Toronto FC (2-4-0, 6 points) at Philadelphia Union (1-5-3, 6 points)
What: Major League Soccer regular season match; When: Saturday, 4 p.m. (kickoff 4:06 p.m.)
Where: PPL Park, Chester, Pa.; Tickets: purchase tickets
TV: 6abc featuring play-by-play announcer JP Dellacamera and analyst Peter Pappas
Radio: None; Social: Follow the action via Twitter: @TheUMatchday
Parking: $20 at all PPL Park approved lots; Mass transit: Shuttle service to and from Chester Transportation Center
Winners of just one of their first nine games, it’s safe to say things haven’t gone the way Union head coach Jim Curtin envisioned before the 2015 season started. But with three-quarters of the season still remaining, there’s no panic yet – especially considering the Union are a mere two points out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot heading into play on Saturday.
“It’s too early for ‘must wins’,” Curtin said. “We need good performances at this stage. We’re at a stage where we have to be able to look at each other in the locker room after the 90 minutes and say, ‘We’re getting better.’ Last game we couldn’t do that.”
Eager to put last week’s 4-1 defeat to Columbus Crew SC behind them, the Union will take on Toronto FC (2-4-0) Saturday at PPL Park. And for a Union team in search of good omens, they don’t have to look much further than their opponent.
TFC lost four straight until this past weekend’s 2-0 win over Orlando City. The three points vaulted Toronto from next-to-last to 7th place (and in a tie on points per game with Orlando for that last playoff spot). Add to it the fact they have yet to play a home game while BMO Field undergoes renovations and Toronto is suddenly feeling good about their play after just one win.
“There’s been challenging times,” Toronto head coach Greg Vanney said. “We knew it was going to be a tough start. Obviously there have been some ups and downs – we’ve seen everything – but for us it’s been a real opportunity early on in the season to look at ourselves and see where we’re at… A lot of times in MLS when you go on the road and you come back and go on the road and come back, sometimes you don’t get a real clean look at yourself.”
Snapping the four-game skid almost by himself was Jozy Altidore. The USMNT staple scored both Toronto goals to beat Orlando and figures to be a handful for the Philadelphia defense. In addition, fellow stars Michael Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco have each been playing at an extremely high level this year and possess a credible threat – one that many preseason prognosticators penned to be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
“As a pro athlete you want to play against the best,” Curtin said. “Right now for me, Michael Bradley is one of the best players in the league and Jozy and Giovinco are as well. You want to see how you hold up against the best players. Nothing cures confidence like a victory against good competition. Toronto had a tough run of games. They kind of picked themselves off of the mat against Orlando and we’ll look to do the same.”
While Toronto’s lineup figures to be same following their win – with Vanney calling it not superstitious, but silly to change much – the Union will certainly roll out a different lineup Saturday.
“Without giving away our starting lineup, there will be changes to the group,” Curtin said. “Anytime you give up four goals – 17 in nine games, it’s unacceptable.”
One of those changes could be Zach Pfeffer who returned from international duty this past Sunday and has shown well in practice all week.
Pfeffer was with the U.S. Under-20s in Austria last week, where started and handed out the lone assist in the 1-0 win over Croatia. It was the second call up this year for Pfeffer, who also joined the U23s in Denmark back in March.
“I’m always hoping to be on the field,” the 20-year-old midfielder said. “If I have that opportunity, I’m going to try and make the most of it, as always, and try to help the team get three points. Toronto is a good team – they got their first win in a couple of games so they’re probably feeling a little bit confident now and they obviously have a good group of guys. We respect them. We don’t fear them. That’s a message that the coaching staff always preaches to us.”
For a Union midfield that could potentially be without Vincent Nogueira (ankle), Brian Carroll (left calf, right hamstring) and Eric Bird (hernia), Pfeffer could come back into a less-familiar role as a No. 8. But that’s not an issue according to his head coach.
“Zach is a guy who is still working on the defensive side of the ball so the 8 role is a little different for him,” Curtin said. “But he gives you an option in midfield where he can make a pass and score a goal. In our league you can look to the teams who are kind of flying right now – Columbus, New England – they get goals from midfielders. They’re hard to find and Zach has that ability.”
It’s a role that Pfeffer has been preparing for, though. Already with an established offensive game at such a young age, Pfeffer said showing the coaching staff that he had improved defensively was a big focus for him in the preseason.
Regardless, he could be a welcome sight for the club. They’ve grabbed points in four of the six games he’s played in this year (1-2-3) while not picking up any without him (0-3-0). He also scored his only goal of the season during the team’s lone win against New York City FC.
Adding to each of those totals is the next step, but as he echoed his coach’s statement, they’re not panicking yet – even if they know they’re in a tough spot.
“We know we need to get results soon,” he said. “But with that being said, the Eastern Conference is still very close. There’s not team who has fully run away with it or anything like that so really, with two or three wins we’re right back in it. That gives us extra confidence to know that it’s still all there for the taking so we just need to be focused, motivated, and if we get one or two wins in a row we’re right back in the mix.”
What do you think is a gameplan for success against Toronto FC? Leave your comment below.
Contact Union press officer Chris Winkler at firstname.lastname@example.org.