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Preview: Union at Sporting KC

Photo By Earl Gardner

What: Union at Sporting Kansas City

When: 8:30PM EST

Where: Livestrong Sporting Park

Where to watch: The 700 Viewing Party, sponsored by El Jimador tequila. Featuring free samples, ticket giveaways, and PSP writers/photographers

Referee: Ismail Elfath. SAR (bench): Paul Scott; JAR (opposite): Steven Taylor; 4th: Leszek Stalmach MLS Career: 7 games; FC/gm: 22.3; Y/gm: 2.1; R: 4; pens: 5

The spotlight seems to suit Jack McInerney just fine.

But the rest of the Philadelphia Union flamed out like so many ants under a magnifying glass when the NBCSports camera trundled into Houston. As Eli pointed out in the analysis, Michael Farfan was trying to play three positions while the rest of the midfield appeared wholly stunned that the Houston Dynamo would play a physical, high-pressure game at home with their playoff position on the line. I know, who could have guessed a Dom Kinnear-managed team would ever try something like that!?

It has been evident all season that the Union’s offense walks a tightrope to success. If one element of the midfield or strike force blows the wrong way, the whole thing comes tumbling down. And until Philly signs Gandalf the White, once the offense falls it isn’t coming back until – at best – the next match.

Since taking over for Peter Nowak, the challenge for John Hackworth has been to get his creative players out of their fearful shells and into well-defined yet non-restrictive roles. Nowak’s Union sides were often so afraid of making a tactical mistake that matches became static, East-West displays with defenses unmoved by the conservative, horizontal midfield runs.

On the bad days, that style returns accompanied by an odd, shiftless approach to passing that allows the team to lapse into their seemingly-preferred scramble defense. On the positive side of the ledger: At least the problems – both personnel and tactical – are clear to all.

A sporting try

After the Union beat up on Kansas City at PPL Park, Sporting got their revenge in the US Open Cup. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still some hard feelings between these teams. Sporting KC is, after all, living the Union’s dream. After leaping to the top of the east last year behind strong veteran play and the emergence of a rookie weapon, both teams looked to float near the cream for a few years. KC consolidated their progress by bringing back most of the squad that took them on a rocket ride up the standings. Philadelphia jettisoned anybody who didn’t sign Peter Nowak’s Christmas card, “To the Great and Powerful Oz.”

The Union don’t have to beat KC tonight in Livestrong Park, but they do have to show they still give a damn. Sporting wants to win the conference in front of their home crowd. They want to show the Union that the 4-0 win at PPL Park was a fluke, and that no team full of small, mild-mannered young bucks can get in the way of an offensive juggernaut that pushes forward with relentless energy. With Sheanon Williams likely on the shelf and Gabe Farfan doubtful, a makeshift back four will have to stave off the relentless Kansas City attack.

Filling in the back

So who will play left back tonight if Williams and Garfan can’t go? Michael Lahoud is capable. Porfirio Lopez is being paid. Michael Farfan was (absurdly) a fill-in defender under Nowak. Or Hackworth could throw caution to the wind and play a modified 3-5-2 with Brian Carroll sitting deep behind Okugo and Valdes and Gaddis shuttling between midfield and the back line. It might sound crazy, but think back to the Union lineups against Houston in the 2011 playoffs. Yeah, looks pretty standard by comparison.

Why worry about the Sporting front line?

It may seem odd that the KC offense hasn’t produced more goals. But it’s clear that teams prepare for Sporting by setting up well-organized defenses with counterattacking the name of the game. Jimmy Nielsen isn’t going for Tony Meola’s shutout record tonight because his defense is the best in the league.

This is the challenge for Philadelphia: They cannot play that way. Sheanon Williams is not only a strong defender against combo size/speed forwards like Sapong and Kamara, he was a great outlet for the counterattack. Without his presence, and with Ray Gaddis almost forced to play a bit more conservatively by the scary performance Carlos Valdes put in against Houston, Philadelphia cannot rely on counterattacking to keep them in this match.

That means… deep breath… the midfield actually has to show up. Eli called them out earlier this week and anybody who watched the Houston match surely did it from their couch or barstool as well.

Jack McInerney said this week that he wants to score every week to make sure he’s the center striker in 2013. Every member of the Philadelphia Union should have a similar goal over the last 180 minutes of the 2012 MLS season.

Starting lineups

Union

  • GK: MacMath
  • DEF: Gaddis, Okugo, Valdes, Lahoud
  • MID: Carroll, Gomez, Daniel, Adu, Marfan
  • FWD: McInerney

Sporting

  • GK: Nielsen
  • DEF: Myers, Collin, Besler, Sinovic
  • MID: Cesar, Nagamura, Zusi
  • FWD: Sapong, Kamara, Peterson

Injuries

Union

  • OUT: DF Bakary Soumare (R knee menisectomy recovery)
  • DOUBTFUL: DF Gabriel Farfan (R ankle stress reaction)
  • QUESTIONABLE: DF Sheanon Williams (L ankle peroneal/Achilles strain); MF Danny Cruz (L big toe sesamoid stress fracture); FW Zach Pfeffer (L knee contusion); PROBABLE: MF Freddy Adu (L quad strain)

Sporting

  • OUT: FW Teal Bunbury (L knee ACL tear); MF Roger Espinoza (R ankle sprain); DF Cyprian Hedrick (L fibula fracture)

 

One Comment

  1. That Union starting XI looks scary slow. Hopefully they can knock the ball around a bit and create some angles. With that personnel grouping Ray will probably need to get forward a few times to test Sinovic and provide some width. I’m still hoping he gives a few of the younger fellows a run out.

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