Match previews

Preview: Union vs Sporting KC

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Sporting Kansas City
What: Regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: 7 pm, Saturday, Oct. 18
Watch:  TCN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Whistle: Jair Marrufo; Linesmen: Peter Manikowski, Adam Garner; Fourth official: Jose Carlos Rivero

On July 19, Sporting Kansas City scored two goals on the stingiest defense in MLS. That 2-1 win over LA Galaxy was the last time KC beat any team within shouting distance of a playoff spot.

Yet, the defending champs remain third in the Eastern Conference because they get to play plenty of games against teams like Toronto, Chicago, and, yes, Philadelphia Union.

But while the standings might suggest this game is a mismatch, the Union have stepped up against Kansas City in both matchups this season, pulling four points and playing some of their best soccer all year. This time, however, the visitors will likely see a much different Philly side.

Benny Feilhaber's most dangerous area is easy to spot.

Benny Feilhaber’s most dangerous area (vs CHI) is easy to spot.

Post-playoff reality

The broadest goal of any team’s season is to make the playoffs. The Union have fallen short, and must play out the final two matches of the year as something of an early preseason. This should mean minutes for the younger players, tactical experiments, and a chance for fans to judge who packs it in early and who wears their heart on their sleeve until the final whistle of 2014.

But don’t expect a brand new starting eleven on Saturday. Jim Curtin said that he will continue to play the guys who “earn it during the week in practice.” This is a coach’s way of saying that there will be some new faces, but not a new team on the field. A best guess is that Curtin will give major minutes to some fringe-y players (e.g., Pedro Ribeiro, Fabinho, Brian Brown) but won’t drop an Austin Berry into the back line.

Tactically, this match will be another test of Philadelphia’s ability to move the ball quickly and efficiently. Sporting Kansas City can press with the best in MLS, and troubling them requires swift attacks into the space behind their advancing fullbacks. Philly is perfectly set up to take advantage of this with Andrew Wenger playing as an advanced winger, but how the other wing spot is handled is a more interesting issue.

Sebastien Le Toux’s ankle knock gives Jim Curtin the option of playing with two out-and-out strikers or simply plugging in Danny Cruz. While the former would be fun to see, it is a poor fit against Kansas City. The advantage KC has over almost every other team in MLS is their fullback play, which pulls teams out of the center and creates space for Benny Feilhaber. Pushing a second striker into the mix puts an extra body on the central defenders, but with Matt Besler out and Aurelien Collin questionable, it is more likely KC will build attacks up the wings.

Jacob Peterson and Igor Juliao spent much of the match in the opposition half vs Chicago.

Jacob Peterson and Igor Juliao spent much of the match in the opposition half vs Chicago.

Home and away meaningless for KC

One may ask, “Why not play two strikers and press the second unit CBs? This is a home game, is it not? Let’s be proactive!” And that would be a fair point. But Philly has not formed a home field advantage this season, with teams coming into PPL Park and either stifling the Union (Houston) or dictating tempo. And, last game aside, the Union has been much better at playing a counterattacking game compared to an aggressive style. So to avoid appearing a convoluted mess that would turn fans off even more, Philly should retain the tactics that brought them success midseason: Structure, shape, and discipline.

Another strong argument for returning to the counterattacking system is that Kansas City is the only team in the Eastern Conference playoff race that has deviated from the win-at-home-survive-on-the-road formula. KC’s home goal differential is the lowest of the competitive teams in the east, but their road goal differential is by far the highest. This is not an anomaly: The same pattern played out in 2012 and 2013.

The reason is two-fold: First, MLS teams, like in many other leagues, tend to be more aggressive at home. This means more men going forward. Second, Sporting KC has an identity. And everyone knows it. Jim Curtin once said that you can’t have an identity until you win something. Peter Vermes has done that, and the players commit to the wide, flowing attack whether the team is dominating or struggling (as they have been recently). So on the road, KC comes forward with the same speed and style, and enjoys the spacious holes left behind by aggressive home sides.

Keys for Philly

If nothing else, the single thing the Union must take out of tomorrow’s match is respect. The team is talented and underachieved both in the long run and in key moments this season. The only reason Philly will compete with KC on Saturday is if the players on the pitch are personally motivated to show the league, the fans, and their teammates that they can get off the mat even after the bout is called and flex one last time.

One of many equally possible lineups.

One of many equally possible lineups.

The fans, in particular, deserve to see a team mentally tough enough to show up even though the season has been a failure. After all, they have shown up season after season as the club rebuilds from the ground up over and over. With the playoffs out of reach, key players’ futures up in the air, and at least one fan favorite on his way out, the players on the pitch Saturday have to remember that Philadelphia fans can voice displeasure as loud as any in the country, but their respect is made clear at the same volume. The club has struggled to gain and hold fan respect. But individual players have earned it, and they are made aware of that fact whenever they step onto the pitch.

Tomorrow night, a few more players can earn that respect, or they could lose it forever.

Prediction: Union 1-2 KC

Anticipating a Union side with at least a few tweaks and tactical experiments, it is hard to bet against Sporting. Even with a rash of injuries, this is a team that is deep enough to compete with any squad in the east.

The Union will hope to unleash dangerous counterattacks early to pin back the KC fullbacks and turn the game into a tight affair. Additionally, Philly will have to show that they can defend set pieces against a good dead ball opponent.

Once the playoffs are out of the picture, the scoreline can be seen as more of an afterthought, and the real result is the performance of the team. The Union fell apart last weekend. Tomorrow night must be different.


  1. Well, the weather forecast looks nice, so I’ll be there. That’s what this team has done to me — they’ve turned me into a fair-weather fan.
    On another note, does anyone know the proper pronunciation of “Sakiewicz”? I want to make sure I get the chant right.

  2. Why even watch.

    We won’t see Pfeffer, Hernandez, Jimmy Mac, or Marquez or Ribero (in his REAL GODDMAN POSITION JESUS CHRIST CURTIN).

    We are going to see practice all stars like Cruz rumbling and bumbling all over the field.

    Why even watch?

  3. It’s easy for me (non STH) to say but the one thing I care to see most on my screen tomorrow is a sea of empty blue seats. #HEYJAY #SACKSAK

  4. Fare thee well, Amobi Okugo!! We hardly knew ye! Our bad. Any room in your bag for your agent on PSP – Joel? Best of Luck in your European career! Nick & Jim (for John & Peter, also).

  5. old soccer coach says:

    As always the careful tactical analysis is much appreciated and taken seriously. After forty years of involvement I still appreciate very much those who can teach me things, whoever they are and wherever they may be.

  6. Cruz is in Sakiewicz’s XI tonight. ‘Bout sums up the situation wouldn’t you say?

  7. Valdes is spent. Only a fool – or your head coach next year – would play him.

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