Tactical Analysis

Tactics quick hits: Sporting Kansas City 1-1 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Paul Rudderow

For a tightly scheduled week, let’s hit this week’s tactical analysis in the form of some quick hit observations.

Medunjanin’s first half passing chart shows how effective KC’s pressure was.

SKC’s impressive organization

Sporting Kansas City’s organization on both sides of the ball is extremely impressive. Pairing a high line with high pressure always looks risky on paper when a player with Fafa Picault’s speed is going the other way. But, particularly in the first half, KC was so quick to press the ball that the Union rarely had a chance to look over the top. Haris Medunjanin’s passing chart says a lot about the time and space he had throughout the opening frame.

Fantastic attacking movement by SKC

Given the lineup changes Peter Vermes made, the timing of KC’s attacking movements were fun to watch. Daniel Salloi and Latif Blessing dragged fullbacks into the center as the home side’s fullbacks advanced, and Ike Opara and Ilie Sanchez pinged stunning diagonals around the pitch with breathtaking accuracy and consistency. Quick ball movement in back kept C.J. Sapong and Ilsinho from effectively pressing the first line in KC’s buildup.

Union force low-percentage shots

The Union did another strong job keeping bodies in their box to force Sporting into lower percentage shots. Peter Vermes even mentioned it in his halftime interview with KC’s broadcast. With the size Philly has in back now, teams are targeting Ray Gaddis in the air, but Jack Elliott has done wonderfully protecting his smaller teammate.

Curtin spot on with subs

Union head coach Jim Curtin killed it with subs. Down a goal, Curtin went to his bench for two changes in the 61st minute.

Although Ilsinho had been a key part of the Union’s transition game (even if his open field decision-making remains an Achilles’ heel), recognizing that fresh legs were the most important thing needed to stay close to KC was good in-game management.

Additionally, Marcus Epps continues to impress with his ability to basically do what Ilsinho was supposed to do on the wing: Take people on and get into good positions around the box. There are elements of both the Brazilian and Fabian Herbers in Epps’ game, and the rookie’s work rate off the ball is great to see, even if he can get caught ball-watching (again, he’s still a rookie).

Union set piece defense problems

Set piece defense – what’s going on? All of the Union’s hard work was nearly undone by poor set piece marking, and KC successfully ran the same back post pick play multiple times without Philly adjusting.

Sapong still hot

C.J. Sapong is in the zone right now. As his confidence rises, Sapong’s patience with the ball improves. Watching Jay Simpson lose the ball unnecessarily in the 95th minute underscores how intelligent Sapong’s play when isolated up top as been. He protects the ball first and doesn’t feel the need to turn upfield so much as find available space as a play develops around him. Even if Sapong’s movement around goal remains a work in progress, his develoment as a hold-up man suggests he is still improving even as he hits his peak years.

The trouble with wingers

There are not many teams in MLS that have the organization and depth of Sporting KC.

Still, Philly will need to figure out how to deal with opponents that can create space behind the wingers by dragging fullbacks narrow. Strong positioning from the Union’s central midfielders prevented Sporting from accessing the middle once they got deep, but remember: This wasn’t Peter Vermes’ “A” squad.

Questions to answer
  1. Epps time: Has Marcus Epps done enough to retain his spot as the first winger off the bench, even with Fabian Herbers healthy and Roland Alberg potentially pushing Ilsinho back to the wing?
  2. High lines: What tactics would help the Union free up Haris Medunjanin (and Fafa Picault deep) against teams that effectively compress space with a high line?
  3. Depth questions: Can the Union make the playoffs with Derrick Jones as the first option off the bench in midfield and Jay Simpson as the only real depth (aside from Picault, perhaps) at striker? Jones has been effective but a bit hesitant in recent games. Simpson has yet to look comfortable in MLS play.


  1. It was amazing how much the game changed when Curtin brought on Alberg and Epps.

    • It’s almost like the end of a congested fixture list with most of our guys going 90 minutes consecutive games, with some being in bad form on top of it, finally caught up to us and necessitated some fresh blood.

      Too bad Curtin can’t anticipate this ahead of time and needed to watch 60 minutes of some of our worst soccer this season to make a switch.

    • At minute 58, I said to myself, “The Union look utterly flat. Curtin should just make a double sub right now. Too bad he would never do such a thing.” And then he did it!

      So part of me wants to credit his growth as a coach for that excellent move. And part of me wants to shake my head for the fact that he stubbornly refuses to rotate the squad in the first place.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Strikes me that both Medunjanin and Ilsinho are beyond 30 years old.
      They both seemed tired.
      I get that there is no option to the Bosnian.
      But at some point you sacrifice the current game as an investment in future games.

  2. Regarding Simpson, I try to keep emotions in check and give players the benefit of the doubt, but in the 95th minute when he was standing behind the SKC defender on the sideline and not moving at all while Haris was clearly trying to create an angle for himself to be able to play Simpson the ball I was screaming at the television. I think Jay has a place and could be talented, but he is clearly not showing it right now.
    It’s always tough moving to a foreign league and a different country and settling in. I always try to preach patience on new signings, but I hope he can get things figured out sooner rather than later.

    • Of all the people on this team you complain about having no offensive movement, it’s him!?!?

      How about the rest of every other game, where you can watch multiple players constantly stand still and refuse to understand the concept of off the ball movement?

      And if it’s the same play I remember – my reading of it was Simpson was open from the beginning and Haris waited way to long to pass. It seemed to be more a simple misunderstanding than a cardinal sin against the gods of off the ball movement.

      • There’s plenty of blame to go around for lack of offensive off-ball movement, but the play I’m thinking of is the last minute of the game and he’s standing on the sidelines “wide-open” behind an SKC defender who’s defending Haris. He was most certainly not open and not moving to get open.
        To be fair, I was already annoyed at him for appearing to be gassed after his one run. But energy and movement is the one thing he was supposed to bring in his 4 minute cameo and this was poor recognition from him.

  3. I know that this is MLS and the Union and our expectations should not be too high, but I was amazed the lack of support our backs and holding midfielders got in their build up play in the defensive end.
    You don’t have to be EPL, Serie A or Bundesliga to make a supporting square run or triangle run. Time and time again SKC pressed with enough players that there was no open short pass. Rather than make a run to provide an easy pass around the pressure, the other Union players just stood and watched their guy try to break the press solo.
    Not sure if it was a system problem or a tired legs problem, but 10-12yr olds can be taught ball support so not sure why pros aren’t doing it.

    • What you say is on target and a real headscratcher. Support is very teachable and must be demanded by the coach. Fitness to be able to confront a press is also very doable and can make up for a bit of lack of skill. A defender or midfielder holding the ball for more than 6 seconds is a invitation to disaster in this kind of game.

  4. Adam Schorr says:

    1. I think Epps has done more than that. I would play him over Pontius in the starting XI. I think he’s earned it. I’d also try Pontius at the 10, not because I think he’s a great distributor, but because I subscribe to the FIFA video game theory of “speedy winger + big aerial threats in the middle = goals” and Pontius is great at winning balls in the air.
    2. Getting a real #10. Teams simply aren’t worried about Ilsinho getting the ball at midfield with time and space, and Sapong is really the only guy who works to get open, and teams aren’t worried about Ilsinho beating them with speed when Sapong wins the ball to him.
    3. Simpson sucks. Jones is fine, and we have Creavalle/Carroll anyway. Really, there’s 3 absolutely essential players right now: Sapong (holdup), Fafa (speed and attacking), and Medunjanin (creation). Bedoya is important, but his role is simply more fillable. If all 3 of them stay healthy and effective and play every game, we have a shot. Tough ask, especially given the physical nature of Sapong’s game and the likelihood of Fafa wearing out in the late summer heat.

  5. I do not think Simpson has been given enough of a chance for us to really see what he’s capable of. All the guy gets is 15-20 minutes here and there.

    Putting Alberg back in the XI for more than an occasional spot start will likely be a negative. His drawbacks are simply greater than his single positive.

    • COMPLETELY agree with both of these.
      Alberg is a tease pure and simple. His spark as a sub is undeniable. But as a starter, he actually creates a hole on the field that is just as undeniable. Every time he starts, the fact that his game and his effort are so one-dimensional get magnified big time.
      Simpson has been given almost no chance other than the stinkers the team posted to start the season. He’s actually looked pretty good in US Open Cup. I think if
      he got a couple of full games he’s be just fine.
      I am freakin’ lovin’ Wijnaldum right now.

    • I’d love to see Simpson get more time to prove his worth. He’s clearly not suited to the late game sub role. I’m still pulling for him to make it work, but what’s been happening recently is not nearly good enough. I also have more of an understanding because he’s new to the country and league. It takes time for players to settle and it’s really not considered often times when debating players who’ve recently transferred.

  6. 3 things relative to the above discussion and article:
    1. Criticism of Sapong’s goal-scoring and productivity in the box is dumb in my opinion. This isn’t CJ’s fault, it’s the FO’s fault for not getting a real 10 to distribute the ball to him and others.
    2. Epps looks like he’ll be favored over Herbers even when Herbers is healthy and fit. Which reveals an inconsistency in player evaluation and side selection on Curtin’s part. First, Gaddis was great and under-rated, then Keegan came along and was the best thing since chopped liver, now Keegan’s out of favor. Herbers was awesome and ready to take the next step at the beginning of the season, now he’ll probably never get a run again. Yaro was supposedly the best player in the draft, now he can’t get a league start bc Elliott is taller and better… Seems inconsistent to me and I’m sure Keegan’s not all that thrilled that he’s out of favor. BTW, what’s the coaching staff doing to get him back playing with confidence? I’ve seen nothing.
    3. As Adam astutely points out, set piece defending is poorly coached and poorly executed on this team, and always has been.

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