A CLASH OF TWO SURPRISING TEAMS
Both Moor and Altidore set to return Saturday for match against Philadelphia
It was March 2 on a cold, damp, miserable afternoon at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pa., when Toronto FC put the boots to host Philadelphia, leaving town with an impressive 3-1 road victory to start the MLS regular season.
And TFC won that match without yet-to-be-signed attacking midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo and star forward Jozy Altidore, who was still recovering from off-season ankle surgery.
Eight days later, the Union went on to lose their second match, 2-0 at Sporting Kansas City. But what’s the expression? “From humble beginnings, come great things”? Since opening with a pair of losses, the Union have gone on a tear, picking up points in eight of their next nine games, including a 6-1 drubbing over the New England Revolution last Saturday. The renascent Union (6-3-2) sit tied in first in the Eastern Conference as they prepare to face TFC (5-3-1) on Saturday afternoon at BMO Field — a clash of two of the more surprising teams in the MLS this season.
“They’re a team playing with a lot of confidence,” said veteran Toronto defender Drew Moor. “They like to play direct. They like to run players out of midfield in behind. (Haris) Medunjanin when he gets on the ball can play a very nice ball with his left foot. They’ve got some pace. I think if we can match their intensity early and keep them quiet and take the game to them as the game goes on, I think we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
The good news for TFC: Both Moor, who missed the last five games because of an Adductor injury followed by calf tightness, and Altidore, who missed the last three with a hamstring strain, are probable for Saturday’s match. The Reds clearly miss veteran centre back Moor when he’s not in the lineup. All-time during his career with Toronto, TFC has 32 wins, 17 losses and 20 draws with Moor in the lineup. With him out, they have gone 17-18-7.
Vanney made wholesale changes to his starting XI in a 2-0 loss in Atlanta on Wednesday to give his regulars a rest. But the result wasn’t positive. Altidore has five goals in as many games. In his place Vanney started Jordan Hamilton for two and then 19-year-old Ayo Akinola on Wednesday and neither was been able to create much of anything.
Philly has great balance on the attack with seven players recording two goals or more, though leading scorer David Accam was traded to Columbus on Wednesday for allocation money and an International roster spot. The Reds have also demonstrated balance in their attack, with four players tallying three goals or more. But the most impressive aspect of Philadelphia’s game is the way they’ve defended, allowing only 11 goals in as many matches. The Union’s goal differential of plus 10 is the second best in the MLS, behind Los Angeles F.C. (18).
One can bet Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin has devised a plan to try to minimize Pozuelo’s ability to create chances, as Atlanta United did on Wednesday. Pozuelo seemed to have a player on top of him a nanosecond after getting the ball and his extraordinary ability to set up the attack was stifled. Vanney said it’s all part of Pozuelo, who has recorded four goals and six assist in his first seven MLS matches, continuing to adjust to a new, very physical league.
“He’s going to get that all the time, especially if he takes extra touches and he wants to try to make things happen individually,” said Vanney. “If the ball moves fast in this league, he’s going to make teams pay. But this league is a physical league too, so if you take a lot of extra touches, people are going to be physical with you (and) a lot of times they probably won’t get called. A lot of things in this league can get by that maybe don’t get by in European leagues. And so I think there’s that balance of finding the moments to make a big play and finding the moments to just keep the ball moving and let the aggressiveness of the opposition sometimes work against them. Because the ball moves than faster than they do.
“I think (on Wednesday in Atlanta) with the way the game was going, I felt like (Pozuelo) felt he needed to make a play or a couple of plays inside the game,” the coach continued. “Maybe a couple of extra touches here or there allowed them to be physical with him, and that turned into some transitions the other way. It’s nothing that was his fault in terms of the outcome of the game. I think he was trying to impact the game in a positive way.”
Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore heads the ball past Seattle Sounders defender Chad Marshall in April. Altidore, who missed the last three games with a hamstring strain, is probable for Saturday’s match.