Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 3-1 Sporting Kansas City

Photo: Earl Gardner

How long have Union fans waited for their team to turn in a performance like that on the national stage?

The Union obliterated Sporting KC in the quarterfinals of the MLS is Back Tournament last week through a three-goal blitz in the first half. The result has transfer rumors surrounding some of the club’s young talent and the Union firmly entrenched in an unusual role — tournament favorites — with the semifinal coming up tonight against Portland.


Yes, all the talk after the match centered on Brendan Aaronson, the Union’s young midfielder who looks primed for a European transfer sooner rather than later.

But — though he did produce a sumptuous assist — the man of the match on the night was unquestionably Sergio Santos.

The Brazilian striker’s first year with the Union unfolded in fits and starts, injuries and form conspiring to keep Santos from claiming a regular place in the starting lineup. He started just five games in his first year in MLS.

That’s changed at the MLS is Back Tournament so far — at least after he recovered from a muscle injury in the buildup to the tournament. Santos buried the winner in an otherwise dour Round of 16 match against New England, and he followed that up by blowing the roof off the place against Kansas City.

Each goal on the night reflected something that Santos brings to the side. On the first goal, while it was Alejandro Bedoya’s sensational run that created the tap-in for Jamiro Monteiro, it took Santos’s perfectly weighted pass to send Bedoya through the KC line and in to the perfect position. The second goal is all Santos’s speed and finishing — he starts the run that leads to the goal at the edge of his own penalty area, blasts by the KC defense with a few massive touches, and then caps the play with a perfectly placed shot for the goal. Santos’s finishing featured again on the third goal, but he also desrces credit for the intelligent run that put him in place for Aaronson’s perfect ball.

In my view, Santos has flashed a package of skills that could make him a top, top scorer in MLS. Few are as fast, as physical, and as quality in the box as he is when he’s on. Those traits all fit perfectly into the Union’s high-press style as well. Whatever’s sparked Santos to life in this tournament, it could be just what he needs to get his career with the Union into high gear.

(Maybe it’s the shaved head. Who knows?)

Striker Muffin crumbling

On the flip side, it hasn’t been a massively successful tournament for Santos’s counterpart, Kacper Przybylko.

Przybylko has been an iron man for the Union — coming into the tournament, he’d only been subbed out of two matches since his first start in April 2019. But he hasn’t yet found the form that propelled him to a 15-goal campaign last season in Orlando, with only one goal to his name. He’s found himself subbed out in both of the knockout stage matches, with the cameras catching him looking visibly frustrated when he left the KC match.

Asked about Kacper at his weekly press conference, Union manager Jim Curtin didn’t see much concern. “You want players to be frustrated when they come out of a game — otherwise, they’re not real competitors.” Curtin went on to say that the staff spotted some fatigue in his legs that wasn’t allowing Przybylko to press the way they wanted, and that he was happy that the team was finding ways to win when their best players weren’t at their best.

I agree with Curtin on all counts. One of Striker Muffin’s best qualities is that he’s honest and wears his heart on his sleeve, and I have no doubt that he wanted to keep going. And it’s true that his being off the pace hasn’t stopped the Union from rolling.

That said, with the lights getting big against Portland, it’ll be the sort of game where you need a locked-in Przybylko. Remember, Kacper missed the playoffs last season for the Union — an absence that clearly hurt them in the matchup with Atlanta United.

His presence tonight could make the difference for Philadelphia.


I will now cram my other random thoughts into bullet points to wrap up this article.

  • I’m seeing the Union’s defense get a lot of credit for their play in the tournament so far, and it’s hard to argue with just three goals conceded through five games. That said, they’re giving up way too many shots, something that they will need to tighten up. This stat from Joe Tansey puts it in perspective:

  • Ernst Tanner should strike while the iron is hot regarding Brendan Aaronson, whose highlight assist has him on the international radar. Will his value be higher in December, or during next summer’s transfer window, than it is now? Possible, but risky. If Tanner can get a good chunk of change and a sell-on clause, now is the time to move Aaronson overseas. (I voted for Gladbach in Chris Gibbons’ poll.)
  • If he’s sold, Mark McKenzie will go for less cash than Aaronson — that’s the nature of defenders. But I would be shocked if McKenzie doesn’t have the more impactful long-term career in Europe and with the USMNT. He has been so good night in and night out for the Union: a tremendously smart and composed player alongside his prodigious physical talents.
  • This matchup against the Timbers should be a ton of fun, huh? Curtin talked about the similarities between Diego Chara and Jose Martinez during his media availability, and watching the two of them snapping into tackles won’t be the only fun matchup. How about the on-fire Sebastian Blanco against McKenzie and Jack Elliott? Or Portland keeper Steve Clark versus himself? It should be fascinating, even if it remains bittersweet that none of us will be there in person to see it.


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    My biggest worry about selling Aaronson and/or McKenzie now is their ability to adjust to moving to an unfamiliar country in the middle of a pandemic. While it wouldn’t be the Union’s problem directly, a poor showing could make teams reluctant to invest in future Union players. Plus, of course, we want both of them to succeed wherever they go (excepting other MLS teams).

  2. Chris Gibbons says:

    Gladbach? The worst kits of the bunch, objectively.

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