Match previews

Preview: Philadelphia Union at Sporting Kansas City

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Who: Philadelphia Union at Sporting Kansas City
What: Regular season game
Where: Sporting Park, Kansas City, KS , USA
When: 8 pm, Friday, Aug. 1
Watch: NBCSN, NBC Sports Live Extra
Whistle: Jair Marrufo; Linesmen: Corey E. Rockwell, Eric Boria; Fourth Official: Sorin Stoica

It turns out they still make you play soccer in MLS. So the flying circus that the Philadelphia Union’s goalkeeping situation has become will take a back seat Friday night as Philadelphia travels to Eastern Conference leading Sporting Kansas City for a nationally televised showdown.

While many might have expected the Union to have a new (well, sorta new) name in their defense on Friday, it is KC that will make the most changes.

A new left side

Matt Besler, fresh off turning down what everyone at MLS HQ is keen to tell you were massive, wonderful, exceptional foreign offers, quickly earned a pair of yellow cards and a night off in Sporting’s 2-1 road win against Toronto. He will likely be joined on the sidelines by rampaging left back Seth Sinovic, who lasted only 55 minutes against TFC before a muscle tweak forced him off.

Much like John Hackworth, Peter Vermes has filled holes in his back line creatively this season. Unlike Hackworth, Vermes’ moves have largely worked out.

Vermes would likely be most comfortable dropping Lawrence Olum into the back line, but the Kenyan international was called up for an African Cup of Nations qualifier against Lesotho. With Olum gone, Kevin Ellis could enter in a straight swap for Sinovic, as he did against Toronto. Or he could slide into the middle with nominal midfielder/striker Jacob Peterson filling in outside. 17-year old Erik Palmer-Brown has earned two starts (one good, one horror show) this season, and Vermes is not afraid to rotate in young talent when he thinks it can help (unintended Union youth policy burn).

The most likely scenario, however, is Ellis in the middle and Peterson outside. Ellis has been stellar centrally and Sporting KC likes to make a big show of how they don’t change their plans for nobody. A converted forward at outside back certainly sends a ‘Bring on that vaunted counterattack’ message.

Missing in midfield

The focus for many may be in the back, but Olum’s absence, paired with the nagging injury to Paulo Nagamura, means the defending champs are short one midfield engine as well.

If Nagamura recovers from his ankle issue, he slots into the center of the park to support Feilhaber and either Mikey Lopez or Sal Zizzo (or perhaps even Toni Dovale). Sans Nagamura, Kansas City may have to ask Feilhaber to play a slightly more restrained role with Dovale possibly slotting into a very loose 4-4-2 that could also be called a 4-3-2-1 since Dom Dwyer is going to go wherever he wants anyway.

A roster for a system, not the other way around

If you are noticing a pattern here, well done. For those out there that have criticized Philadelphia’s roster management, gaze upon the club that found a coach it trusted, brought in players to fit the system, and has not been afraid to blood young players on the big stage (once they prove themselves on a smaller stage, of course). Much like Real Salt Lake in the west, KC has built a team that coheres to a system so strongly that they find that rare, wondrous sweet spot where individualistic players are consumed by the system and yet still find space to express themselves.

Benny Feilhaber is flying high (Radar from Knutson)

Benny Feilhaber is flying high (Radar from Knutson)

And, yes, the best example of this phenomenon is serious MVP candidate Benny Feilhaber. The midfielder went through the motions in New England until he earned a last chance in Kansas City. As the trophy cabinet proves, it has gone well.

Sporting’s 4-3-3 forces defensive numbers wide, leaving space for Feilhaber to operate centrally. He does this to great effect, becoming most dangerous when he finds a band of space between midfield and defense.

Kansas City’s intense attacking speed forces defenses to start backing up, and dangerous wide men like Graham Zusi, Soony Saad, and CJ Sapong draw extra defenders, leaving the middle a spacious Feilhaber playground. The former US international’s comfort in this system does the rest.

Whereas the Feilhaber of New England days would have taken 3-4 touches looking for the perfect ball, the KC version plays a faster game and will take the switching ball if given. Thus, Kansas City can move a defense side-to-side quickly, opening gaps in the box that Dom Dwyer slips into all too often.

Can we counter?

Certainly! The Union became dangerous in their win over Kansas City earlier this season when they transitioned the ball quickly from the point of recovery in midfield to a distributor, who immediately looked for either space behind the fullbacks or to a defined outlet man who traded a bit of defensive work for a target role on the wing.

Maidana vs KC on May 14.

Maidana vs KC on May 14.

The axis of success in that last game for the Union was Okugo-Nogueira-Maidana. The Argentinian playmaker (who Curtin said may be available on Friday) operated on the left to escape the ministrations of the now-departed Oriol Rosell.

His pass completion percentage was as low as you’ll see, but most of those incompletes were ambitious longer attempts. In the short passing game, Maidana was brilliant. He could collect an early outlet from Nogueira and quickly involve other players streaking upfield. Two completed passes and the Union were worrying Kansas City, despite truckloads of pressure over the previous few minutes.

The Union rarely got behind Kansas City’s advancing fullbacks, but by finding a reliable outlet, they were able to move the ball out of defense quickly enough to create chances in the few times they got out of their own half. And it helped that they put half their shots on frame.

New Union… same as the old Union?

But the Union have changed since May. Andrew Wenger is no longer a target forward. Cristian Maidana has thrived in a central role. Leo Fernandes is… does anybody know where Leo Fernandes is?

But the current Union squad is not actually all that different from the one that beat Kansas City in May. You could almost look at that as the extreme version of the system Jim Curtin has implemented. The team sits deep and builds coherently through turnovers, finding the right players in the right positions (something that was often lacking from the transition game under Curtin’s predecessor).

Aside from Maidana’s full emergence in the middle, Curtin has also brought out the best in Conor Casey. Chicago largely nullified the big man’s influence by putting another larger man on him and letting the two of them play live action Street Fighter until someone with cards stopped them. Kansas City will try to do the same thing with Aurelian Collin, draping their big defender on Casey’s back so he can’t isolate on whoever fills in for Besler.

It sounds simple, but… Casey should really try to isolate on whoever fills in for Besler. They will not be able to stop him.

The other tweak Curtin has added since taking the reigns, is defining, possibly for the first time, the role that fits Sebastien Le Toux’s mental makeup. It’s a role perfectly suited to annoy a Sporting KC side that will be nervous about space behind their fullbacks.

The role Le Toux was made to play is one that lets him think of himself both as a full-on striker but also as a team player. With the engine to be wherever he wants to be on the pitch, Le Toux has never found a role that can take advantage of his energy while defining defensive responsibilities that he is willing to accept. The current hybrid striker-wide midfielder role ticks all the boxes, and it should allow the Frenchman to put pressure on a rebuilt KC back line.

A time of change?

A new goalie, but what about the rest of the squad? Still no Carlos Valdes, but the Union have a couple of players so hot that… apparently the team won’t touch them. Jimmy McLaughlin and Pedro Ribeiro earned a goal and an assist respectively on Wednesday.

Unless the Union play Okugo and Carroll behind Nogueira, they will be forced to rely on Fred as a creative force against Kansas City. This is not the ideal team for Fred to play against (lots of mobile defending required). Will Ribeiro finally get an opportunity to play with the big boys?

In goal… dead man walking

This will be weird. Very weird. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of something like this happening before (but I’m not omniscient, so enlighten me about similar scenarios).

Probable lineup

Probable lineup

Zac MacMath, who has started in net all season for Philadelphia, will essentially be playing a testimonial game against one of the league’s best teams. To be sure, someone has to play in net whenever a new goalie is getting up to game speed. But usually it is the backup goalie who steps in for a moment in the sun.

Goalie is a position that requires top tier leadership skills. The team’s move for Rais M’Bohli shows they are still chasing the (Mon)dragon, looking for an immense leader who can organize the back line. That was never MacMath’s strong suit, and he might have to acquire that last part of his game in a new environment. We shall see.

Players that lose their starting job can be a distraction. MacMath, even after the Union drafted another goalie No. 1, even after M’Bohli appeared in the stands next to Nick Sakiewicz, never complained (publicly, anyway) about being valued, never whined about being trusted. He went out and kept the starting job and played behind the worst jigsaw puzzle of a back four in MLS. And for all that, the team has decided to force him to be a distraction.

It makes zero sense. Is Union management trying to give MacMath a one-game Jeter tour? Do they realize how demeaning it will be to be a lame duck goalie? To go from full-on No. 1 to placeholder in the course of a week?

In their quest for leadership, the Union brass have undermined MacMath’s ability to lead, then sent him off to Kansas City and told him to do just that.

And it is decisions like this one that underscore questions about where the real absence of leadership is for the Philadelphia Union.


  1. That last sentence sums things up perfectly.

  2. Sorry, but MacMath was more times a liability than a savior. Not sure what all the fuss is about. If you watched the 2010 and 2014 WC, the Algerian keeper was pretty damn good. Loyalty is for Hackworth…

    • Adam Cann says:

      The only point I was trying to make was about starting MacMath this week.

      • Not Grumpy says:

        Fact is. This is the Pros Adam. MacMath is not a little boy. He’s a man and he will get over this. Maybe he delivers a clean sheet because of the latest chip on his shoulder?!? But this is professional sports. Teams always look to upgrade. As a fan I dig that!

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        I think that you are again missing his point. The decision to demote a goalkeeper in the middle of a strong season and then have him remain as the caretaker until the new guy is ready to go is an extremely unusual situation.
        As I understand it, the point is not about MacMath at all, it is about the bizarre nature of the situation into which he has been thrust.

    • Fact is without him we aren’t in the playoff hunt.

    • Totally disagree, even though the players are professionals everyone values loyalty. MacMath deserves better than this, and the other players will note that. Sak’s playing of goalie fantasy league is still more likely than not to be a flop.

  3. Excellent article. I agree with the previous commenter that the last sentence speaks volumes. Not to be pedantic, but the word is “reins”, not “reigns”

  4. I cant believe that this will probably be Zac’s last game as a union starter. I sort of wish it was a home game though so we could see him one last time.

    • Scottymac says:

      With M’Bolhi’s international schedule he’ll probably get another 5-7 starts.

      • So Zac gets an extended farewell tour and starts after M’Bohli is called up?

      • If I were Zac, I would probably have asked for a transfer by then. Getting demoted without doing anything wrong must suck. But I hope ur right.

  5. How come u don’t have another goalkeeper in the substitutes?

  6. agree as well last few sentences – the “questions” are not really questions anymore. Club seems to need a “plan” defined as “typically any diagram or list of steps with timing and resources, used to achieve an objective. See also strategy. It is commonly understood as a temporal set of intended actions through which one expects to achieve a goal.”

    Sak’s “plan”: “We’re in the business of collecting very good players, and that’s what we did.”

    • Not Grumpy says:

      Hey Rais likes Sak’s plan he said so himself!

      • I believe the term was “vision”, which I don’t think amounts to a plan, but whatever. I guess the vision that included Rais that was “months” in the making – meaning its Sak’s idea, not Hack’s or Curtin’s – where Rais gets well paid looked good to Rais. Shocking.

  7. Great article. Let’s hope whatever the FO is cooking up actually makes it to the table

  8. It is silly to look at the M’Bolhi acquisition in isolation. Clearly they are not looking to keep both MacMath and Blake. One of them will be traded, for something else that we need. So it is clearly best to reserve judgment on this deal until we see the whole thing shake out.

    And anyway, it’s not like they brought in some scrub. Dude has proven himself at the very highest level, against the best team in the world.

    • Nobody is really complaining about the acquisition itself. Looking at the deal in isolation it looks great. A clears upgrade in goal just as the playoffs chase begins. Everything else peripheral to the deal from timing to price to personnel to money ect ect ect is where the deal becomes problematic.

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        …and waiting until after announcing it to move either Blake or MacMath severely limits the Union’s ability to get top dollar for them, whatever top dollar for a goalkeeper within MLS is (likely not a ton).
        M’Bolhi is a very good goalkeeper. That is a fact. I don’t think people are questioning that. They are, like Sieve said, questioning all of the surrounding factors that make this an extremely expensive move to upgrade a position that was in pretty good shape relative to other positions for the Union.

  9. Why not wait until after SKC to announce M’Bohli? Where’s the fire?

  10. Zac is #2. He will play because #1 is not ready. #1 is tired from stopping all those shots at world cup. Also, long flight.
    Don’t overthink it.

    • #2 was #1 until 2 days ago. And #2 for how long? It’s a needless distraction before a big match for a team that needs points from as many of those remaining as possible. Zac’s value can only be further decreased by a less than stellar showing tonight. You announce M’Bohli Monday to start 8/9. Nothing but downside to timing even if MacMath stays until season’s end.

  11. Old soccer coach says:

    A great deal of the leadership issue you raise will be heavily influenced by how well M’Bolhi shows in practice. If it is obvious to a blind man that he is better than McMath, the team will have little problem adjusting. If it is not immediately obvious, then leadership concerns may arise. But such transitions are a broken bone away at all times, so I wonder how important the potential problem will actually be. The aspects of the change that is being ignored are how McMath has responded to competition over the last season and a half, and his contract situation. If his deal is four rather than five, then contract is an immediate concern.

    • Do we really want our backup GK costing us 120k of salary cap space? Blake is Gen Adidas and won’t count on the cap until the year after we play him for 10+ games in 1 season. Steffen (if we get him) is a homegrown, so his homegrown deal wouldn’t count on the cap, either.
      I think if we get nothing but a release from MacMath’s contract, that’s a good deal for the Union at the end of the season (we’re still going to need him for half of this season). If someone wants him now, they should be willing to give us something more.

  12. If it turns out that MacMath is traded then the only problem I see with the Keeper situation is having two keepers that play internationally. Will both keepers in Blake and M’Bolhi have international duty simultaneously? Is that possible? And if so what is the Unions plan? MacMath has done very well with the Union this season but still looks like a college level keeper at times when not knowing where to be on spot kicks and corners. He’s also had trouble knowing the proper clearance technique in certain situations. I understand he is still young and learning and he’s doing a great job but I guess the Union believe a stellar keeper will get them to the playoffs and its all they need to do that. Time will tell.

  13. heads up everybody, i had a dream last night that we won 4-2 so we can rest assured that that will happen

  14. I see tonight as a, ‘hey we’re Sporting and we’re really good reality check.’ A draw in KC would be a statement from Union.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *