Match previews

Preview: Union at Sporting Kansas City

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz/Daniel Studio

Who: Philadelphia Union at Sporting Kansas City
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: Sporting Park
When: Sunday, April 5 at 7 pm
Watch: Fox Sports 1, Fox Deportes, Fox Sports Go
Whistle: Ismail Elfath; Linesmen: Adam Garner, Kevin Klinger; Fourth Official: Younes Marrakchi

After getting blown over in the Windy City, Philadelphia Union travels to Sporting Park to face a talented team that has been struggling to get out of first gear.

But let’s be clear: An organized, cohesive squad in first gear is still dangerous because, hey, at least the engine is running. The Union are still trying to find their keys.

SKC vs Portland - Expect a similar lineup, though Zusi will be out.

SKC vs Portland – Expect a similar lineup, though Zusi will be out.

Who is Sporting KC?

Dom Kinnear is the gold standard as a coach that can get new players to grasp his system quickly and effectively, but Peter Vermes is not that far behind. Vermes’ teams rose to prominence behind a wide open attacking 4-3-3 system, but a freefall down the stretch in 2014 seems to have led to a rethink. The shape is the same, but now Benny Feilhaber is in a modern quarterback role, with the returning Roger Espinoza finding his feet again as the primary midfield threat close to goal.

At this point in the season, it is unclear whether Feilhaber has been sitting so deep by design or by necessity. Opposition sides, starting with Jesse Marsch’s New York Red Bulls on opening day, have done a very good job channeling Kansas City into the middle. Such a strategy prevents the Sporting fullbacks from becoming the offensive accelerators they have always been under Vermes.

SKC key passes vs POR: Lots of chances, but all coming from deeper areas. No penetration.

SKC key passes vs POR: Lots of chances, but all coming from deeper areas. No penetration.

Ideally, KC would move the fullbacks up the pitch and use Matt Besler’s passing range to quickly rotate the ball until either Sinovic or Chance Myers had enough space to carry things forward and use their own quality on-the-ball ability to pick out a central pass to Feilhaber or a wide ball to Zusi. With Marcel De Jong and Jalil Anibaba as fullbacks, however, Kansas City doesn’t have the confident passers that have been the secret ingredient in the team’s success. Both De Jong and Anibaba are perfectly competent — and De Jong can rocket a shot or a great cross — but neither is as active in build-up play as their predecessor.

Once KC has to build through the center, Feilhaber has to come deeper to pick out the first pass. This is something many teams build into their systems nowadays, but the extent to which Vermes has incorporated it into his squad’s attack is fascinating. Whereas previously the fullbacks had enough space to charge forward before meeting a defender, now they push forward without the ball, allowing the central defenders to get very wide when Feilhaber comes deep. This essentially results in a giant bucket shape around the back, with Nagamura and Espinoza moving in the middle and the wingers checking into the channels.

Feilhaber vs POR: Benny came deep to start things off, but never got involved further up the pitch where he can be so dangerous.

Feilhaber vs POR: Benny came deep to start things off, but never got involved further up the pitch where he can be so dangerous.

And there are multiple potentially positive outcomes: 1) The defense could step too high, noticing the empty space in the center. This allows the always-active Dom Dwyer to make runs in behind that Feilhaber can pick out. Thus far, the opposition has largely resisted this urge. 2) The central defenders can bring the ball forward until they meet resistance, at which point they play the ball wide, where a fullback looks to play short to either the winger in the channel or a checking central midfielder.

The goal in both scenarios is to make the defense overcommit to one side of the field so Espinoza and Feilhaber can find space in the middle to operate.

The system has been quite effective at getting KC out of the back, but there have been more growing pains in the final third.

KC gets the fullback and winger up the pitch, pulls in the defense, and looks for a midfielder in space (in this case it's Nagamura)

KC gets the fullback and winger up the pitch, pulls in the defense, and looks for a midfielder in space (in this case it’s Nagamura)

Wings and things

Even though both Philly and KC play with wingers that stay high, the teams expect much different things from their wide players. Philly’s Wenger/Le Toux combo is meant to counter with speed and has yet to show any effectiveness holding the ball or building pressure in the final third.

In contrast, Graham Zusi may be the best playmaking winger in MLS, essentially providing Kansas City with a second fulcrum of attack when Feilhaber gets shadowed too closely to make magic. Early in the season, Vermes deployed Krisztian Nemeth across from Zusi.

Nemeth is actually more of a striker than a winger, and he was supposed to bring the ball central, take shots, or at least get the defense to collapse on him. Nemeth looked like a player on the rise before an injury derailed his progress. He is back in full training now and may see the field Sunday.

KC resorted to crosses vs POR, but the Timbers defense stayed deep and dealt with the aerial threat well.

KC resorted to crosses vs POR, but the Timbers defense stayed deep and dealt with the aerial threat well.

But even with Zusi (who won’t play vs the Union due to a hamstring injury) and Nemeth, Kansas City has been unable to generate much offense from extended possessions. In a 0-0 draw with Portland in Week Three, KC spent the first half dominating the Timbers but saw Caleb Porter’s defense sit deep in the box, allowing long shots but giving Dwyer no room in behind.

Peter Vermes has spoken often about how teams park the bus when they come to KC, and he brought it up again on the KYW-PSP podcast this week. Porter basically took the depth of a bus parking strategy and tried to pair it with quick breakouts. It didn’t work in the first half, but as the Timbers first pass improved — and Darlington Nagbe came deeper — it became a very effective strategy.

The key insight is that Dom Dwyer, short as he is, is an excellent aerial attacker. But to get good positioning, he needs to force his defender to pivot and run with him. Very few MLS central defenders are quick enough on the turn to force Dwyer out of his run. But if they are already deep enough to step up to meet crosses, this can negate a lot of the threat Dwyer poses in the air. KC’s man up front has yet to tally this season because he is still adjusting to this new defensive strategy that basically boils down to: If you want to shoot from distance, be our guest, but the final third is a zero through-ball zone.

Make no mistake: Dwyer will get his goals. His movement is too good and MLS defenses too susceptible to chase to keep the little man off the board. But at least the Union have a template that works, if they can follow it.

Dwyer’s learning curve

Aside from the lack of wing production and Dwyer learning how to adjust to how teams play him, KC’s final issue is involving Feilhaber in the final third. The playmaker has assisted two of Sporting’s three goals, but that number is very deceptive.

One assist was a gorgeous cross to Ike Opara after a failed clearance let Feilhaber in on the wing and beat his man. But the second was a short ball to Espinoza, who drove hard at the Dallas defense for 20 yards before ripping a beautiful finish. Sure, the pass set up the goal, but there was a lot going on in between. And aside from those assists, Feilhaber has struggled to create in the danger areas.

And it isn’t that something is wrong with Feilhaber: His passing has been accurate and he has actually been a fantastic defensive worker. The issue is figuring out how to get both Feilhaber and Espinoza into dangerous areas in the final third. Thus far, Feilhaber simply hasn’t been as involved as he needs to be once Kansas City starts holding possession. He is still playing great breakout passes in transition, but he isn’t running the offense the way he has in the past. And Kansas City is not nearly as dangerous without Feilhaber at the center of things.

KC: Tackles and interceptions vs NYRB. Notice how high up the pitch they take place.

KC: Tackles and interceptions vs NYRB. Notice how high up the pitch they take place.

Offensive struggles, defensive dynamite

Even without a fully operational offense, KC looks ready for the western conference defensively. Ike Opara is not the most agile defender, but he is intelligently aggressive and his forward closing speed is extremely impressive. Strikers check back to receive the ball, think they have time, and then… don’t. Across from Opara, Matt Besler plays a steady positional game to ensure that when his partner follows the ball, no runners can wander free in space.

The real revelation, however, is in midfield. Paolo Nagamura, Espinoza, and Feilhaber have been breathtakingly good at pressing this season, with a coordination and energy that has created opportunities off turnovers to make up for the dearth of possession-based chances. Darlington Nagbe has garnered deserved praise since taking a central role for Portland, and his most impressive feat may have been how many times he single-handedly broke the KC pressure with quick turns under pressure and one-touch passing on the half-turn.

Philly tackles/interceptions vs CHI: Much deeper than KC.

Philly tackles/interceptions vs CHI: Much deeper than KC.

The Union will have no Nagbes on the field Sunday, so they will have to move the ball much, much, much quicker than in previous matches and play more compact in midfield.

From dynamite to dud

That compactness has been a nagging problem for Philly ever since John Hackworth installed a three-man central midfield at the start of the 2014 season. Nominally, this should give the Union enough bodies in the middle to pass through pressure, with the fullbacks acting as outlets. But in practice that has not been the case. Why not?

There is a simple and harsh truth to confront when examining the Philadelphia back line: There are no above-average passers. Sheanon Williams is a good passer. Raymon Gaddis is not. Fabinho is not. Ethan White is not. Steven Vitoria is not.

Fabinho incomplete passes vs CHI

Fabinho incomplete passes vs CHI

Please note that this does not mean these are not good players. Teams often have a below-average passer or two in the back, and even Philly’s best back line built around Danny Califf and Carlos Valdes was better at dribbling forward and making a pass once pressed than passing through a press.

But this Union back line is mediocre with the ball when confident, and currently they are devoid of confidence. As a consequence, Vincent Nogueira has developed a habit of leaving the middle of the park to get the ball from fullbacks. Last season, Nogueira did this to escape pressure in the middle. Now he does it instinctually, basically signalling to the opposition that he knows as well as they do that he won’t get the ball unless he goes and finds it.

White incomplete passes vs CHI

White incomplete passes vs CHI

Thus, instead of pulling a defense around by scuttling to the wings, Nogueira is finding that teams have game-planned for this and do their best to force him to give the ball back to a defender; he can get the ball, but he won’t be allowed to turn, no matter what.


There is no easy answer here. To beat the KC press, Philly has to a) Go route one and own the second ball, b) Commit to dropping a midfielder between the central defenders and try to draw Sporting high then pass through them, c) Figure out how to involve the wingers in the build-up play by having them, y’know, move, or d) Fix the defensive organization so that the counterattack can finally be effective again.

These options are not mutually exclusive, but they are the full set. One of them must be practiced with expertise and efficiency if Philly wants any points on Sunday.

Defensive organization

Let’s focus on the defensive organization for a moment. In his press conference this week, Jim Curtin said, “They’re doing the running, they’re just arriving late to the ball to close things down, and the next guy’s not there to help them. That has a domino effect: if one guy shows a little bit late and takes a break for a second, the next guy’s a step late, and on TV it looks like a lack of effort. They’re working hard, but we’re just coming up a little bit short in being all on the same page. And, you know, that’s on me.”

I agree. Philadelphia’s midfield has not been lazy: It has been extremely uncoordinated. However, the issue may stem from an overall lack of organization than from the midfield itself.

Philadelphia needs to return to a compact defensive shape. Pressure is a wonderful tool in modern soccer, but it is also a fickle instrument that can hurt you as assuredly as it hurts the other team. Uncoordinated pressure is just lost energy and excess frustration: If you press alone, your team not only won’t press with you, but they should not press with you.

Pressure only works with any consistency when it is done in a coordinated way across the entire team. Think about it this way: The offense wants to move a defense out of shape and find space in the opposition half while the defense wants to prevent the offensive players from being able to look up and move the ball into open areas. Effective pressure keeps offensive heads down. But soloing is like hitting yourself in the face with a pie.

The other team wants you to leave space behind, so if you press alone with nobody stepping into the space you left, you are wasting energy and doing exactly what the offense was trying to do in the first place.

Looking versus being reactive

During a soccer match, defense tends to look reactive. The team with the ball appears to be dictating play until pressure or a mistake results in a turnover.

But a good defense flips the script completely. An organized defense puts so many constraints on what an offense can do that it essentially forces the attacking team to attempt low percentage plays. This type of defense doesn’t show up in tackles or interceptions, but it shows up in the types of passes an offense makes and where those passes are received. This type of defense ends up dictating the opposition offense instead of reacting to it.

Think about a good defensive call in American football, where a quarterback ends up dumping the ball off for a two yard gain. That’s a really good defense in soccer: Not necessarily creating turnovers on every play, but always forcing the other team into their checkdown. Needless to say, this is not a description of the Philadelphia Union in 2015.

Click to see Feilhaber confuse his neck and face.

Click to see Feilhaber confuse his neck and face.

Instead, Philly has been extremely reactive. Chicago saw on tape that when the Union’s right fullback steps up, Ethan White remains very close to Steven Vitoria, essentially playing the striker instead of the space. Real Salt Lake exposed this flaw ad nauseum and Chicago just picked up where Javy Morales and Kyle Beckerman left off (that’s right, the Union just made it possible to compare Morales-Beckerman with Polster-Stephens. Yuck.)

Philly never adjusted, and as a result that space behind Gaddis was always available for a deep outlet pass. The first thought here is to blame Gaddis for chasing his man high, but that’s not right: He should follow, because a free man attacking from the wing is a dangerous option. But the Union back line has to adjust when a fullback steps up, signalling to the opposition that the space behind is looked after. The aim is not simply to make sure White can beat Joevin Jones to the ball, it is to prevent the ball from ever being played by being in the right position. This is how you force a team to its checkdown.

Potential 4-4-2ish lineup for Sunday

Potential 4-4-2ish lineup for Sunday

Prediction: Union 1-1 Sporting KC

If Philadelphia can get back to defensive basics, they can hang with a Kansas City team that has yet to figure out how to create good opportunities. Fixing the obvious bugs in the system will at least give the Union a platform from which they can start playing faster and using their wingers. On the KYW-PSP podcast, Vermes became just the latest coach to talk up Andrew Wenger, and eventually the Union will have to get regular production from the guy who needs to be a vital secondary threat behind Fernando Aristeguieta. This isn’t as far away as it seems, but it will take some hardcore coaching and some real listening from the players. Effort is great, but it isn’t the solution right now.

The real kicker in this match is set pieces. Even without Zusi, KC can deliver good dead balls through Feilhaber and they can finish them through Dwyer and the absurd athleticism of Ike Opara. Let’s be very clear: Opara can not just outjump everyone on the Union, he can probably jump over them. So get a body on him in the box, please. I’m just flat out begging.

The Union won’t turn into a good team this weekend, but they can move back toward what they are: A team that can compete in almost every match. Jim Curtin said in his presser that his team isn’t good enough to survive players having bad days or making inexcusable errors. This is true. But the flip side is that the Union are absolutely good enough to worry most MLS teams when they play organized.

It is hugely positive that Curtin recognizes this. But putting it into practice is his real test.


  1. Are you ready? Union Sense tells me 2-1. Union. This is the game when we all totally scratch our heads in bewilderment.

  2. The Black Hand says:

    Who is shielding that back line, Adam? Edu???
    I think that White needs to go. Put Edu at CB. (Who cares if Mo ‘likes’ it?). Give Michael Lahoud the CDM. I’d pair Hoppenot with Nando. Let Seba take a seat and watch…his play deserves that rest.

    • Edu at CB makes the team better. Heck, it might even help Edu get back into the USMNT pitcture.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      I encourage you to look at Davis Russell’s defensive statistics article(s)’ tackling numbers. Then look behind the number for what you think it means.
      I think it means that Edu is the ball winner in defensive central midfield. The other three DCMs are much lesser ball winners, if at all.
      My thought is to give Marquez an opportunity. If Steven Vitoria’s child is deliberate in arrival speed, Marquez will likely have to play for Vitoria.
      Unless they have practiced this week with Edu at CB, they would be unwise to make that move, and with only 13 on the pitch Weds., practice opportunity has been limited.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Ball winning is important…but so is what you do with the ball that you have won. Edu has struggled to find chemistry with Noguiera (the guy who should be on the ball), many times opting to slowly carry up the pitch…this lack of a speedy transition is one of our biggest weaknesses. Mo deserves a lot of credit for those struggles. Throw in to that mix, the fact that Edu is prone to his share of ball watching and jogging when he should be running; and his benefits to the club at CDM are further limited. Top it off with Mo’s distribution being poor and you see the Edu that I see…maybe.
        I would put Mo at CB.

  3. Kick Ethan White to the bench and drop Edu to CB to earn his salary and let Lahoud work with Noguiera. Start McLaughlin on the wing and Le Toux play behind Aristequieta.

    P.S. Sugarman and Sakeiwicz sell this team to a financially competitive ownership.

  4. OK, so at some point a team starts playing better, and it’s not necessarily predictable. And maybe this will be the week. But… we are at such a talent deficit, and a confidence deficit, with our current XI compared to KC’s XI, that it is really difficult to see a result from this game. In order for it to happen, multiple dudes on our team would have to be so pissed off as to be determined to kick some ass. I mean, you would need Edu, one of the wingers, M’Bolhi, AND White to all be embarrassed enough by last week’s debacle to come out for blood. And even then, who is running the offense??? It is hard to see us scoring a goal without Maidana, unless it’s a fluke.

    Best-case scenario is that the defenders get the memo, or ex-CB Curtin instills something in them (or puts White on the bench in favor of Edu at CB), and we get a 0-0 tie. Much more likely is a 2-0 Kansas City win.

  5. Although the Union looked generally disorganized against the Fire, I might have sensed something more ominous. It looked to me like the players were improvising, kind of doing what they wanted, with very little discipline. That might mean the coach might not have their respect. In that case, tactics are unenforceable, The players must buy into a system. This year will be another salvage job I am afraid.Also, looking at the crosses diagram of KC. those diagonal balls toward the goal mouth are easily defended and are generally ineffective, a sign of laziness on attack. That is hopeful for the Union.

    • I have to agree completely with you. I think Curtin has pretty much lost the locker room. The players looked to have completely abandoned whatever they went over in training, and looked to just “play.” I honestly do not think the players have bought into anything Curtin has put on the table, and look to be going through the motions on the training pitch.

      If the Union get completely played off the pitch, look like children playing against Pros, and lose 4-0……then the writing truly is on the wall, and whatever contingency “PLAN B” must go into action.

      There is some real talent on this team, and with the proper manager I think the Union can be very competitive. The only way you can play “moneyball” and not come out looking like amateurs is by having a real savvy coach, with a philosophy that the players buy completely into, which also matches the talent available.

      This will be ugly until a major culture shift happens. I do not see how Jim Curtin and the current staff can turn this dung pile they created into a Rose Garden.

  6. What’s faster: Vitoria getting to the ball or his wife’s labor?

  7. John Ling says:

    So I think all lineup questions start with whether or not Vitoria is available. Yes? If he’s not, I think Ethan White has to start, as scary as that is. In that case, I play Edu at CB, and rely on the chemistry Edu and White developed last year. As a pair, they looked serviceable last year. In addition, Gaddis and Fabinho should have some level of chemistry there as well.
    If Vitoria is available, then I see two options. Either you slide Edu back in place of White; or you start Marquez in place of White. But for my money, if Vitoria is available then there’s no way White should start.
    If Edu is in the back line, I’m very OK with Mike Lahoud playing alongside Nogs. During the pre-season, even, I was OK with Edu at CB and Lahoud at DM. (Okugo is better, yes; that ship has sailed. Lahoud is serviceable.) Otherwise, Edu and Nogs need to figure out their chemistry quickly.
    I’m very much in favor of Le Toux moving up top with Fernando in a two striker formation. I think the two can make sweet music together up there; they compliment one another well, I think. But he has a short leash. (And again, I have an unabashed man crush on Seba.) If he’s not producing by the 60 minute mark – at the latest – somebody else goes up top and gets a shot. I’d be OK with making that move at 45 minutes, to be honest.
    For the vacated wing, I think the two options are McLaughlin or Ayuk. I’m OK with either, but I’d favor McLaughlin. It’s time for him to play; Ayuk is on my bench, though. He can come in for any of Wenger, Le Toux, or McLaughlin depending how things look at the time. Do not go with set substitutions, please, Curtin. Make decisions based on the game, not on some pre-determined rotation.
    Mike Lahoud is my emergency fullback; and because I need to be prepared for that option, Brian Carroll is on my bench. *sigh* He only sees the field, though, if I’m moving Lahoud to fullback. Otherwise, Carroll’s job is to be a cheerleader.
    I’m OK with a loss here, but they need to look better. If they lose 4-0, stick a fork in ’em; they’re done. If they lose 1-0 or 2-1, I can live with that. Obviously, stealing a point or three would be better.

    • The Black Hand says:

      I think that Edu needs to go to CB. No other options…even without the injuries. He is effective at CB. I really don’t see his quality, in the midfield (bad touch, poor vision, indecisive, slow to transition…). I think that Lahoud, while not as good as Edu, can play a more effective DM. As long as he can shield the back line and get the ball on VN’s foot, I think that he will be a decent option (full-time). Now, this will raise the question; ‘Why in the name of al that’s holy, did we not consider Amobi Okugo to be an integral part to this club’???? Man, they got that one horribly wrong. He worked, with Noguiera. Edu doesn’t. It’s seems that Mo is looking to be ‘the man’ and not at how he can fit the Union puzzle. Lahoud will not try to be ‘the man’ and that’s what the club needs, right now. I’m all for Lahoud at the 6 and Edu at CB.
      I hate the idea of Sebastian Letoux in the middle. I, very much, do not have a man-crush on our brioche-loving Frenchman. He’s better on the wing, where he can run like hell and who knows. I think that Hoppenot may be worth a look, up top. Catic is too green, but I do like him as an option off the bench.
      Agree…bring on the young wings!!! It’s time to get a look at Jimmy. I’d sit Letoux, in favor of McLaughlin. (Maybe it will light a fire under Letoux’s ass). I’d keep Wenger. He hasn’t been terrible…hasn’t been any good…but not terrible. Ayuk would be my first sub, for Wenger. This is a pretty ‘out of reach’ match, for us. No reason to not take a look at our youth.
      I hope we see something…anything, thats better than this crap. Our clubs play has been embarrassingly hard to watch…

      • Yeah, I very much prefer Edu move back to CB. It certainly seems to be his best position, the spot where he makes the biggest impact. And with his salary, that’s what the Union need from him – a big impact. I’ve been OK with Mike Lahoud all through the off-season.
        I don’t like Le Toux in the “10” role, even a modified 10 like Curtin talked about in the presser. I do like Le Toux as a second forward. I’ve liked the idea of LT and Fernando paired together as forwards since The Beard arrived. I think the two can compliment one another well up top.
        That said, I think McLaghlin needs to start this game. Whether he’s taking the place of Le Toux or Wenger in our 4-3-3, sliding into the “10” role in that same formation, or sliding into the midfield in our 4-4-2 “doughnut” formation, I think Jimmy needs to get the start this game, and given time to find the game and make an influence – or in other words, he doesn’t get yanked at halftime.
        Of course, a whole lot of decisions are dependent on who’s available. If the illness that kept practice to only 13 players the other day is still rolling through the team, that could severely limit Curtin’s options.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Agreed. Give Jimmy a run. Can’t get a good read on a player, until they have had a chance to get their heart rate back down to Earth. Nerves will show early. Let the boy play through them and show what he can do. I hope he has been eating protein and hitting the weights. He’s going to need to be able to hold his own physically. I really hope that Curtin understands that his current “plan (????)” should be scrapped and something new should be brought in. Hopefully, Jimmy McLaughlin will be a part of the ‘new’ plan.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Remember when any team with a big strong center midfielder absolutely eviscerated us? Since Edu has arrived that has happened with less frequency. With him we can contest the central channel in the center of the midfield; without him we concede it from before the tap.

  8. Great One says:

    For the love of God, no matter what else we do, do NOT let Le Toux take another free kick of any sort. This is an actual correctable problem.

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