For Toronto and Philadelphia, the “international break” was an opportunity for renewal and revival. Both teams had miserable starts to the season but both still were in shouting distance of fifth place in the Eastern Conference. For the Union, the Nowak era was loudly coming to an end as popular players were slowly being shipped off as the head coach kept trying to remake the team in his image (see Earl’s analysis here). Toronto’s woes were even more embarrassing: a year after beginning the implementation of the Total Football style Canadian edition, the Reds set a record for most losses to begin an MLS season and the friction between the front office, on-field management, and fans was boiling.
Saturday was the day of new beginnings for both teams as Paul Mariner and John Hackworth led their new teams onto the pitch against teams at the top of the Eastern Conference. Wins or draws would send messages to the league that these teams were back and ready to compete, especially with the Union playing at home. Unfortunately for these two teams the results looked very similar to the results under the old bosses, as both fell to two teams that could be Supporters’s Shield contenders.
Beginning in Chester, PA, the Union looked like a team afire versus DC United. Playing in a 4-3-3, the home team was the more dominant side in the first half, creating more of the chances and generally making DC United look slow and reactive. A few critical saves by Bill Hamid were all that kept the score sheet clean in the first 45 minutes, including this save on Josue Martinez:
The second half was a continuation of the first, although the Union simply could not break the DC defense despite some quality chances. Then in the 78th minute DC broke the scoreless draw on excellent set piece service by a resurgent Branko Boskovic. The free kick floated past a few DC heads before it fell onto the foot of Chris Pontius who buried in the back of the net. After an initial delay by referee Ricardo Salazar, the goal stood and DC sent Philly to their sixth straight winless game. But the fact they played well and dominated stretches cheered the players in the locker room.
“It’s exciting,” Union defender Sheanon Williams told MLSsoccer.com. “There’s new energy in the locker room and we’re ready to move forward. We know we have a lot of potential in this locker room. We can definitely get results. You could see it tonight. Even though we didn’t get three points, we sent a message to everyone else that we can play.”
For Toronto, their game under a Jeff Goldblum-looking Mariner was not quite as close after the first half although the visitors looked to keep up with Sporting Kansas City early in the first half. C.J. Sapong scored in the 18th minute to add to the home crowd’s frenzy before Toronto’s Eric Avila had a golden chance to equalize. Instead, this happened:
Julio Cesar’s wonder goal five minutes later essentially sealed the deal when he was unmarked on a corner and struck a ball on the fly to put Sporting KC up 2-0. The loss dropped the Reds to 1-10-0 on the year and firmly placed them in last in the standings. The worst part of it was the fact that Toronto looked the same as ever, despite the management change. With their next three games versus Houston, New England, and Montreal, if they want to begin to climb out of last the next three weeks are a good time to do so.