Match previews

Preview: Union at Sporting Kansas City

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union at Sporting Kansas City
What: MLS Regular Season
Where: Sporting Park, Kansas City, MO
When: Friday, September 27, 8pm EST
Watch: NBC Sports Network
Referee: Ricardo Salazar; Linesmen: Corey E Rockwell, Chris Strickland; Fourth official: Younes Marrakchi

The Philadelphia Union certainly need Jack McInerney to start scoring. But at this point, they will take goals wherever they can find them. Over the first five games the Union averaged 1.2 goals per game. In games six through ten, that number went up to 1.4. Games 11-15? 1.8. Across games 16-20, the Union finally broke the 2 goal barrier, averaging 2.2 goals per game. Over the last seven games, however, the Union have scored 0.57 goals per game.

Meanwhile, Sporting Kansas City has been a model of consistency. Through the first four months of the season, both Philly and KC had seven wins. Over the past three months, Kansas City has secured another seven wins while Philadelphia has collected only three.

The Union have already lost control of their own destiny, but in a topsy-turvy Eastern Conference, they still have a chance to make the playoffs if they string together a few points over the final weeks of the season.

Finding the finishing
Union key passes vs Houston

Union key passes vs Houston

Gathering points usually requires goals, and the Union are running out of places to look for them. Jack McInerney’s confidence is shot, and John Hackworth’s solution has been an odd and, thus far, ineffective mix of subbing Jack Mac off early or putting him in late. Meanwhile, Hackworth has retained a defensively solid but offensively conservative central midfield that has held low scorelines but generated the absolute minimum going forward.

Additional evidence that the Union’s strikers are wholly disconnected from the rest of the side came against Houston two weeks ago. While Cam Weaver was involved in 7.8 percent of Houston’s passes and Will Bruin was involved in 8.6 percent of passes, Sebastien Le Toux and Conor Casey were both involved in only 4.0 percent, respectively. This, by the way, was a Union home game. At San Jose, Conor Casey was involved in  5.5 percent of passes while Jack McInerney was a part of only 2.8 percent.

The absent middle
Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 12.14.08 AM

Keon Daniel vs Houston

Clearly, the Union strikers are isolated. Moving Fabinho forward was something of a workaround intended to paper over the midfield’s inability to get the ball to the team’s finishers. Fabinho’s presence certainly helped the Union get the ball into the box more often, but the team was hardly prepared to put those chances away. Heat maps show that Brian Carroll and Keon Daniel were, once again, not in the box. If the goal of adding Fabinho to the attack was to generate more crosses, where were the players to meet them?

Over the past few weeks, the focus has been on the central midfielders, but why do connections have to come through the middle? Fabinho is hardly the right man to link midfield to attack, but the Union have options on the right.

An outside option

No, not Danny Cruz. However useful you find Cruz to be as a winger, he is about as much a link player as a cheesesteak is a New York staple. The point here is not to criticize Cruz, but instead to say that the Union need someone to get the ball to the strikers. If Daniel and Carroll aren’t coming out, somebody has to.

Sporting Kansas City offers a case study in how to link from wide positions. The fullbacks get forward, much like the Union’s, but they look to move the ball into dangerous areas on the ground instead of through the air. Sporting takes a classic outside-inside-outside approach by putting the ball into the playmakers in the middle so they can draw defenders before putting the ball out wide. When Graham Zusi is playing wide, he can play in a cross, and when Soony Saad is on the wing he can take players on.

What does this mean to KC?

These home games mean everything to the teams competing at the top of the Eastern Conference. In particular, home games against the teams they should beat are must-wins because any dropped points will mean they will be left behind. SKC can move into a temporary tie for first place with a win. Additionally they have a ton of questions up top that need to be resolved before the playoffs. Is Dominant Dom Dwyer the man to lead the line? Has CJ Sapong rediscovered his mojo? Does Teal Bunbury have a role to play?

Kansas City also has the luxury of three center backs for two spots. While Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler are the likely pairing, Ike Opara has arrived from San Jose to push the starting pair and he has been doing quite a good job of it. Anyone remember when Kansas City traded for a talented, young center back in the middle of the season? Were the Union in on that? Why not? (Also: Luis Silva?)

Prediction: Sporting KC 2-0 Philadelphia Union

Sporting has scored 28 goals in 15 home games. They haven’t been shut out at home since May 8. Bottom line: They will score. The Union have been shut out six times this season, but four of those have been in the last five games. They will need a drastic change in approach, tempo, and luck to put one by one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.




  1. I predict 8-0 Union

  2. I know, this will never ever happen. but I’d love to see:
    Williams, Okugo, Parke, Gaddis
    Marfan, Carrol, Torres, Fabinho
    Casey, Jack
    However, I’m pretty sure our lineup will unfortunately be:
    Williams, Okugo, Parke, Gaddis
    Le toux, Carroll, Daniel, Cruz
    Casey, Jack

  3. Also, I understand that most of us like the players on defense, and Zac has steadily improved, but I’m not sure why everyone talks like we’re the 85 bears of soccer. We are solidly middle of the pack in GA and have 2 more GA than GF.
    On a side note, Adam, do you ever get tired of writing about the midfield every week?

    • I think it’s fan blindness / optimism. Take that middle-of-the-pack GA and remove a couple of clunkers (4-1 to LA in May, 5-3 to Montreal in May, 5-1 New England in August) and you have a much rosier picture of a team with a good defense. Of course, we all know you can’t remove those 14 goals – they happened. But if you pretend they don’t exist and squint really hard you can make a case that the team has a very good defense.
      In other Union stuff, though: how big are those wins-turned-to-ties against Dallas and RSL now? That extra 4 points would look damn sweet. Add all 4 points they lost, and their tied with Houston for 4th place (I’m too lazy to figure out tie breakers). Add 2 of the 4, and they’re 2 points behind Houston and 1 ahead of NE in 5th place. The current dry spell is bad, and has resulted in a big free fall. But at the end of the year, that pair of back-to-back games might just be looked at as the nail in the coffin for getting into the playoffs.

      • Of course you’d have to give back the point we stole from TFC and that late Hoppenot winner vs VAN…

        As much as I have never been a Bill Parcells fan, he was adamant about “You are your record.” And the Union are the 7th place team.No amount of Hackworth’s crying for uncounted goals will change that. The sooner we rip that emotional band-aid off the better.

      • No, see… that sort of “mental correction” only goes one direction. We never take points back, only say, “What if…” for points that were there for the taking. 😉

      • The points in VAN were prior to stoppage time. The 4 points given up against DAL and RSL were in the 7th minute of an announced 5 minutes of stoppage time. (Of course DAL game should have been tied earlier in stoppage time.

    • @GO – If it seems repetitive to you, it definitely feels repetitive to me. That’s why I tried to offer an alternative this week. But I’m at a loss. I’d still argue that Okugo is the best solution in the midfield, but that scenario is about as likely as… well, it’s just not going to happen this year. Sadface.

      • What scares me is that there is no indication that Hackworth would consider playing Okugo in the midfield next year, either. The best thing that could happen to Okugo (and our midfield) is for Hackworth to have a sudden desire to spend more time with his kids.

  4. murphthesurf says:

    @ reatone :

    How about?


    Williams,Parke, Gaddis
    Torres, Fabinho
    Le Toux, JackMac

    Worth a shot…ymmv~

  5. Adam, kudos to you for writing this every week. I for one love your commentary and thoughtful analysis and wish the team looked at this. I have a thought that if you actually presented this to management they would ask you to leave “and take your fancy charts and numbers with you!”

  6. Thought I posted this already, so here goes again. Adam, I for one find your insights and commentary thoughtful, coherent, and rational. I would love for management to read this. I have this thought that if you presented this to the team and would ask you to leave “and take your fancy charts and numbers” …… And somewhere hackworth screams “we should’ve had 3 goals, 3 goals!!!!”

    • A) That’s actually pretty funny.
      B) I certainly hope it turns into fuel for Jack.
      C) SKC has to come here still. I’m sure we can be more creative…

  7. Philly Cheese says:

    Trying to be “glass is half full”, but depressing thought occurred that even IF Union out of playoffs for last two games, I bet Carroll, Cruz and Daniel still start, so no one will be able to accuse Hack of being belligerent, if someone…anyone…actually provides midfield service to forwards. We keep talking about poor midfield, because that where there is major weakness that is being ignored.

  8. I think the lack of scoring in this period is partially due to the opposition having figured us out, Hack sticking to the same formations/players, and Hack having no plan B. Agree with your score prediction.

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