Match previews

Preview: Union vs Sporting Kansas City

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Sporting Kansas City
What: 2016 regular season game
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
When: Saturday, August 27 at 7 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Juan Guzman; CJ Morgante and Jason White; Mark Kadlecik

Sporting Kansas City may not be the dominant team of past seasons, but with a prolific scorer and a physical midfield you can go far in MLS. Perhaps the most interesting thing about KC this season is how volatile they have been at home — tied for the league lead with nine wins, but tied for second worst in the league with 4 losses — and how reliably flat they have been on the road. The Union will be hoping this trend continues on Saturday.

KC has only scored more than a goal twice in 13 road matches this season. This points to the extent to which Benny Feilhaber is crucial to the club’s offensive success. At home, KC pushes players forward and gets contributions from across the front line. Graham Zusi averages 2.6 key passes per game in the friendly confines, and Feilhaber, Brad Davis, Conner Hallisey, Roger Espinoza, Saad Abdul-Salaam, and Matt Besler all help out with at least one key pass per match. But on the road? Only Feilhaber, Zusi, and Espinoza average at least a key pass per match. And Zusi has only made five road appearances (and only three of them starts).

So when KC travels, they become uber-reliant on Feilhaber’s admittedly strong creative game. Why is this?

Partly, it’s a function of how well KC is able to establish their fullbacks in the offensive third. At home, the fullbacks quickly advance quickly toward the edge of the final third to provide width. This allows the wingers to either tuck inside or combine around the edges of the box with the goal of getting behind the opposition back four.

And that really is the goal of the KC attack: Find ways to penetrate, then crash the box. With Feilhaber and Espinoza covering ground in midfield, Sporting can safely send all three front men into the box, push both fullbacks up the pitch as potential late runners, and still feel fairly safe about their transition defense.

Once a defense is in retreat and opening gaps, Sporting has one of MLS’ best readers of space ready to take advantage. Dom Dwyer is just a super-valuable commodity in almost every way. He’s excellent defensively in both workrate and positioning. He continues to improve his running and, despite playing without any real secondary threat of the center, manages to distract both center backs quite often.

And he’s a devil to defend in the box. Below, Benny Feilhaber receives the ball in the center without much support (a common problem for SKC this season). He eludes pressure, and while he does Dwyer creates a yard of separation so he can either pull out of space or receive the ball on the turn towards goal. It’s important to note that Dwyer isn’t just working for himself here. If Matt Hedges gets sucked into the ball, Dwyer has pulled Walker Zimmerman away from the play so Feilhaber can slip a pass into the box on the right. But Feilhaber instead puts a perfectly accurate ball into Dwyer’s feet. Despite Zimmerman’s touch, Dwyer still turns a somewhat innocuous situation into an impressive goal.

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This illustrates both the danger and the limitations of Sporting Kansas City. Feilhaber receiving the ball in space instantly activates runs into and around the box, but you also notice that KC doesn’t really have numbers forward in this road match against Dallas. They are relying fairly exclusively on Feilhaber and Dwyer for offense on the road with the two stars accounting for six of their nine goals away from home.

But don’t be deceived — KC is still a dormant beast. Peter Vermes has struggled to find a consistent squad this season, which has prevented relationships between wingers and fullbacks from developing. A run of starts on the left saw Jimmy Medranda establish a rhythm, but Vermes has had to platoon Graham Zusi and Brad Davis in front of Medranda due to injuries. At their peak, KC can penetrate down the wing without a lot of central support because they are so quick to overlap. Space for crosses is created quickly, then the bodies that would be out wide supporting are in the center to attack the box. In matches where KC establishes that rhythm down the flanks, they remain a very dangerous team.

The other big issue Vermes has dealt with this season is a familiar one to 2015 Union fans. Without a lot of action in wide areas, Kansas City’s middle has become a bit stale. Though always willing runners, Roger Espinoza and Benny Feilhaber haven’t had a consistent holding mid behind them to move the ball. The two stalwarts have, understandably, taken the role on themselves. This has pulled both players further from goal and forced them to be more involved in buildup play. Once the ball is in the attacking half, then, Kansas City tends to have a big, open space behind Dwyer where once Feilhaber would have been. This space isn’t an issue when Dwyer is at his best because he checks back, turns his defender, and creates chaos all on his own. But when well-marshalled, as he was by former Union man Amobi Okugo in Portland, Dwyer’s lack of influence means Kansas City has zero options (well-marshalled while a man down, it should be noted).

So how has Sporting managed to put themselves in a reasonably safe playoff position in a difficult conference while rarely hitting their stride? Call it the Vermes Special.

Kansas City plays an exceptionally high back line. The intention is to compress space and make it incredibly difficult for the opposition to establish attacking possessions in Kansas City’s half. Transition defense, which has been such a thorny issue for the Union as the season has progressed, is primary in KC’s thinking. Watch how difficult it is for Darlington Nagbe to get through the central zone below.

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In that same match, you can see Portland generate a chance in transition, but only because Ike Opara makes a poor decision and allows Fanendo Adi to isolate Mustivar up the left (why this wasn’t called a penalty will have to wait for Baldomero Toledo’s memoir, “I Know What You Thought You Saw, But Haha, Whatever”

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With their high line, Kansas City is allowing the fewest shots per game in MLS. In fact, KC is allowing two fewer shots per game on the road than anybody else in the league. That. Is. Bonkers. Vermes’ team is also best in the league at preventing shots at home, and they do it while taking the most shots in the league (and second most on the road, behind Colorado). Essentially, KC gets more chances than their opponents (though not necessarily good ones) and gives up fewer. And in MLS that simple recipe is enough to get by. Sure enough, what separates KC from the red line scrap in the Western Conference is turning ties into wins at home and turning losses into ties on the road.

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It must be said though: When their transition defense is out of sync, KC can look very bad. While they have a bit of a cushion in the playoff race, they are far behind the best in the west. Dallas, Colorado, Salt Lake, and LA have yet to lose at home while Vermes’ side has dropped four. If a team like the Union can win the ball in midfield, which makes transition defense tougher to establish, they can attack a back four that does not retreat very well under pressure. As usual, this match will come down to how well the Union can exert an organized pressure that creates turnovers in the opponent’s half.

Union stuff post-CLB

Philly got three huge points midweek, but they need to consolidate those points by earning something at home. Fabian Herbers looks to have done enough — a goal and an up-n-down-but-mostly-up defensive effort — to retain the starting right wing spot given Ilsinho’s foot injury. Even before he scored, Herbers was a presence in the box that the Union have needed.

Joshua Yaro is also likely to continue. His performance was typical Yaro midweek: Moments of stunning athleticism and skill mixed with an occasional reactionary movement or play that seemed frighteningly naive. That said, he was an overall positive, closing the ball down quickly and only occasionally looking panicked.

The Union need to build on their second half performance against Columbus by continuing to play a tight formation and continue the deep runs from Bedoya and Barnetta while looking to exploit the new balance they have with Herbers attacking the box from the right.

Prediction: Union 2-1 Sporting KC

It seems unlikely that KC will tally two on the road, and hopefully Dom Dwyer feels the pain of a midweek CONCACAF Champions League match when he’s trying to drag Richie Marquez around.

A win would go a long ways toward establishing some sense of playoff safety for Philly (and perhaps offer some small revenge for last season’s US Open Cup final loss), but a tie is the absolute minimum this team can settle for. One of the biggest things to watch outside of the general run of play is set pieces, where Philly has been good going forward but terrible defensively. Benny Feilhaber puts in a great ball and KC has Dwyer, Opara, and a few other big bodies in there to tap home.

The last big thing to watch for is how well the Union can close off the passing lane between Feilhaber and Dwyer. KC has had a ton of trouble getting bodies forward in the middle on the road, and Dwyer has taken it upon himself to check back and act as a creator when the team travels. Denying access to Dwyer is a crucial step in limiting KC’s effectiveness.


  1. Looks like Dwyer and most of the SKC starters were rested mid-week on the trip to VAN, but still have long travel clear across the continent. Not sure how much that factors into their performance. Union always seem to show up for SKC, win, lose or draw, the games always seem to be tightly contested. Hope your prediction rings true! Thanks again Adam!

  2. Adam,
    While SKC hasn’t scored a lot on the road keep in mind that since May 11th, we’ve given up at least 2 goals in every MLS home game to teams not named DC United. We’re also on short rest while SKC rested everyone for their CCL match 2 days ago.

  3. Section 114 (Formerly) says:

    Looking forward to JPD & Tommy Smyth again. If we had known what kind of replacements are out there maybe we woulda found a way to out Pappas’s felonious scuzziness much sooner!

  4. Totally agree with Adam, a result here is mandatory. Draw is the minimum. Getting at least the 3rd seed would be a huge bonus since they’ll play against the 6 seed (DC or Orlando) and avoid Montreal/NYRB. With 2 games against NYRB later, its a very reasonable proposition to think we can get there. Anything above that is a bonus.

  5. Zizouisgod says:

    BTW – anyone notice who played that clever dink out of the back while under pressure to spring Nagbe on the counter?

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