Toronto FC manager Ryan Nelsen has already achieved one goal with his new team. Respect.
“They’re a difficult team to get a result against, and they’ve proven that in the early stages of this season so far,” Philadelphia Union coach John Hackworth told local reporters this week. “I don’t think I would characterize them as being a team that does anything that scares you tremendously, but yet they’re really deceptively good at a lot of things.”
Philadelphia (2-2-1) will get a firsthand look at Nelsen’s squad when Toronto (1-2-2) visits PPL Park on Saturday.
Both teams have undergone major overhauls since last season. Toronto has brought in 14 new players with more to come. The Union have welcomed 11 new faces.
Kind words are new to a Toronto squad that went 5-21-8 last season and gave up a league-worst 62 goals in a campaign bookended by a record nine-game losing streak and 14-game winless slide.
But the team has a new prickly identity under Nelsen. While still very much a work in progress with some pieces still missing, they work hard and they have a road map.
Apprised of Hackworth’s comments, Nelsen made it clear that it’s not yet job done.
“Obviously we wanted to be a tough team, a horrible team (to play against),” said Nelsen. “And we start from there.
“I would say we can be a lot more difficult and a lot more horrible to tell the truth. I think we’ve still got a lot to improve on. But we’re making steps, we’re making progress going forward.”
And in a sly dig to those who have criticized the team’s lack of scoring chances, Nelsen then noted that only six other sides had scored more goals than Toronto’s seven.
“We’re getting there,” he said. “We know we’ve got a lot to improve on. But the guys have been absolutely fantastic. They’re worked really hard and they’re getting better all the time. We’re going in the right direction.”
Nelsen has yet to see a full 90-minute performance from his team, including last week when the team fell behind 2-0 to visiting FC Dallas, the hottest team in the league at the time. But Toronto stormed back with two goals in the final minutes to steal a point.
“They seem to be able to take advantage of opposing teams when you least expect it,” Hackworth said. “More than anything they show a great resolve right now.”
Forward Justin Braun, recovered from a preseason concussion, helped trigger Toronto’s comeback with a goal coming off the bench against Dallas and could add to Toronto’s attack Saturday.
While Braun offers defences a different look entering the game as a substitute, it would be interesting to see how speedy striker Robert Earnshaw plays off a target man like the six-foot-three Braun.
Earnshaw has plowed a lone furrow up front, collecting four goals in five games. But he had little service against Dallas before Nelsen introduced attacking midfielder Luis Silva at halftime and Braun in the 73rd minute.
Silva, whose season has been slowed by a hamstring injury, would be a good bet to start Saturday, perhaps in place of Jonathan Osorio who gave way at halftime last weekend.
Nelsen also has options in that John Bostock, Reggie Lambe and Hogan Ephraim can all play on the wing or in the hole behind Earnshaw.
Of the three, Bostock has been the most mercurial. A former teen sensation in England, the 21-year-old can dazzle with his footwork or fade away into his surroundings.
Perhaps lost in the shuffle was last weekend’s contribution of Jeremy Hall in midfield. Hall, who played fullback last season, was good on 59 of 65 passes against Dallas.
Toronto will be without midfielder Terry Dunfield (knee), forward Emery Welshman (ankle) and likely defender Richard Eckersley (hamstring).
Ashtone Morgan is expected to revert back into his spot at left fullback with Darel Russell remaining on the right.
Former Union captain Danny Califf missed the Dallas game with a stomach virus. Gale Agbossoumonde, in his MLS debut, did well in filling in for Califf at centre back.
Nelsen, who offers little on selection other than generalities, would only say he has options in defence.
Toronto is likely to continue its pressing style against Philadelphia, hoping to trigger mistakes at the back and prevent the Union from getting rolling.
“If you give them time and space, they have the ability to play some very nice attacking football,” said Nelsen. “They possess the ball very well.
“They’ve got a couple of very strong centre backs, a striker (Jack McInerney) who runs off the shoulder very well ... So they’ve got a really nice balance, all around the team.
“So it’s going to be a very difficult game. The coach there is finally kind of putting his DNA on the team now. It’s really his team now. They’re a very competitive team.”
Hackworth, a former assistant in Philadelphia, was named interim manager last June and was given the job full time on Aug. 30.
Philadelphia could give a debut to Brazilian midfielder Kleberson, once of Manchester United.