Match previews

Match preview: Philadelphia Union at Sporting Kansas City

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Author’s note: This post has been updated to reflect the USMNT call-up of Chris Pontius, which was announced shortly after this post went live.

Who: Philadelphia Union (8th in East, 22 points, 6-4-7) vs. Sporting Kansas City (2nd in West, 31 points, 8-7-4)
What: 2017 regular season game
Where: Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas City, Kan.
When: Thursday, July 6, 8:30 ET
Watch: FS1, MLS Live
Whistle: Ricardo Salazar; Ian Anderson, Kathryn Nesbit, Nima Saghafl

When the Philadelphia Union visits Sporting Kansas City on Thursday night, it will match up two teams missing some big names due to international duty and suspension.

The Union will be without Andre Blake and Alejandro Bedoya, arguably their two most important players (along with, perhaps, C.J. Sapong), along with possibly Chris Pontius and center back Jack Elliott.

Meanwhile, Kansas City will be missing Dom Dwyer, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza, along with possibly winger Gerso, but they’ll be playing at home in one of MLS’s most imposing venues, where they haven’t lost all year.

The match will likely be decided by which team better handles the absences.

Scouting report: Sporting Kansas City

Projected SKC lineup.

Kansas City may be flying below the radar as the best in the league, and they just need their record to catch up with it.

No team has surrendered fewer than the 13 goals and 175 shots they’ve conceded through 19 games.

They lead the league in chances created (200), chances created from open play (176), passes (9,996), passes completed (8,335) and passing accuracy (83.4 percent).

And they have the sort of depth where they lose Graham Zusi and replace him with the Saad Abdul-Salaam, who some say was the best right back in MLS last year. Matt Besler will be replaced by Kevin Ellis, who isn’t the same quality but has started 46 games the last 3.5 seasons.

Kansas City don’t have Abdul-Salaams at every position though, and that could pose problems for them Thursday.

Their key absence is Dwyer at striker. His good friend Soony Saad will likely replace him and has a ton of talent, but he’s yet to score this season in five starts (10 appearances total) and has never really put together much goal-scoring form during his time in MLS.

The next most damaging one is probably Espinoza, one of the most active and aggressive center midfielders in the league and a player who is key to Kansas City’s sustained defensive pressure. Jimmy Medranda is a good replacement who has played all over the field the last two years for Kansas City, but there simply isn’t another player in the league like Espinosa.

With Benny Feilhaber only recently back from injury, the question will be how effectively this team can generate chances with so many absences. But they only need one or two good ones.

  • Injury report: Questionable: Gerso Fernandez (shoulder)
  • Suspended: Roger Espinoza (yellow card accumulation)
  • International duty: Matt Besler, Dom Dwyer, Graham Zusi (all USA)
Scouting report: Philadelphia Union

Projected Union lineup.

The Union have gone 5-2-2 in games that Alejandro Bedoya has started at the No. 8. Until Sunday, they hadn’t won a game without Bedoya at the No. 8. Their win Sunday came against a New England squad missing key players due to international duty.

So which Union are we more likely to see?

  • The team that previously went 0-5-2 with someone other than Bedoya starting at the No. 8?
  • Or the team that controlled Sunday’s match?

Bedoya’s absences change the way the team plays. He fills spaces at both ends of the field, plays a key part in quick transition, and creates chances in the attack.

Derrick Jones, his likely replacement, clearly has a ton of potential, but what he doesn’t yet have is the instantaneous decision-making quality that comes after years of experience at this level of play. Bedoya doesn’t have to think twice about when to push up into space and when not to, because he’s played at this level and higher for nearly a decade. For Jones, this level is new to him, and he is still feeling out when he can push up into attack without getting burned on the counter. But the more minutes he plays, the quicker that learning curve will accelerate.

Beyond that, the other key absence is obviously Andre Blake. That, all by itself, could cost the Union points, because MLS has nobody else who stops shots like he does.

Update: Chris Pontius’s late call-up could lead to either Marcus Epps getting his first start with the Union or Roland Alberg starting at the No. 10 while Ilsinho slides out to the right.

  • Injury report: Out: Maurice Edu (M, surgery recovery). Questionable: Fabian Herbers (F, right adductor), Warren Creavalle (M, hamstring), Jack Elliott (D, adductor/low ab strain)
  • Suspended: None.
  • International duty: Alejandro Bedoya (USA), Andre Blake (Jamaica)
Key matchup: C.J. Sapong vs. Kevin Ellis

With Matt Besler on international duty, Kevin Ellis will likely replace him in Kansas City’s sporting lineup. He is a hard worker, but he’s also a tweener, a guy too short to flourish as a top center back but too slow to make it as a regular starting right back. If the Union can get Sapong more often isolated in the air against Ellis, Sapong could find the goal waiting.

The catch: Ellis’s partner, Ike Opara, is one of the league’s best center backs and, particularly, one of the best in the air. So the question will be where the Union aim their crosses and where Sapong seeks to attack in the air. Targeting Opara’s side is likely to be futile.

Player to watch: Derrick Jones

Jones will likely replace Bedoya at the No. 8 box-to-box role, and while he has impressed at times for the Union, he hasn’t shown much comfort in attack. In some ways, that’s odd, since he looked good doing so for Bethlehem Steel FC last year — at times, even playing the No. 10 — but MLS is a faster league. That is doubly the case when you’re playing a team like Kansas City, who bring intense defensive pressure high up the field.

How Jones deals with that pressure and the space it leaves (or doesn’t leave) could determine how the Union fare on the day.

Prediction: 1-0 Kansas City

Kansas City is missing some big names, but so are the Union. They’ve won just one game this year without Bedoya at the No. 8 and they’re missing their star goalkeeper. They now have to go into one of the toughest stadium atmospheres in MLS, and Kansas City hasn’t lost at home this year.

Look for goalkeeping to make the difference. Tim Melia is one of the league’s best keepers. John McCarthy is a backup with a pension for mental errors, although he has shown signs he may be outgrowing that. Blake’s international duty provides McCarthy with his first extended chance to prove it.


  1. pragmatist says:

    I think the key Union player will be Josh Yaro, since he’ll likely play in place of Elliott. If he can replicate Jack’s calmness on the ball and his distribution, we’ll be ok.
    I’m also concerned about how quickly Fafa’s legs will return. He ran 90 minutes worth of wind sprints on Sunday. We’ll need him in good shape. Otherwise, Pontius will go left, Ilsinho right, and Alberg at the 10 (which may happen, regardless).
    I’d like to steal a W in this one. Take advantage of their missing players.

  2. Gonna take a miracle for Philly to score a goal against KC’s defense. They’ve been amazing this year. Interesting news about Pontius going to the Gold Cup. We’ll probably see Epps unless Herbers is fit to go at least 60.

  3. 1. I agree with pragmatist that a key player for the Union will be Yaro. But I also agree with Dan that our other key player will be Jones, because it will likely fall to him to try to mark Feilhaber out of the game, which is a very difficult task (though perhaps slightly easier with Feilhaber coming off an injury).

    2. Reports are stating that Pontius will be joining the USMNT on Friday, after the Union-KC match. And he might not even make the 18 for Arena, and if he does, he certainly won’t be starting. So I think that he will start the match for the Union tomorrow night. (I hope, because despite Alberg’s spectacular goal this weekend, we are much better without him on the pitch.)

    • If Pontius is available for the Union, Jim Curtin’s not gonna care what Bruce Arena’s plans are for him. Curtin is only responsible for the Union, not the USMNT, and he will do what he thinks is best for the Union. We will see him on the pitch.

  4. Andy Muenz says:

    This is one of the most intriguing matchups for the Union because over the years, they’ve had better results against Kansas City than their respective records would indicate that they should.
    2012 – KC won the conference, Union had the 4-0 win at PPL.
    2013 – KC finished second in the conference but the Union managed the 1-0 win on the road on the Casey goal (but lost twice at PPL)
    2014 – KC finished in the final playoff spot, 7 points ahead of the Union, despite the Union grabbing 7 points in 3 head to head meetings.
    2016 – KC finished 5 points ahead of the Union but also gave the Union their last win of the season.

    • Very ineresting observation! I’ll give you two more:
      1. Based on goal differential, the Union are the 5th best road team in the league.
      2. At exactly 1 goal allowed per away match, the Union are tied for the second best road defense in the league.

      (KC is first at 0.89 goals/away match, and Dallas is tied with the Union. Then NYCFC at 1.22 goals/away match, Toronto at 1.25, and no other team is even close to us.)

      Granted both teams are missing extremely important defensive pieces, and we’ll have to see how their replacements perform. But this match has all the makings of a one-mistake / one-break 1-0 match, or a 0-0 draw.

  5. Section 114 (Formerly) says:

    UPDATED FURTHER: Pontius is going to report to Nashville on Friday after the KC game. Presumably he won’t be in the 18 against Panama but will be available and probably get some time in the games against the minnows.

    • Meh. He should leave no. He has been invisible and needs a rest anyway, and we know Curtin wouldn’t do that on his own. I was hoping Arena would save Curtin from Curtin.

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    Need any points out of this game. Per usual, we have zero room for error. This is a chance to get some against a quality opponent that is lacking it’s stars. Union must take advantage.

  7. If the Union’s upswing is to be believed and not just another mirage, they need to play for a win. Not just hope, and hanging on for a tie Jimbo. An actual win on the road.

    • It’s more likely a mirage. The Union have 6 wins this year. 1 is against a team currently in the playoffs and that team (Houston) has 0 road wins. Throw in the fact that the Union have the hardest schedule left in MLS, are currently not in the playoffs, 10 of 17 left on the road and 12 of 17 left against current playoff teams and you have your mirage.

      • Oh, I have no faith in this team. I do not expect more than a tie. But if I am to believe in it, and maybe sometime in the future, it’s manager, then they need to win.

      • scottymac says:

        Union have one (1!) road points against teams above the red line and 5 out of a possible 21.
        Good teams beat good teams. We aren’t one. The mirage has been scuffling and snatching the occasional point from the dreck of MLS.
        That late August stretch-@SJ, midweek @TFC, best offense ATL looks brutal.

  8. This is the stretch of the season I was most concerned about all winter/spring.
    I’m not as worried about Blake being out of goal for several games as I am that McCarthy will be playing in his place. If we end up with just three points from these games, I will consider that a miracle.

  9. If you turn on FS1 at 8:30, you’re gonna see a NASCAR race. The game is on The Comcast Network.

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