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Fighting Off Rock Bottom: Union Face Winless Toronto

May 26, 2012, 2:53 PM EDT

Catching up on the Philadelphia Union ahead of Saturday's match against winless Toronto FC at BMO Field.
Last weekend’s MLS action offered little comfort for local fans who were either worried about the Union’s ability to make positive headway or angry at the team’s decision to trade Danny Califf. The U struggled through a first half they were lucky to have played against a mediocre Dallas side that was missing a handful of regulars, though the Union’s somewhat more cohesive second half effort and salvage of a point was a hell of a lot better than an outright loss. 
Immediately after that game concluded, Califf’s debut with Chivas USA began and was televised nationally. Califf, who’d previously been deemed too injured to play for the Union and even publicly debated the fact amidst tensions with Peter Nowak, was instrumental in Chivas’ first win over the LA Galaxy since 2007. The former Union captain was named Man of the Match in the 1-0 victory. While I couldn’t have been happier to see Califf succeed, the night begged to be labeled “bittersweet.” 
It’s in the past now, and the Union face Toronto FC (0-9-0) at 4:30 [TCN] on the banks of Lake Ontario. Will they take three points from possibly the worst team in North America, who also happen to be the Canadian champions? 

The Union could use a decisive victory, even against a team that so far can’t beat anyone. But from the depths of Toronto, your eye doesn’t have to travel too far up the table to find Philadelphia, who are in second place with only 8 points (2-6-2) of their own. So let’s not chalk this up as anything just yet… Toronto fans are probably saying there’s no better opportunity for their side to earn their first points of the season.  

Last Week Rewinder
My worries heading into the Dallas match and the start of the post-Califf era were somewhat widespread, but for the purposes of the on-field product, I hoped they wouldn’t miss his height on the backline. Before 8 minutes were off the clock, they were beaten on a corner, with 6’1 striker Blas Perez heading home a volley in the box. While Califf’s presence didn’t stop those same things from happening while he was with the Union, Keon Daniel was clearly overmatched and miscast in trying to slow Perez on a few set pieces in this one. 
The Union lacked any consistent or threatening form in the first half, which isn’t a surprise given a few key absences. Chase Harrison filled in admirably for the concussed Zac MacMath, taking a sound physical beating but withstanding the barrage after Perez’s early goal. Newcomer Michael Lahoud was mixed into the starting XI, as Peter Nowak likes to get the new blood flowing as soon as its the kit. Not sure I agree with the logic, particularly in a match that already had a few key players out for the Union. The second half featured more control by the Union though, who equalized and narrowly missed on some solid opportunities that would have put them ahead. 
The latter 45 minutes were an overall good sign heading tonight’s Must Win Or It Will Be Completely Embarrassing tilt with Toronto. 
Kings of the North(?)
TFC will also be looking to build on success from their last time out. Although they have lost all of their MLS matches this season, they did beat Vancouver, 1-0, on Wednesday in CONCACAF play to take the Canadian Championship. Again, they may not be the pushover you might expect from a team looking to avoid a tenth straight loss to start the season. 
Toronto’s offense has scored only seven goals through nine matches, and the team has conceded 21. Their offense is underachieving so far, which is to say, they’re not quite as bad as their results have been. Kevin Kinkead points out that designated player Danny Koevermans has missed time due to a groin injury, while fellow DP Ryan Johnson has missed all but one of his 28 shots. 
The last time the Union were in Toronto, they put together their most explosive effort in the young franchise’s history, winning 6-2. However, with all the turnover since that time, it’s a stretch to apply anything from that match to this one. Remember these guys? That was a year and 2 days ago. The various factors affecting both sides in the current season to date the only things worth looking to for an idea of how this matchup will work out. 
Re-Union
Peter Nowak hopes to have MacMath back in goal today afters sitting out last match with concussion symptoms. Harrison is not available, which is no surprise given how often the physical match against Dallas involved decleating contact with the Union backup. [UPDATE: @thegoalkeeper says MacMath is out again, so Chris Konopka is the man for the Union...]
Gabriel Gomez scored the Union’s lone goal last weekend, but a late, hard, arial leg-whipping from Dallas keeper Kevin Hartman on the play cost Gomez the rest of the match with a quad injury:
HartmanGomez.jpg

No word as of this posting as to whether Gomez will play tonight, but after the game, he will leave the Union, answering a call-up from his Panama national team for World Cup qualifying. [UPDATE: He's out.]
Getting Freddy Adu back should significantly help the Union’s chances of getting a result. He was playing his best match with the Union against NY Red Bulls two weekends ago when he was issued his second yellow card, a BS diving call that also forced his absence in Dallas. With Adu back, Nowak will likely look to attack with two strikers (presumably Danny Mwanga and Lio Pajoy), with Adu pulling the strings against a shoddy defense that should find itself overmatched by a Union attack that has shown signs of life in this formation. He also resumes the majority of the free kicks and corners, another area Keon struggled to fill in last week. Nothing against Keon, one of our favorite players here at the Level, but hopefully the returning players allow his game to focus on its strengths. 
Carlos Valdes was bloodied in Dallas, but Nowak has said he’s fine to play today. With his former centerback partner gone, Valdes gets the captain’s armband and control of the backline. They’re in good hands with #5. Sheanon Williams will presumably lineup inside with him again, a miscasting of his size and speed, but the team is limited in its CB options. The expensively disappointing Porfirio Lopez could see his season salvaged as an interior defender, but for now, he’s still a reserve. 
In this particular matchup, the team’s desire to play its defenders high should provide the desired benefit of sustained attacks against a weak defensive opponent, without quite as much potential for counterattack as most other MLS sides. We hope, anyway. 
The Union could really use a full-game effort, rather than the good-half/bad-half efforts we’ve seen recently. We’ll try to update with Nowak’s chosen lineup if we’re still in front of computers when i
t’s released. Planning on watching this one through the smoke of a barbecue… 
(Photos by John E. Sokolowski and Jerome Miron, US Presswire)