The Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC will kick the first ball of the 2019 season of Major League Soccer at Talen Energy Stadium on Saturday, March 2 (1 pm ET | TSN), with intrigue trailing each team as both move toward a new era.
Both clubs have new decision makers high up the company masthead, with Ali Curtis as Toronto's new general manager and Ernst Tanner the Union's new sporting director. Curtin and Tanner have put their stamp on their 2019 squad, as Philly look to return to the playoffs and TFC aim to get back to the summit of the Eastern Conference after a hugely disappointing 2018.
Here are three things to watch as Toronto take on Philly:
The Marco Fabian era starts... Now
The Union made Marco Fabian their highest-paid player in club history for good reason.
Fabian, a 29-year-old Mexico international, checks four major boxes when executing a Designated Player deal: His name carries weight as an international star, he's a low-risk contract, fills a major position of need and, oh yeah, he's pretty damn good at soccer.
Joining from Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt, Fabian's auspicious start in Europe was undone by a back injury, subsequently leaving him out of favor once he regained full fitness. Across 23 Bundesliga starts in 2016/17, Fabian had seven goals and four assists before making just four starts over the next season and a half.
In Philadelphia, as long as he's healthy, he'll be one of the top No. 10's in the league. The opportunity for the Union comes at a perfect time, as last season's talisman Borek Dockal didn't return to the club for 2019.
Stars still shine in Toronto
Sure, Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez both departed Toronto this winter, but star power is in no short supply in The Six. We're not just talking about Drake, noted TFC supporter, either.
Lest we forget, TFC still deploy Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley. And Jonathan Osorio. And Marky Delgado. And they acquired former MLS Defender of the Year and Belgium international Laurent Ciman this offseason. ... And they seem intent on filling the empty DP slot vacated by Giovinco, heavily linked with Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo.
Under the radar, Toronto inked former US international Terrence Boyd, who has seen his once-promising career halted by injuries. He's only 28; If he stays healthy, he could be one of the signings of the season.
Speaking of injuries, how mathematically improbable is it for Toronto to suffer a post-apocalyptic injury nightmare scenario again after the treatment table largely cost them 2018?
Change of system in Philly
In 2018, the Union enjoyed passed their way to a club-record point total by playing a possession-based 4-3-3. They also made the U.S. Open Cup final.
After reaching a half-century of points in 2018, Tanner decided to push the team in a different direction. This season, the Union are intent on playing a high-pressing 4-4-2 diamond. The players (and head coach Jim Curtin) are working to master the system during preseason and will put it to the test against Toronto FC.
How will last season's team-leading scorer Fafa Picault fare as a striker rather than on the wing — will he even start against Toronto? New signing Sergio Santos and 2018's breakout big man Cory Burke appear to have the inside track. Can Haris Medunjanin cover enough space at the base of the diamond? Is the young back line ready to defend a ton of space and more one-on-one's, a byproduct of a pressing team?
We'll get some hints as to how it'll all work out against Toronto.