US Open Cup final roundtable

Eli Pearlman-Storch: Both Jim Curtin and Peter Vermes rested their starters over the weekend, so everyone should be fresh and raring to go on Wednesday night at PPL Park.

Let’s begin by going over some of the critical aspects of the game where the Union must succeed in order to win this match.

Adam Cann: A wonderful aspect of soccer is that it rarely comes down to a single player (games with Messi excepted). And this match is no different: Will come down to two players. Benny Feilhaber vs Cristian Maidana? No, that’s the undercard. The real showdown will be Michael Lahoud vs Paulo Nagamura. Both players are fairly consistent but, importantly, not elite holding midfielders. They can both shut down the center of the pitch, but only if they stay centrally located and resist the urge to try and do everything. Lahoud is vastly improved in this facet of his game. As athletic as he is, Lahoud can go sideline-to-sideline, but he shouldn’t. Kansas City is too good at switching fields, and chasing play wide will open lanes in the middle that are much more dangerous than anything KC can produce from wide areas. Particularly if Krisztian Nemeth is available to cut inside, Lahoud needs to be waiting for him. Nagamura’s discipline tends to set the tone for Sporting KC. If he holds in the middle, they can shape up quickly defensively. Once he leaves to close down the wings, there is a lot less certainty as KC retreats and holes are easier to find.

I think if Lahoud is better than Nagamura positionally, Philly can hold off KC’s attack and create space through Maidana on the counter. All that said, I think most people will be watching the Union back line. What do you guys think they’ll have to do to give the home side a chance to win the final?

Mike Servedio: The back line has to be very, very good on Wednesday. A huge performance by Maurice Edu would go a long way in leading the line. Big players show up in big games, and for the Union captain, coming back from injury, having a strong performance would be a huge boon to the guys playing around him. If Edu can be strong both  in his tackles and in moving the ball out of the back, it will pay off both in transition and possession.

Ray Gaddis and Fabinho will have to both have to play within themselves and do what they do best. For Gaddis, a strong defensive performance with good man marking. For Fabinbo, shying away from the reckless challenges but still taking the opportunities to intercept passes and start attacks going forward.

We won’t know for sure until the starting lineups are released but Jim Curtin has seemingly tipped John McCarthy to start the final, despite the play of Andre Blake when available this season. Is the rookie goalkeeper up for the occasion and what does he have to do for the Union to win?

Eli: McCarthy is the guy who got the Union here. That’s the way it has been laid out and there is no questioning that. Should Blake be the starter? There are a lot of smart folks, myself included, who believe this should be Blake’s game. But at the moment, I still believe Curtin will go with McCarthy.

Assuming that decision is no longer up for debate, what does remain to be questioned is McCarthy’s decision-making in his area. If the ball makes its way to McCarthy’s hands, he’ll catch it, his hands have been remarkably strong and clean throughout 2015. But on the plays where he has to chose whether to stay or go, he often leaves the whole of PPL Park terrified.

It will be those moments of uncertainty that may decide this match, either in the Union’s favor or against. One thing going McCarthy’s way is that while Kansas City boasts a pretty lethal finishing duo in Dom Dwyer and Nemeth, neither player is the largest in stature, nor is the rest of Sporting’s side. If Will Bruin could hit the broad side of a barn, McCarthy’s indecision on balls in the air might have proved lethal against Houston. Fortunately, Bruin lacked precision that night and against Kansas City McCarthy won’t have to face anything resembling Houston’s aerial threat.

Lots of defensive chat so far, so let’s move up the pitch a bit. One way teams have neutralized the Union is by marking (and kicking) Vincent Nogueira off the park, forcing the back four and the defensive midfielder to facilitate the attack from the back. Given the options Curtin has at his disposal, how can he set up the Union to avoid such a situation from coming to pass?

Adam: Let’s be honest: Curtin can’t save Nogueira. The Frenchman is too key to the team’s transition game to be left alone, and there is no second option. With Nogueira and Maidana healthy, Philadelphia can counterattack. Without that duo, they do little offensively.

Kansas City is interesting in that they will follow Nogueira anywhere. Dropping him between the lines won’t grant him much time (and the Union won’t do it) and pushing him wide to play off the fullbacks is too dangerous given how KC traps on the touchlines. The trick will be to keep Nogueira on the move. When he receives the ball facing backwards, Nogueira is forced to play a short game. If he has time to turn, he can pick out Maidana in space and Philly is off to the races.

But countering and doing it effectively are different stories. How much possession can the Union cede without wearing themselves out?

Mike: I think the possession balance will be very interesting. The Union have ceded the balance to most teams, even at home this season. It will depend on whether the Union can pressure at the right times, picking their spots to force Kansas City to play in their own half of their field. Philadelphia won’t mind retreating back and defending in numbers at times as long as Kansas City is deep in their own half. What they don’t want is them cycling the ball through Benny Feilhaber 30 yards from goal.

When they are in possession, and especially after a change of possession, the Union’s decision making will be a deciding factor in the match. There will be times to counterattack and there will be times to slow things up and put the Kansas City defenders on the back foot. Playing the ball through Vincent Nogueira, Chaco Maidana, and Tranquillo Barnetta, the Union’s best decision makers, will be so important to meaningful possessions over the course of 90 minutes.

Now looking at the final third for Philadelphia. Does it all come down to C.J. Sapong on some level? He’s been such a handful week in and week out, and he’ll be playing his former club: Will he come up big in the final? Who are the other key players in the final third to Union success?

Eli: Sapong is obviously the key man up front, but the Union’s shape behind him really dictates how effective he can be. When both Maidana and Nogueira have shaded right in support of Le Toux, the Union can quickly overload that flank, forcing the centerbacks to slide over in support. Once that shift has occurred, Sapong’s lines of running have become wide open and he has been able to exploit the space in between the shifting CB and his partner.

When the Union try to play straight up, balancing both wings, Sapong has been less effective. He can still jump out of the building, winning most headers that come his way, but that usually leads to flick-ons for players who aren’t necessarily making runs into the box. Sapong’s athleticism and pace in the box makes him a dangerous goalscorer, but put him too far outside of the area and ask him to generate too many of his own chances and the results have not been as good.

That’s why Maidana is so critical to the Union’s attacking prospects. His tendency to drift from touchline to touchline looking for the ball, with Nogueira following closely behind, allows the Union to force the sorts of overloads and defensive realignments that open up all manner of angled runs, on which Sapong can feast.

Before we wrap this up, one final question: Can the Union do it? Will they be hoisting the cup at the end of the night?

Mike: The Union is capable of winning the game. With two MLS teams, there is rarely a time when one team is not capable of winning. Philadelphia will be fired up to bring home something from this season, particularly after the disappointment of last year’s Cup final. They need to turn that energy into a complete performance and rise to the occasion, and I think they do it. Kansas City will come in and make a game of it, but I’m saying Philadelphia wins, 2-1.

Eli: Make that two of us. With Sporting enduring a run of fairly indifferent form, it is hard to know whether good SKC or bad SKC will show up. Either way, I look at Sapong’s dominant physicality as a huge plus for the Union. It is hard to see either Besler or Kevin Ellis hanging with the Union’s powerful striker. If Maidana, Barnetta and Co. can provide him with anything resembling consistent service, the Union can get the job one. I’ll stick with the 2-1 scoreline.

And if you want to know Adam’s prediction, check out PSP’s official match preview on Wednesday morning.


  1. I expect SKC will play an excellent game tomorrow. It is up to our boys to capitalize on the chances they receive. Unlike the Seattle game…this is a game when we will seize our opportunity.
    Make. Make. Be your future Danny.
    Play with fearlessness- do not give one inch to Kansas City. Not one.
    LET’S Go.

  2. i have come to the same conclusion. philly will win tomorrow night

  3. No discussion on the weather effect?
    I think a sloppy game favors the Union since as was noted, we have a height advantage with Sapong, Edu, and Richie (and Casey and Nando on the bench) and capable crossers like Maidana, Fabinho, Barnetta, and Le Toux.

  4. Union win 2-0 with Blake in goal. Union win in extra time 2-1 in extra time with McC in goal.

  5. Is there ANY chance Curtin puts Edu back at his favored DMid as a change up to KC? My gut tells me no, as Curtin is pretty massively conservative, but in this type of game you never know.

  6. Aw Man…I think the clock is slow.

  7. There are a lot of smart folks, myself included…
    Eli is also one of the most humble sports writers in the market. 🙂

  8. I think that the Union win and that Barnetta is a difference maker for us. He’ll get forward into the box tonight and into some dangerous positions as well as get into a scrap with someone (smart money is on it being Feilhaber).

    Union 2-1, LeToux and Marquez (set piece) will be the scorers.

  9. Turn the energy, the anger & disappointment from last year into positive energy. My biggest concern for tonight is not Nemeth, or Dwyer, or Benny, or the starting keeper, it’s how does the Union come out at the start. Do they cave to the pressure of playing at home, where the failed to get the job done last year? It seems to me they play scared at home at times, be it coming out flat at the half, or miserable defense late in the game, to silly mental errors and bizarre substitutions. The atmosphere last year was amazing, and I expect nothing less again, but they need to stop the lip service of “we play for the fans, we owe them this” and actually get the job done for once. Come out strong, come out proud and play your ass for every one of us in the stands.

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