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Preview: Union v Sporting Kansas City

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

After three years of MLS play, Philadelphia’s natural rivalries with New York and DC should be so fiery that all other games pale in comparison.

But while the I-95 guys offer something special, the number one don’t-miss matches for Philadelphia Union fans feature the big bruisers of Sporting Kansas City.

It’s a rivalry

KC was the first notch on John Hackworth’s belt when he put on his head coach pants. They were also the team that sucker punched the Union at home on the way to a US Open Cup title. Their stud rookie, CJ Sapong, beat out Philly’s stud rookie (Marfantastic) for the 2011 Rookie of the Year award. Their University of Maryland product, Graham Zusi, has emerged as a star while Philly’s Maryland stud (MacMath) is still looking to break out.

Philadelphia doesn’t like KC’s rough play, and KC doesn’t like the Union’s nervy, little-guy act.  Lucky for both teams, they spent the offseason strategically moving toward each other.

Sporting Kansas City was a big, bad wolf in 2012: They came to blow your house down. It was a strategy that had clear flaws: How would KC get around a team that controlled the box defensively and slowed the game down on offense? In other words, how would they beat Houston?

After having that question answered on a national stage (they wouldn’t), Sporting has revamped in 2013, with the goal of becoming more dynamic offensively without sacrificing their brawny nature. The mercurial Benny Feilhaber is the new man in the middle.  He could not be a more perfect addition for Kansas City or, with his last appearance at PPL Park ending with a red card, for the budding Sporting-Union rivalry.

Sporting defense

The Sporting Kansas City defense can be seen as the model that the Philadelphia Union want to emulate. Two big, aggressive center backs flanked by shuttling sprinters with endless energy. Seth Sinovic runs the left with a cautious, possession-based approach while Chance Myers vacillates between all-out charging down the wing and an ever-improving long passing/crossing game. MLS Defender of the Year Matt Besler and Guy Ritchie movie extra Aurelin Collin don’t like to leave the warm comfort of the middle, preferring to deal with crosses than challenge wingers. Given Collin’s aerial prowess and Besler’s tactical intelligence, it’s a good strategy.

This defense will eat up aerial attacks, but they are vulnerable on the turf. The positional sense of Julio Cesar and the work-rate of Paolo Nagamura protected against low through balls last season, but the KC midfield is different now, and there should be opportunities for Michael Farfan and/or Roger Torres to get between the midfield and defense on Saturday.

Revamped midfield

Speaking of the midfield, whether KC hits the ground running like they did in 2012 or stumbles out of the gate like they did in 2011 comes down to the central trio. Of course, the biggest, and most intrinsically annoying, new face is Benny Feilhaber. At his best, Feilhaber is a midfield maestro. At his worst, he’s a selfish player looking for the perfect pass who can take himself out of the game.

Though he has rarely shown himself to be a game-changer, MLS aficionados continue to treat Feilhaber as, well, a game-changer. After suffering through (or failing to produce for) two seasons with the New England Revolution, Feilhaber has been given the train conductor’s beanie by Peter Vermes in Kansas City. He will be surrounded by talent and expected to contribute more than two (!) assists this year.

Behind Feilhaber, Nagamura will continue to be disruptive, though he will be asked to contribute more with Roger Espinosa’s all-around game replaced by Feilhaber’s mostly-good-but-sometimes-ehhh attitude. The biggest change will be at defensive midfield where the young Uri Rosell replaces the consistent Julio Cesar. Moving Rosell around, getting him to chase, and subjecting him to a physical pounding if he tries to stay on the ball are key to disrupting the new-look KC midfield.

Still strong up top

Up top, Kansas City has a ton of depth but not much consistency. CJ Sapong is likely to start in the middle until new signing Claudio Bieler finds his footing. Sapong is strong, fast, and sometimes unstoppable. He’s also prone to becoming a vertical player and giving up on the horizontal movement that unlocks defenses for his wingers. Out wide, emerging star Graham Zusi will man the right and future injury list member Bobby Convey will serve from the left. The absence of Kei Kamara is no small matter for Sporting Kansas City. They may be able to replace his possession skills and work-rate, but they do not have a ready replacement for his aerial prowess in open play. That said, with Collin and Besler stepping up, KC will still be dangerous on set pieces.

Make no mistake, Sporting Kansas City will try to be a counterattacking team first. Peter Vermes’ hope is that, should route one fail, he has added enough silky passers to his lineup to threaten the opposition if a half-court game develops.

How will the Union answer? 

Let’s be honest: Early in the season, expect the usual stuttering Philadelphia offense. There are new pieces to put together and there will be flashes of brilliance surrounded by the muddled mess that comes from integrating Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey into a system that is still more theoretical than anything else.

Beyond the starting strikers, the biggest question for Philadelphia is one name: Amobi Okugo. He emerged as a legitimate MLS starter at center back last season, but the Union have two legit starters there this year.

Oku goes where? 

He was a legit defensive midfielder for the U-23 national team, but the Union already have a legit veteran in that spot. Okugo can move forward and pass with a range that Brian Carroll can’t even manage if he started over as an 17-year old in FIFA13 and built himself up from scratch. Take nothing away from Carroll, but Okugo is simply a box-to-box midfielder waiting to happen, provided he eventually learns to shoot with something resembling a loose definition of accuracy. Will Okugo be given the freedom to play as a roaming, disruptive force, or will the Union opt to stick with Michael Lahoud in the midfield? Alternatively, will Roger Torres’ fine preseason form earn him at least 60 minutes in the opener?

The Union are bigger, stronger, and looking to leap into the top half of the table going into the 2013 season. Sporting Kansas City is  more refined and hoping to pass their way around the force that is Houston. Both teams want to move the ball fast and get multiple chances early in Saturday’s match. Expect a fast start to descend into a choppy midfield battle with a long ball game developing late in the first half. There is a very good chance that substitutions play a big role as both teams look to find their best eleven for the long haul.

Starting Lineups


  • GK: Zac MacMath
  • DEF: Sheanon Williams, Amobi Okugo, Jeff Parke, Gabe Farfan
  • MID: Brian Carroll, Roger Torres, Michael Farfan
  • FWD: Jack McInerney, Conor Casey, Sebastien Le Toux


  • GK: Jimmy Nielsen
  • DEF: Chance Myers, Aurelin Collin, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic
  • MID: Uri Rosell, Paolo Nagamura, Benjamin Failharder
  • FWD: Robert Convey, CJ Sapong, Graham Zusi



  1. I was confused so I looked it up, and it looks like Zusi(26) came out 2 years before MacMath(21), yet he’s five years older.
    So now I’m actually more confused.

  2. Haha “Oku Goes Where?”…you guys and your puns! Keep ’em coming!

  3. “Train conductor’s beanie” – this made me lol

  4. Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

    I say you start Hoppenot as the second holding midfielder. It’ll be 11 v 10 before the half hour mark. bye bye benny.

  5. Eli, that’s the most ridiculous yet brilliant idea I’ve heard in a while.

  6. Benjamin Failharder…now that’s funny!

  7. So excited for the game today. First home season opener, first opener I’ve attended, and we’re playing KC. That being said, if I see Daniel in the lineup I may have to just walk back to my car, if I see Daniel AND Cruz, that car will be driving off the bridge on the way out…

  8. Wow, its going to be a long season. Looooooooooong.

  9. Well that was painful.

  10. Who needs a professional left back, anyway? We’ve got two right backs, surely one of them could play that position for us…

    Erm, maybe not.

  11. The Black Hand says:

    The plug needs to be pulled on MacMath.

  12. Preview: Union v Sporting Kansas City SEO http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eprihc4nYS8

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