Postgame analysis: Union 0-2 Sporting KC

While a slow start to the season was to be expected given Philadelphia Union’s tough opening series of fixtures, it never needed to look this miserable. A missed penalty, a straight red, and an own goal; Sunday’s matchup looked like the Union was playing against itself, and losing. With a daunting matchup against Atlanta United next week, the Union will have a lot of work ahead of them after this loss against Sporting KC.

Welcome to the Kai Wagner show

The one silver lining for the Union was Kai Wagner’s stellar showing at left outside back. If the Union are asking for transition football, then it looks like Wagner is the only one that’s gotten the memo. He reported the most tackles and the most interceptions for the team, while offensively contributing the most touches for a second week in a row. It’s no surprise then that 41% of the Union’s drives originated from Wagner’s left side, compared to 30% down the right and only 29% down the center. When you consider the fact that Wagner had the highest passing accuracy on the team at 91.9%, it’s looking like the 22-year-old could make a major contribution to the Union this season.

The rest of the defense was also better this week than last, barring Jack Elliott’s own goal and Trusty’s foul that gave away the opening penalty goal. Gaddis still has plenty of room to grow, but his performance surpassed last week’s showing. Likewise, Elliott was able to harass Sporting KC’s attack and clean up dangerous crosses. He numbered 9 clearances and 3 blocks – the most of any defender – and the majority of them were from inside the box.

At the same time however, the Union’s backline is running out of time to get to the next level of play. The Union’s recurrent storyline of a strong defensive performance negated by one or two vital errors has been accepted as growing pains for long enough. It’s time for the young and promising defensive lineup of the Union to put in strong defensive performances, full stop. Whether they can cross that chasm over the course of this season will be a key factor in determining how far the Union are able to go.

The midfield that is supposed to be everywhere

The Union midfield, featuring the introduction of Warren Creavalle in place of Ilsinho, looked a certain measure better than it did last week against Toronto FC. While Harris Medunjanin has been one of the biggest suppliers for the Union’s strikers, his greatest improvement this week was actually attempting to play a center defensive midfielder. He tracked back and looked less lethargic, which is promising since the coaching staff have shown no inclination to change course in trusting Medunjanin with the keys to the defensive midfield. Additionally, Creavalle brought more stability to the midfield than Ilsinho and seemed to fit the new system in a way that showed on the pitch. Head coach Jim Curtin seemed to acknowledge as much when he replaced Burke with Ilsinho, rather than subbing Ilsinho into the same position in midfield from last week.

Despite the improvements above, the Union midfield still seemed mercurial at times. While the centerpiece of the Union’s new system is supposed to be a dynamic midfield that seamlessly transitions from defense to attack and vice versa, it seemed like much of the Union’s play circumvented the midfield entirely. With the freedom given to the outside backs to carry the ball down the wings, a lot of the Union’s attacks went straight from the back four to the front two. At times throughout the match, it seemed like the midfield’s contribution hinged solely on throwing the ball ahead of Burke or Picault to collect and attack with, almost resembling a hockey-like “dump and chase” philosophy. While the Union midfield did play decently when they had the ball, particularly in the first half, there were stretches of time where the Union midfield was non-existent, even before the Union went down to 10 men.

In any other context, it could be chalked up as a consequence of the flow of play and adapting to the situation at hand, but since the Union are placing so much investment and emphasis on building up the midfield, it leaves a lot of questions. In fact, it seems like the Union midfield played a much more prominent role for the team within last year’s possession-heavy approach than it has been playing this year. The season is still young, and maybe this is something that the coaching staff and squad can figure out, but the Union will have to be very careful to avoid trying to have the midfield be everywhere, and ultimately end up with the midfield being nowhere.

Marco Fabian can’t fly

The fatal flaw for the Union somehow ended up being Marco Fabian’s inability to defy gravity, fly, or teleport away from a reckless challenge. Although it’s impossible to analyze how Fabian could have played better in that situation – at least with humanity’s current understanding of physics and kinetic energy – it does offer an opportunity to consider the role that officiating has and will continue to play for the Union.

In the Union’s first week match against Toronto FC, the referee gave away a very soft penalty call that could have kicked down the Union’s chances before the match-up even got fully underway, if it weren’t for Andre Blake coming up strong in goal. In the Union’s match against Sporting KC, another soft penalty call from the referee created the gap that an inexplicable red card definitively sealed. Poor refereeing has had a front stage role in both of the Union’s matchups this season.

On the flip side, there were multiple counterattacks that saw the Union burst down the wings in a dangerous style. These were promptly shut down by Sporting KC through the tactical use of fouls. The perfect example was in the 68th minute, when Fafa Picault beat Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi on the left side to go two-on-two alongside Burke. Zusi immediately got up, and kicked down Picault from behind. The Union’s counterattack – which is the crux of their entire strategy – was shut down with little effort through the use of a tactical foul, and Zusi received nothing more than a “stern talking to,” despite already being on a yellow card from the first half.

This is important to acknowledge for two main reasons. The first is to highlight the need for better refereeing in the MLS, which is a point that nearly all soccer fans in the United States have acknowledged for a while now. It’s unfortunate that a league growing as fast as the MLS has such poor quality in its officiating, and something needs to be done about it.

The second reason is more topical to the Union: one of the drawbacks of the Union’s play style is that it leaves the team susceptible to the whim of referees, and that is a dangerous thing for a team that claims that “No One Likes Us.”

On the offensive side, the Union are attempting to move to a system that relies on fast transitions that expose the opposition defensively. This means explosive runs and beating players one-on-one to create open space to exploit. Both of these components to the Union game plan have the weakness of being extremely easy to shut down with a simple foul. This wouldn’t be a problem if the officiating were consistent, but unfortunately, the refereeing personalities play as much a role in determining decisions in the MLS as the rules of the game do. Therefore, the Union have to figure out how to implement their game plan without being ineffectualized by tactical fouls.

This is a major issue defensively as well, since the new system leaves the Union’s defenders more exposed and requires them to play more scrappily and more aggressively. Naturally, when Union defenders are lunging, blocking, and tackling in high stakes situations, referees are much more likely to call penalties and misread situations. The Union have already conceded two penalties and gotten a red card, and it’s not even week 3 of the season. Combining a young backline that is still gaining experience with a system that asks them to execute flawlessly in high-stakes situations is a treacherous road, and it’s one that the Union will have to tread carefully. It seems like the Union’s play style is playing its weaknesses rather than its strengths.

Additionally, the Union’s reliance on playing the ball in the air, and using headers and aerial duels to push the flow of play forward, is a liability since the league’s referees are quick to call fouls when player’s heads are involved. While players like Burke have always been given more than their share of fouls for going into aerial duels, placing as much emphasis on aerial play as the Union has been is needlessly playing into other team’s hands. Marco Fabian’s first yellow card exemplified that.

And on the Union go from here

While the team looked better in Week 2 than it did in Week 1, the scoresheet looked pretty much the same. If Marco Fabian had put his penalty away and learned to defy gravity, it might have been an entirely different match, which is a good sign against a team as dominant as Sporting KC have been. Next week’s matchup against Atlanta might not be any prettier, however. It will likely fall on the Union’s matchups against Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati in the second half of March to determine whether or not the new system is truly working. In the meantime, they have a lot to improve on. Like any of the recent seasons with the Union, there is a lot to be skeptical about and some things to be hopeful about.



  1. John O'Donnell says:

    This week for me is all about if the Union really believe in their philosophy and Brenden Aaronson gets the start to replace Fabian. Atlanta will be coming off a short week and possibly out of CCL. It’s time for Jim to live and die on the team philosophy and play the youth.
    Time for a little more youth and speed against a tired team that’s probably going to beat them anyway. But at least give the kids the experience in a big situation.

    • It’s going to be Ilsinho in the middle and Gaddis instead of Mbaizo. There’s zero doubt in my mind. It’s Curtin after all.

    • Santos instead of Fafa? Yeah, right. Fafa has at least 10 more goalless starts in him before Jim tries someone else. Aaronson? You’re off your rocker. Ilsinho will play the 10 role and play it as he only knows how – drifting out wide, playing zero defense, and tiring after 30 minutes.
      And Mbaizo? You think Jim is going to give up tried and true Ray Gaddis? He has one of the safest spots on the field, save for Blake. Minutes leader, locker room guy, trains hard, and a man of the lord. Jim only gives minutes to guys with minutes, only gives good locker-room boys minutes, only respects what he sees in training, and is a graduate of a Catholic university. (That last point is just a joke).
      Long story short, the same KC lineup will be rolled out against ATL (with Ilsinho in for Fabian). It’s going to be the same story and we’ll all be back here Monday talking about missed chances and listlessness.

      • I think if Ilsinho starts he needs to just knock the ball around and get comfortable with his passes. If he does this i think the team will start possessing more and have confidence knocking the ball around more than just attack attack attack. Ilsinho needs to wisely choose when he goes 1 v1 because he is very successful when implementing it at the right time. Doing it every time he gets the ball is too obvious and ineffective. I personally like Ilsinho as a sub coming on in the 2nd have to demolish the opponents desense. By the way, he is st Least a better defender than Medujanin.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    Dump and Chase.
    Use this often myself. If only Union had an ‘icing’ rule.
    in other news… as it relates to this Diamond Midfield.
    you have the trequartista in Marco (who will be off the field at least this week).
    you have the regista in Haris… who apparently isn’t coming of the field.
    you have alejandro who isn’t coming off the field…
    its the other midfielder…. and this past week Jim chose Warren Creavalle over Derrick Jones…. which is to say, Derrick Jones has no future in this city- “Dear Agent, on the speed dial cellular phone, If I’m the player…. GMTFOOH ASAP.”
    Sergio Santos did more in his cameo, IMO than Corey Burke did. And I’d take him in a heartbeat over Burke every time. He is far more skilled with a ball at his feet in 1v1 than Corey and I don’t think the outright speed is even debatable.
    If Fafa is drawing out wide to find the game, because the RB has limited offensive contribution, then I hope Mbazio is the answer.
    the team has given up 5 goals in two games.
    what else is there to even discuss.
    they can’t score yet (no early season news here) and are so far away from even considering a clean sheet one really wonders….
    I expected a rough start… but I’m freaking so goddam tired of being resigned to having to expect tough starts because everything about this franchise is constantly shifting— like a Golden on the back leather bench of a car coming out of the Bitterroot Range.
    How to find rest, without resignation. That is the question.

  3. santo bevacqua says:

    A very objective piece, one of the best analysis. I hope management and coach read and reread it.

  4. Here’s my line up against Atlanta. Any thoughts ?

    Picault Santos


    Bedoya. Creavalle


    Wagner. McKenzie. Collin. Mbaizo


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