Match previews

Match preview: Sporting Kansas City v. Philadelphia Union

Photo: Pix215

Who: Philadelphia Union (10th place,0 points, 0-1-0) vs. Sporting Kansas City (12th place, 0 points, 0-1-0)
What: 2019 regular season game
Where: Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas City, KS
When: Sunday, March 10, at 3 pm
Watch: ESPN, TSN4, ESPN+

Incredibly, Philadelphia Union have gone undefeated versus Western Conference bulwark Sporting Kansas City ever since their defeat in the 2015 U.S. Open Cup final. It’s a surprising fact versus one of MLS’ most consistent franchises.

SKC’s consistency will be doubly tested as they handle duty in the CONCACAF Champion’s League and the start of the regular league season. Against Los Angeles FC in Week One, Kansas City manager Peter Vermes chose a full-strength lineup whose tired legs let in a stoppage time winner in a 2-1 loss. Vermes then put a mixed “B-squad” out versus Panamanian CCL Cinderella story Independiente in Central America. Another 2-1 loss followed.

So it will be a curious choice over who Vermes puts out in the starting XI versus Philadelphia Union in Kansas City on Sunday afternoon. No doubt, the pensive Vermes has thought it through, but it could spell the difference in whether the Union can nip a point or more off one of the best teams int the Western Conference.

Projected KC lineup.

Scouting report: Sporting Kansas City

Vermes will roll out his standard 4-3-3 formation that’s won multiple titles during his tenure. But that 4-3-3 doesn’t have the same characteristics of years past. Yes, Sporting Kansas City will still play tough, in-your-face soccer, but the team now has the quality to possess the ball and break opponents down methodically.

The ageless, now-fullback Graham Zusi will push high up the field and allow Scottish winger Johnny Russel to push inside as a constant threat to goal. Russell is a terror and he will be running right at Union left back Kai Wagner all day. The midfield trio of Felipe Gutierrez, Ilie Sanchez, and (likely) Kelyn Rowe filling in for the suspended Roger Espinoza (surprise!), will muddy the game up and emulate Toronto FC’s recipe for handicapping Marco Fabian’s ability to create.

The thing about KC is that none of the names on the team sheet jump out at you. Together, though, they play a really solid game that is high-tempo and, especially in front of their raucous home fans, intense.

  • Injury report: OUT:M – Jimmy Medranda (knee injury) QUESTIONABLE: M – Gianluca Busio (quad injury) D – Andreu Fontas (hip pointer)
  • Suspended: Roger Espinoza (red card)
Scouting report: Philadelphia Union


Projected Union lineup.

Week One’s 3-1 home loss to Toronto FC certainly wasn’t the start to a new tactical rollout Jim Curtin and Ernst Tanner were hoping for. Some things went right for the Union in Chester, but a lot more went wrong.

From the press box, one thing was clearly evident to me: the diamond midfield of Marco Fabian, Alejandro Bedoya, Ilsinho, and Haris Medunjanin is slow. Like, really slow. In a 4-4-2 diamond, that central cluster needs to be able to cover a lot of ground and move across the field defensively on big switches. And when they win the ball, they need to move up the field fast.

So I don’t care how much you possess the ball, that foursome might be able to play pretty little one-twos all day, but they cannot do the required work in a so-called “pressing” diamond. They didn’t press much and — when the long balls over the top to Picault stopped working — they opted for slow, methodical possession instead quick counterattacks. It led to a pithy four shots on goal and the only tally coming from the penalty spot.

Against SKC, the Union will no doubt go with a more defensive lineup with Warren Creavalle or Derrick Jones in defensive midfield. But I don’t like the Union’s chances of earning a gritty road draw at all unless the other box-to-box central midfield role is given to someone who can cover some serious ground, whether it’s Jones, Anthony Fontana, or Brendan Aaronson. No matter how fast Philadelphia’s strikers are, Curtin needs more speed in the midfield stat.

  • Injury report: None
  • Suspended: None
Key matchup

Johnny Russell vs. Kai Wagner. Russell is Kansas City’s engine. He likes to run at defenders and either rip a shot himself or lay a pretty ball across the box (we saw what happens when no one follows the runners for those balls!). Wagner is going to be busy all night and, while he held his own last week, it will be his first real defensive test in Major League Soccer.

Player to watch

Fafa Picault. Picault made a living off road goals against the run of play last year. It will again be on Fafa — now in the striker role — to do the same in Kansas.

Prediction: Sporting Kansas City 3-1 Philadelphia

No matter how tired Sporting’s legs are, the home field advantage and a well-trained side are going to take advantage of every little mistake the Union make. It’s going to be tough sledding for Jim Curtin and Philadelphia while they acclimate a new system and new players to the league, especially on the road.


  1. This SKC team is the most unpredictable match up the Union have. Every one of these games goes completely away from how it ought to. 6-4 Union.

  2. I like the lineup sans Haris. Its the kind of mix that can surprise.

  3. SilverRey says:

    Quick correction up top. The game is not on ESPN, it’s on PHL17 (with a pregame show that starts at 2:30pm).

  4. Joseph G Barnett says:

    Keeping an eye on Curtin……..I like your line up also. If Curtin starts Harris at the back of the Diamond it should be another nail in his coffin. Fontana looked very good in his limited preseason gametime. Crevalle is a defensive upgrade at the back of the Diamond but why not see what Jones can do.

    Ernst has to put Curtin on a short string. If the Union are not ahead of last years production by the end of May he should be replaced. It does not matter who comes in another Union old boy, a USL coach , it really does not matter. Ernst should have been looking at potential Curtin replacements after watching him coach last year. Hopefully he has already talked to few upgrades to Curtin and is just waiting to pull the trigger.

  5. Here is a preview:

    1. Mistakes in the back;
    2. Shoddy midfield play;
    3. Crappy finishing;
    4. Tactical ineptitude; and
    5. A loss

  6. 3_1 union

  7. The Truth says:

    Haris is going to start again and be responsible for at least one goal. He’ll be subbed off at half, giving us all hope, but he’ll start again next week…and the week after…and the week after…until he or Curtin expires.

  8. The Truth says:

    Quite frankly I have no clue how this match will go down. The Blue Cauldron is easily one or the more intimidating atmospheres. Vermes is no slouch and I don’t suspect much slouching from Sporting. That said I’m actually optimistic. The U have something to prove (to us and to themselves) and historically have done well out there.
    3-2 Union, à la today’s Newcastle.

  9. Meanwhile Sapong – 2 games, 2 goals. Amazing since he couldn’t buy a goal last year. Environment? Supporting cast?

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