By Coleman Larned (@thesoccerswell)
Toronto FC and Philadelphia Union enter the playoffs in undesirable form and have experienced opposite trajectories in the regular season.
After a stale first half of the season, TFC has regained talented players from injury (welcome back, Jozy & Giovinco!) and have lost only three times since mid-season. This form tailed off as they closed out, conceding six goals in their final three games.
The Union began their campaign proving most people wrong by winning with an up-tempo, athletic, well disciplined style. But the wheels fell off around mid-season and the Union are historically bad for a playoff team.
Greg Vanney is expected to deploy a familiar 4-4-2 diamond (4-1-2-1-2) shape with Michael Bradley anchoring its base, hoping to dictate tempo in possession to break the opposition's press. The wide positions in the central diamond could be occupied by four different players, but it's likely that Armando Cooper, Marco Delgado or Will Johnson will play. Although Delgado offers more range, Vanney might opt for the experience of Johnson in a playoff situation.
Jim Curtin stick with his 4-2-3-1 to press high and occupy spaces and key opponents when defending against deep possession. Like TFC, the Union might opt for experience by inserting Brian Carroll at the base of their midfield, along with possibly Illsinho wide right instead of more athletic, dynamic players.
Can Philadelphia remain connected for 90+ minutes?
As the Union have pressed high all season, their intent as been to discourage methodical build up play that starts deep from the opposition. Their press doesn't create a line of confrontation so much as they identify the opposition's players they want to occupy. The energy starts from the front with CJ Sapong, and the accompanying #10 connects with their midfield and eventually defensive line.
The issue of the press has never been the Sapong's work rate as the first line of defense, but the ability of the two midfielders at the base of the formation to recognize pressing cues or maintain their defensive shape during the press.
The responsibilities and expectations of Alejandro Bedoya as a central midfielder in the Union's scheme do not matchup well with TFC for this very reason. By relying on Bedoya to provide marauding runs forward in a box-to-box role and be one of their only attacking threats, it means the space that is left behind is easily exploited.
Will TORONTO's wide, diamond midfielders be able break down the lines of PHIladelphia?
This plays off of the previous point. If the Union can't connect their defensive shape, and holes are left by the vacancies of their midfielders that need to provide offensive thrust, can TFC exploit this? The wide midfielders in a diamond shaped midfield tuck inside and help in possession in the half-spaces. As Jonathan Osorio, Delgado or Cooper identify these spaces, they'll be able to 'sit on their route' and occupy pockets.
Will the Union be able to account for Giovinco's columns?
Giovinco has made his living in MLS by withdrawing himself off of the shoulders of defenders and either receiving the ball in a midfield half space, or in the spaces between outside defenders and center defenders while he runs at goal. These are his columns. His ability to understand deep pockets and long, uninterrupted passing lanes is the best in the league and Philadelphia will struggle for an answer.
With Jozy Altidore acting as an offensive fulcrum, Philadelphia will have to account for Giovinco's movement off of his target forward. As the Union's base midfielders will already be occupied by TFC's diamond, defenders will be drawn out of shape to cover and pressure. The shape will be altered and Philadelphia will need to compensate.
If the Union can stay defensively stubborn in the midfield and return to their early-season edge, then they could pull off the upset. But it seems more likely that the gaps left by Bedoya getting forward will cause Philadelphia to lose their defensive shape, space will open at the base of their midfield and Giovinco will find his columns. Chances are that Toronto moves on.