Bob Bradley’s team into playoff contention. Moving on from Alejandro Pozuelo and adding Mark-Anthony Kaye failed to make the side more balanced, and instead cost the former’s creativity without tapping into the box-to-box dynamism of the latter.
Instead, the defense has remained a soft spot, with the team earning a single shutout since the start of August and holding opponents to fewer than two goals only three times in that span.
Philadelphia’s historically good offense needs to click against Toronto FC, and it should. But with Bedoya a question mark, that means getting some tough decisions right: How do you balance the team without the captain? Is it McGlynn on the right or the left? Is it a box with Aaronson alongside Gazdag?
And in back, do you move Leon Flach to the left or keep him in midfield? If Jack Elliott isn’t 100%, do you give Brandan Craig a debut or turn to Matt Real? These questions have been on the coaching staff’s mind all season, but now choices need to be made with the Eastern Conference crown on the line.
The Union and Toronto FC kick off at 2:30 p.m. ET on MLS Decision Day 2022, live from Subaru Park and coming live to televisions on PHL17.