The Union's 2-3-2 start to the season has been disappointing for reasons beyond simply the results.
It's been clear since the day the team's schedule was released in January that the Union would have to get as many points as possible from those seven games because of how tough the stretch after that would be.
Well, the future has finally become the present. The Union will play three road games in nine days beginning Friday night, with the first one coming at defending champion Toronto FC (8 p.m., PHL17). After that, they'll come home briefly before heading to Columbus to face the Crew on Wednesday (7:30 p.m., PHL17). Then they'll head from there to Montreal to face the Impact on May 12 (3 p.m., PHL17).
The first of those contests is likely the toughest. Toronto is in last place in the Eastern Conference (1-4-1) only because it put all of its energy into its run to the CONCACAF Champions League final, which it lost to Mexican power Chivas of Guadalajara on penalty kicks on April 25. Three days later, Toronto was held to a 2-2 draw at home against the Chicago Fire.
Now the Reds have had time to rest and re-focus. They're sure to be in an ornery mood.
"They are wounded, so they will come out trying to hurt us," Union winger David Accam said after Wednesday's practice. He called the trip to Toronto "the biggest game of the season so far."
The Union might catch a break if Jozy Altidore remains out with a hamstring strain. But he's just one of Toronto's many big weapons. The biggest, Sebastian Giovinco, is a creative attacking force who can win games singlehandedly. He has 60 goals in MLS games since coming to Toronto in 2015, and was the joint top scorer in this year's Champions League with four goals in eight games.
It will be easily the biggest test yet for the Union's young back line, especially Auston Trusty. Manager Jim Curtin hopes the rest of the defense will help keep the 19-year-old Media native from being caught in one-on-one situations.
"There's not a player in our league that can do it by themselves against Giovinco," Curtin said Wednesday. "Auston has to learn to show Giovinco toward where he has help. If you think that you're going to dive in and win 50-50 chances against him, he's either going to draw a foul [or] go around you."
An even bigger test will come after the game, when the Union must turn around pretty quickly to face Columbus. And they know they'll already have to be preparing for Montreal, too. Curtin has often been reticent to change his lineup, but he knows he has to now.
"There will be some guys that haven't played a lot of minutes for us this year that are going to be called upon in the coming weeks," he said. "We will rotate things as we move forward with the three games in a very short amount of time."
Anthony Fontana will not be one of those players for the Toronto game, though. The 18-year-old midfielder from Newark, Del. — who hasn't played since March 31 — didn't travel to Toronto because of a hamstring injury. He's expected to be out for around a week, but could be back for the Columbus game if his recovery goes fast.
Union at Toronto FC
Friday, 8 p.m. at BMO Field, Toronto
Union's record: 2-3-2, 8 points (8th in the East); 0-2-0 on the road
Toronto's record: 1-4-1, 4 points (11th in the East); 1-1-1 at home
Series history: Toronto 7 wins, Union 6 wins, 6 ties
At BMO Field: Toronto 6 wins, Union 2 wins, 3 ties
M Victor Vázquez: He isn't Toronto's best player (that's Sebastian Giovinco), or its most powerful (that's Jozy Altidore), or its emotional leader (that's Michael Bradley). But he is arguably the Reds' most important player. The Spanish playmaker was the piece that solved the puzzle in last year's title run, with 17 assists and 10 goals.
M Marky Delgado: It feels as if he's been in MLS for a long time, and it's true. He started his career in 2012. So how is he just 22? The answer: He debuted at age 16 with now-defunct Chivas USA. Last March, he earned his first senior U.S. national team appearance. Don't be surprised if it isn't his last.
GK Alex Bono: With the U.S. national team's goalkeeper depth chart unusually unsettled, Bono has earned consideration thanks to a great run of form. The 24-year-old backstopped last year's title campaign, and this year produced some outstanding saves in the Champions League.