|Danny Koevermans has been red-hot of late. Koevermans and his Toronto FC teammates can improve their unbeaten streak to six games when they play the Philadelphia Union today. (Getty Images/AFP)
TORONTO - It’s difficult to measure success in the midst of unparalleled failure.
Despite Toronto FC being on the cusp of securing a sixth consecutive losing season, head coach Paul Mariner is attempting to do just that.
“It’s the same as when I came in to be honest,” Mariner said of his expectations for the rest of this season. “I want the fans to feel better about the team, the players to (smile) and enjoy their soccer and I want respect for (my) staff. I think we’re gaining some respect around the league and I think people are acknowledging what we’re doing.”
Following a well-earned draw in Dallas on Wednesday night — one that kept TFC unbeaten in five games under Aron Winter’s mid-season replacement — the Reds travel to Philadelphia this afternoon for a match between a pair of newly structured sides that have endured wholesale changes since meeting before the international break.
Before then, both clubs were stagnant as the only two teams remaining in single digits while Kansas City, New York and — gulp — the Montreal Impact pulled away from the league’s bottom-of-the-table teams.
Like Toronto before them, the Union cleaned house, moving the club’s assistant coach and former U.S. youth coach John Hackworth into Peter Nowak’s vacated head coaching role after watching Philadelphia’s former bench boss single-handedly dismantle what was a playoff side a season ago.
Under Hackworth the Union has impressive wins over Kansas City and Los Angeles, results that if predicted a month ago would have given supporters a good laugh. Similarly, Mariner has the Reds playing with more confidence and energy than at any other time this season as he attempts to turn things around and make TFC’s 2012 a respectable one.
“We’re all in it together,” Mariner said. “We’ve got this culture now where we want to work for each other. It’s getting the back four to play well, the midfield is playing well and we’re doing more than OK up front. We’re a difficult team to beat and that’s the way you have to be in MLS.”
Swapping Danny Mwanga for Portland’s Jorge Perlaza last month, Jeremy Hall will get a second chance to silence a Colombian winger after Dallas’ Fabian Castillo skinned TFC’s right back throughout Wednesday’s match.
Although the Reds should have enough in midfield to handle the up-and-down talents of Freddy Adu, Lionard Pajoy is a constant threat around the penalty area and could punish TFC’s inexperienced back four that remains vulnerable when opponents flood Milos Kocic’s area with crosses — an issue the club’s new manager has been attempting to correct since taking over.
“When I first took over, the most important thing for us was to try and not concede,” said Mariner, when asked to list the improvements the club has made under his direction. “I think the measuring stick is if you look at the MLS Team of the Week. We’ve got three players in it … Ashtone (Morgan) is in unbelievable form, Torsten (Frings) has been the leader we always thought he would be and Danny (Koevermans) is scoring the goals.”
In most leagues around the world, today’s match would be a battle to stave off relegation. For the Reds, it’s a chance to move within a point of dropping the damaging title of league-worst — the Union currently sits four points above the Reds for second-to-last in MLS.
KICKOFF AT PHILADELPHIA, 4 P.M.
We can argue about his salary, but not his drive and courage every time out. While it can be said the club isn’t receiving good value for its money, Richard Eckersley has been a pleasant surprise sitting next to Logan Emory in the centre of defence following Adrian Cann’s injury in Kansas City. Solid defensive showings against New York and Dallas didn’t go unnoticed as the former Burnley man has made multiple game-saving tackles since sliding inside. Eckersley will have to be just as good for the third time in nine days if the Reds are to grab all three points for the third time this season.
n First Five: Giving up four goals inside the first five minutes is a number most clubs won’t encounter all season. In a league that’s extremely difficult to fight back from behind in — the Reds haven’t come from behind to win since October of 2010 — TFC must be tuned in from the opening whistle.
n Fitness: Is there anything left in the tank following a stretch of six matches in 23 days? After starting on the bench in Dallas, Julian de Guzman should be fresh enough to put in a big performance – Nick Soolsma too. A big concern is Ryan Johnson, the only TFC field player to play every MLS minute this season.
NEED YOU KNOW
TFC coach Paul Mariner on summer signings: “Things are moving. We’ve got to create some space to help the immediate need. That’s what we’re doing at the present moment.”
Danny Koevermans scored the winner in the 88th minute against Philadelphia at BMO field last month, kicking off a run of form that currently has the Dutchman on six goals in his last five games.