Saturday’s test comes at a good time.
Toronto FC will welcome the Philadelphia Union to BMO Field on Saturday evening for an intriguing clash.
Six weeks into the season, the Union sit at the top of both the Eastern Conference and MLS standings as the only team yet to be defeated. With five wins and a draw, Jim Curtin’s side are the pacesetters thus far in 2022.
Unbeaten in three, Toronto found their footing with a pair of home wins either side of the international break at the end of March and continued that with a hard-earned point away to Real Salt Lake last weekend.
With a rematch against NYCFC next weekend and the schedule starting to ramp up heading into the summer break, it’s a good time to go toe-to-toe with the cream of the league.
“I spoke to the group about that today,” agreed Bob Bradley during Friday’s press conference. “Philadelphia no losses, one draw, everyone recognizes that they're a really strong team.”
“If you look at the first six games, there's been some good moments, there's been some good goals, there's still things that are improving and need work, but the chance now at home to really step up and play a big game against a top team, it's really important for us,” he continued. “With that, we need as many guys as possible at their best tomorrow night. The number one thing that you are pushing for regularly with everything you work on is that when you play big games, you’re getting as many guys as possible to really play at their best level. That is an important next step for us and tomorrow is a great opportunity.”
The start of the season is about a lot of things.
It’s about building fitness, it’s about seeing how the new additions and ideas of an off-season turn into practice on the field, it’s about building a foundation, gaining some momentum, and yes, it’s about collecting some points.
Along the way there are opportunities to kick it up a notch. A team wants these challenges.
“To see where we're at,” said Jonathan Osorio. “We know that a win against these guys could do a lot for us going forward. We want to get back to playing really big games and striving in those moments, so yeah, this is going to be a good test for us.”
A new coach, new players, some big names in, big names out, young players stepping into bigger roles. Toronto is still finding itself.
“We’re heading in the right direction and we see that,” highlighted Osorio. “But we also see that we can improve; we have a lot to improve still – it's the balance of both. We feel we're in a good spot where we're confident. We’re unbeaten in three games and this is a great game for us to really build on that.”
It really is game-by-game, day-by-day.
“Every game we go into trying to get three points and trying to improve from our last game. We're trying to get a winning mentality here,” Osorio added. “Especially in these home games, we want to perform well and be aggressive and show our style of play on the pitch, [one] that's going to make the fans happy and entertain them and in the right way.”
Toronto will have been bolstered by the news that striker Ayo Akinola, who suffered an ACL injury last July, has returned to the fold.
“He'll be part of the team tomorrow, but he still needs some time in terms of gaining confidence, pushing himself in training, being more dynamic in training,” confirmed the coach. “It's good to have him in full training.”
“When a young player is coming back from that type of injury, you've got to be very careful that you don't rush him,” Bradley cautioned. “We're getting close, but I'm not sure we're there yet.”
In his eighth full season at the helm, once interim coach Jim Curtin has turned the Union into a perennial challenger, making the playoffs the last four seasons, pipping TFC to the 2020 Supporters’ Shield, and reaching the Conference Final stage in 2021, only for Covid protocols to force some 11 players to be absent from a 2-1 loss at home to eventual winners NYCFC.
A former defender, he is an opponent that Bob Bradley knows well, having drafted and coached him in his playing days when both were with the Chicago Fire.
“Jim was a smart player and a very good guy,” began Bradley, detailing how the selection may have come as a bit of surprise in the 2001 MLS SuperDraft. “He had a very good career and I'm not surprised to see him move into coaching and do really well. He's got a good feel for things around him. [I’m] proud of him.”
Having drawn their opening game of the season at home against Minnesota United, Philadelphia has not looked back. Wins away to CF Montreal and NYCFC and at home over the San Jose Earthquakes, Charlotte FC, and the Columbus Crew, who they defeated 1-0 last weekend in Ohio, thanks to a bit of a howler from the Columbus keeper, Eloy Room, who fumbled a cross.
Daniel Gazdag leads the side with four goals through six appearances and Kai Wagner is a constant threat from the left-back position, as his three assists attest. Sergio Santos, who has six goals in as many games against TFC, has yet to find the back of the net this season.
“They’re fast in transition, they make hard runs behind the defense, they hit long balls, they move out fast, they get guys in the box,” detailed Bradley of the Philly threat. “Some of those are Red Bull ideas, Ernst Tanner, their sport director, had been part of Red Bull in Europe and so they've taken some of ideas and Jim's found a way to mix them with some of his own, but the ability to play forward, get people into the box, go fast, those are things that you have to deal with.”
Toronto relishes the challenge.
“A tough game as always,” levelled Osorio. “This is a team that battles, they have their identity and they've had it in place for a few years now.”
“We know what we're up against,” he continued. “I don't think they have that record by luck so we have our hands full, but at the same time it's a great challenge for us at this point in the season. Playing at home against a team that's undefeated – that's the motivation itself right there, to beat the undefeated team in the league. Tough game, but I know we're going to be up for it.”