Match previews

Preview: Union vs Sporting Kansas City

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union vs Sporting Kansas City
What: MLS Regular Season Finale
Where: PPL Park, Chester, PA, USA
When: 3pm EST, Saturday October 26
Watch: NBC Sports Network
Referee: Baldomero Toledo; Linesmen: Kermit Quisenberry, Corey Parker; Fourth Official: Silviu Petrescu

There is never any love lost between the Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas City. Hackworth’s first win was an utter destruction of Sporting, but KC came back to knock the Union out of the US Open Cup. In their last meeting, Philadelphia confounded the defending Eastern Conference champs with a solid defensive display and a sucker punch goal. Waltzing out of Livestrong Sporting Park with all three points is always fun, but it is even better when you leave Peter Vermes sniveling in your wake.

“How long did [Philadelphia] take on every set piece?” Benny Feilhaber’s coach asked. “How long did they take on every situation? I thought we were playing [Nicaraguan side] Real Esteli at the end of the game here, with everybody going down. How many guys are going to lay down on the ground? At some point, the referee has to step in and take care of that. And I don’t understand that. Every time they come into this building with a full stadium, it doesn’t get take care of.”

If there is one thing MLS refereeing seems to guarantee, it is that everybody will get their fair share of poor officiating. So Vermes will whine when he loses and claim it’s just part of the game when he wins. But that shouldn’t stop Union fans from counting out loud whenever Sporting Kansas City has to take a throw-in or set piece, should it? So everybody let Vermes know exactly how long his team is taking whenever it’s their turn to restart play.

Remake in the middle

Brian Carroll is suspended, once again exposing Philly’s almost comical lack of depth. Michael Lahoud’s nickname in the clubhouse should be “Duct Tape” since John Hackworth’s response to every personnel shortage is to slap some Lahoud on it.

“We could move Amobi there and that would shift our backline a little bit,” the Union coach teased. “We could use Michael Lahoud there, but he’s coming off an injury, so we have to make sure that he’s a hundred percent ready to start a game. We could change our formation a little bit and literally not replace anybody in that spot but play a little differently. We have some options, but at this point we haven’t made any decisions yet.”

There should be no question that the best option is to move Okugo into the midfield. Stuffing a dynamic, mobile midfielder into the back line still feels like the sort of decision that you make as a temporary fix, promising yourself you’ll get around to a more permanent solution soon. Then you let it go, let it go a little longer, and soon you’re picking up your date in a car with a clear trash bag for a window and talking about how you are definitely going to get that fixed when you get your next paycheck.

The other options are troubling against a mid-table team, and downright suicidal against a counterattacking squad that will test the positioning and mobility of any central midfielder. If a recovering Lahoud, a recovering Keon Daniel, or a Kleberson/Marfan midfield all sound scary to you, then congratulations: You’ve been watching Union soccer this season.

Make room for Marfan?

If there is no room for Michael Farfan in the center of the park, should either Danny Cruz or Fabinho make way for a player that finally found his confidence over the past two months?


There is a reason Danny Cruz can’t find a permanent home in MLS. He has all the skills MLS managers covet from afar (speed, whatever physicality is, the ability to run at defenders), and he seems just one good tutoring session away from becoming a consistent contributor. But it never happens.

So give Cruz a well-earned end of the season rest and start the 2014 midfield a game early. Michael Farfan is a better player on the wing, and with Sebastien Le Toux hurt that is where the playmaker should go. While much has been made of Jack McInerney’s second half scoring drought, the fact that the Union have been playing with one or zero players that look to put in through balls has been overlooked.

Are these changes a risk?

Not at all. Well, maybe a little.

The biggest question the Union brass are dealing with is this: What has a more negative impact on our team’s ability to defend the KC attack? A big hole in central midfield or a big hole in central defense. The answer is midfield. That is where Kansas City builds their forward moves. If Sporting has space to possess in the Union’s half of midfield, the game will play out very much like the last meeting between these two teams. But don’t expect a single Philly attack to beat KC’s sustained pressure twice in a row.


Zusi vs PHI

On the left you can see Graham Zusi’s involvement last time these teams met. Zusi’s movement has always been underrated, especially since his national team role is a more stable wide midfield slot. The places where Zusi spends the most time are prime chance creation zones. The darkest area on the left is a pocket in front of Okugo that Zusi would occupy whenever Danny Cruz was caught too high and Brian Carroll was chasing back. From here, Zusi could target either corner with a long ball or look to slot in to a checking striker. Additionally, having time this far up the pitch allowed Zusi to sit on the ball while two or three Sporting players prepared to rush the box. Thank goodness for bad finishing.

Who is Parke’s dance partner?

But without Okugo in the back, the Union do have a hole. Aaron Wheeler can…. wait, no that’s crazy. Who would propose that?

Of the available bodies, the only feasible answer is moving Williams to the middle and Gaddis to the right. Slot Kassel in at left back and cross your fingers. There is no perfect solution. But getting Okugo into midfield gives you somebody with the mobility and engine to help the back four while starting counterattacks. How can you not use that tool where it belongs?

Prediction: Union 2-2 Sporting KC

Even as an optimist, I hesitate to predict a second straight win over Sporting Kansas City. The Union have done just enough this year to make fans think they are capable of something special, but they haven’t done enough to make us expect it.


  1. you flatter the union with that prediction i fear.

  2. And the best part about that sanctimonious puling tirade that Vermes went on after the last game? The following week Sporting went into Houston, pulled EVERY ONE of the time-wasting, anti-football tricks Vermes complained about the Union doing, and stole a point. Great, now I’m mad all over again.

    • I don’t sweat it… its the game. There is clutching and grabbing, some players will dive and time wasting occurs. Unless it is Chelis you often find the game is much more enjoyable if you don’t listen to the coaches at all.

  3. The trashbag for a window analogy is perfect for Philly. You must be thinking of the tunnel under the El on front.

  4. TWO goals? Maybe a 1-1 draw, but two? The Union haven’t had two goals in them since early August.

  5. Unionblues24 says:

    Ugh…Please not Kassel.

  6. Southside Johnny says:

    Do you really believe that this gutless wonder of a wannabe coach will do anything other than bunker again? He will do what he has done against every good team this year…play to not lose…and whine afterward.

  7. Yeah… put kassel in there to brake somebodys knee

  8. Well, I got it right last week (somehow) so let’s try again – Predicted lineup:
    MacMath; Fabinho, Parke, Williams, Gaddis; Okugo; Le Toux, KIeberson, Cruz; McInerney, Casey
    Again not the lineup I *want* but what I think Hackworth rolls out.
    Also, I expect the last sub – barring injury – to be Albright.

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