"It has been a long 4 to 5 weeks. I am not used to being out, so it felt like forever," Mondragon said of his rehabilitation period. "But I feel really, really good, and it's going to feel fantastic [to be back on the pitch], especially to be back at home in the last home game. This has been a fantastic year and a fantastic season until now, but we need to make the last push and continue with our success with a win tomorrow."
Before the injury and even while he was sidelined, Mondragon's goals-against average (1.06) ranked third in Major League Soccer. He posted an 8-7-10 record during his starts and is among the leaders in number of shutouts, with seven. However, rookie goalkeeper Zac MacMath did a solid job holding down the fort, going undefeated in seven starts (3-0-4) and perhaps raised the issue of whether the club stays with what has worked or makes the switch and bring Mondragon, a veteran with a dossier full of high-pressure situations, back to the fold.
"We all know things need to be done, and the important thing is that this team has learned how to be disciplined," Mondragon said. "We play as a team regardless of who is in goal, regardless of who is on the pitch. Zac stepped in while I was out and showed that he is able to control a defense and do it the right way. That's why he's here, but, in the beginning, it was important that I started, given my experience, but now that everyone knows in their mind how I like to work and how Zac likes to work, I don't see it being that big of a change."
When asked whether we'll see him smile more, Mondragon extended his grin and quipped:
"If we clinch the playoffs on Saturday, come find me after the match. I guarantee you'll see me smiling then."
Toronto FC has struggled in 2011, but don't expect the same team that the Union trounced, 6-2, during the first meeting on May 28. Toronto is out to play the role of spoiler in its last two MLS regular-season matches. While the Union's big picture may be to secure a playoff spot this weekend without the assistance of any other clubs, TFC looks at tomorrow's match as one that will assuredly build confidence heading into its final Group C match of the CONCACAF Champions League against FC Dallas on Tuesday.
Toronto, on a collision course early in the season, has seriously upgraded its unit since that earlier match, as two designated players, forward Danny Koevermans and German defensive giant Torsten Frings, arrived during the summer transfer window.
"Three months ago, we brought in a lot of players, and from that moment, the improvement has been very good," Toronto boss Aron Winter said. "We are playing decent games and are on the right track. The way we are playing soccer, I'm satisfied. We have to be much better, of course, but those are the things we are working for."
So what does TFC still lack that the Union should exploit?
Well, for starters, defending has been a problem all season and defending off the restart still is. TFC has allowed 56 goals this season, many through poor execution on dead-ball plays.
"You can practice it all you want - and we have been," Winter said, "but if at a certain moment you're always making the same mistakes, I think that is a lack of quality."
The team has showed sparks of quality and is looking to improve now, with a Champions League crown still in sight. A win over Dallas on Tuesday secures TFC a spot in the knockout stage, ultimately where it wants to be, given the franchise already received the 1-2 punch and is down for the count in its MLS campaign.
Is this a game the Union should win? Yep. It just won't be another 6-2 pushover.
The Union ticket office is already in playoff mode, announcing yesterday that fans can purchase tickets to prospective home matches. The complete playoff schedule will be announced in the coming weeks, but supporters can purchase tickets for the wild card (Wednesday, Oct. 26, or Thursday, Oct. 27), first and second legs of the conference playoffs (Saturday, Oct. 29 or Sunday, Oct. 30; then Nov. 2 or Nov. 3) and the Eastern Conference championship, to be held Saturday, Nov. 5, or Sunday, Nov. 6.
All of this will be determined by seeding, which won't be concrete until after the final regular-season matches on Sunday, Oct. 23. For more information, log on to www.philadelphiaunion.com.
SHOTS ON GOAL
Toronto (6-13-13, 31 points) at Union (11-7-14, 47 points)
When: Tomorrow, 4 p.m.
Where: PPL Park, Chester
TV: Comcast SportsNet
On the web: Streaming online at MLSSoccer.com
Last time out: Union rolled Toronto at BMO Field, 6-2, on May 28, setting a franchise record for most goals. Danny Mwanga and Justin Mapp each scored a pair of goals.
For kicks: The confidence is riding high in the locker room as the Union can taste its first playoff berth with a win tomorrow against lowly Toronto FC. However, TFC is hungry, as it looks only to play spoiler against the Union but also upend FC Dallas in CONCACAF Champions League play Tuesday . . . Danny Koevermans, TFC's colossal addition in July, hopes to play despite a bruised knee. He leads the team with seven goals in nine matches . . . The Union looks unstoppable now, riding a seven-game unbeaten streak into its final home match of the regular season. The club is 7-1-8 this season at PPL Park, allowing only 17 goals all year.
INJURY REPORT (As of Tuesday)
Out for the Union: Thorne Holder, GK (concussion); Levi Houapeu, FW (left ankle strain)
Doubtful: Joe Tait, DF (right ankle sprain)
Questionable: Danny Califf, DF (left shoulder sprain);
Probable: Faryd Mondragon, GK (right ring finger fracture); Zac MacMath, GK (left ankle sprain); Stefani Miglioranzi, MF (right calf strain)
Out for Toronto FC: Elbekay Bouchiba, MF (right knee surgery); Adrian Cann, DF (right knee surgery); Dicoy Williams, DF (right knee surgery)
Questionable: Demitrius Omphroy, DF (right knee swelling); Joao Plata, MF (left hamstring strain); Oscar Cordon, MF (right hip flexor)
Probable: Danny Koevermans, FW (right knee contusion).