With Major League Soccer’s World Cup break looming, Philadelphia Union (2-6-1) have an important road game against the Kansas City Wizards (2-5-3) on Thursday night (7:30pm ET, Live Well HD Network/MyNetwork TV), the final chapter of a brutal early-season schedule. The Union are coming off a frustrating 2-1 loss to Chicago, in which they controlled the run of play throughout. A short week provides an opportunity for the club to bounce back quickly and regain the momentum that had been building from a two-game unbeaten streak.
Kansas City hasn’t won a league match in their last eight attempts - nine if you include a U.S. Open Cup match against Colorado. Hopes were high after two consecutive wins to open the season, but the bottom has fallen out ever since for Peter Vermes’ side. The club has only scored six goals during the nine-game winless streak, with striker Kei Kamara the only player on the roster with more than a single goal on the season. If not for a terrific start to the season by goalkeeper Jimmy Neilsen, many of the club’s results could’ve been uglier.
Playing on the road is never easy though, especially when you consider the small dimensions of CommunityAmerica Ballpark, KC’s temporary stadium before opening their new grounds next season. Spreading out the attack will be very difficult, meaning manager Peter Nowak’s squad will need to work well together in tight quarters. Philadelphia has the personnel to do so, but adjusting quickly will be the key.
Let’s take a position-by-position look at two clubs looking for much-needed points.
Goalkeeper – Philadelphia Union
So much for Chris Seitz’s early-season struggles. The first-year starter has gone a long way towards proving his doubters wrong, with three straight strong performances including Saturday’s stellar display. The young ‘keeper seems to be getting better with every match, which makes sense given the lack of in-game experience he’s had in his short career.
Now that Seitz is limiting the mistakes, his raw skills are beginning to take over. Seitz’s highlight reel on Saturday included a fingertip save off a Marco Pappa shot that is nominated for MLS Save of the Week, another outstretched save off a Justin Mapp strike before Chicago’s second goal, and a third diving save following a Patrick Nyarko header from close-range.
It appears as if Seitz has really turned the corner, and his first shutout in net for the Union would go a long way towards cementing his ascent.
Goalkeeper – KC Wizards
Jimmy Nielsen has been a bright spot in a disappointing season for the Wizards. Nielsen has four shutouts in just ten games, with a GAA of 1.3. That number doesn’t show you the degree of difficulty of many of his saves, including using his face to make a huge stop last week against Toronto.
The 32-year-old is in his first season with the Wizards after spending two seasons with Danish club Vejle, for whom he made 63 appearances. The “White Puma” has impressed by all accounts and won’t be easy for the Union to beat on Thursday.
Defense – Philadelphia Union
The Union’s backline has yet to record a shutout this season, a trend the unit will look to reverse on Thursday night. Shutting out an opponent on the road is never easy, but Philadelphia’s defense also hasn’t performed up to their potential so far this season with a league-high 2.11 GAA.
The talent and schedule are there for a turnaround in form the rest of the way, and Kansas City’s offense is a good place to start. If Danny Califf and Michael Orozco Fiscal can shut down Kamara in the middle on Thursday, the defense as a whole should be able to keep Kansas City quiet. With two weeks following the match to think about the opening third of the season, a strong performance would go a long way towards building confidence for the remainder of the season.
Defense – KC Wizards
For all of their offensive troubles, the Wizards’ defense has been pretty solid with a 1.3 GAA this season. A 3-0 loss to Houston and a 4-1 loss to Salt Lake are the only blemishes for this defensive unit, and Saturday’s 0-0 tie in Toronto was a good showing. The result is a bit misleading, however, as Toronto was down a man for 30 minutes of the match and Nielsen routinely bailed out the defense in front of him.
Jimmy Conrad is the leader of KC’s backline, bringing a boatload of experience and plenty of talent left over from his time as a U.S. international. He’s joined in the middle by Pablo Escobar, who is on loan from Deportivo Cali, and on the left by Michael Harrington. Harrington was the #3 overall pick in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft and brings stability on the left flank. While Matt Besler has often started on the right, Chance Myers got the nod against Toronto. The #1 overall selection in 2008, Myers hasn’t lived up to his potential yet, mainly due to injuries derailing his first two seasons.
Overall, this is a beatable foursome that gave up 12 goals in five games before last week, but the tight confines won’t help. The losses to Houston and Salt Lake were both on the road, and KC has only conceded three goals in five league matches at home. The Union will have to be sharp on Thursday night to break through in the attacking third.
Midfield – Philadelphia Union
Nowak looks to have settled into a starting midfield of Fred, Shea Salinas, Stefani Miglioranzi and Kyle Nakazawa, a group that will get better and better as they have time to gel. While the midfield has done well for much of the season in terms of controlling the tempo in the run of play, the final pass in the attacking third has been lacking at times, something coach John Hackworth alluded to after the loss to Chicago.
Philadelphia have collectively only received one goal (Salinas) and four assists (Torres 3, Fred 1) from their midfield this season, numbers that will have to improve for the offense to consistently put up big numbers. With that said, it’s encouraging to see such a young club controlling matches on the road, even if the results don’t always reflect what's happening in the middle of the pitch. With a little more crispness and cohesion in and around the penalty area, which should simply come from playing together, the Union midfield will not be an easy group to contend with for the rest of the season.
Midfield – KC Wizards
The Wizards will receive a boost from Davy Arnaud’s return from a red card suspension suffered in the loss to Real Salt Lake. Arnaud is coming off an All-Star campaign in 2009, a deserving nod for a player who has been a solid contributor for the last six seasons. Arnaud’s two-way play will be a key for KC on Thursday.
Josh Wolff, who played alongside Nowak with the Fire, is the club’s most dangerous attacking midfielder. Wolff compiled a career and team-high 11 goals in 2009, recapturing the form that made him one of MLS’ most dangerous players in 2004 and 2005. While Wolff only has a goal and an assist so far in 2009, he’s a threat to strike at any time and will need to be watched closely.
The Wizards’ three-man midfield is rounded out by Jack Jewsbury, a steady holding midfielder who can also contribute in the attack. Jewsbury has 12 assists over the past two years, but hasn’t registered any so far in 2010.
Attack – Philadelphia Union
Sebastien Le Toux, Alejandro Moreno and Danny Mwanga have all done their jobs and then some this season. Le Toux is among the top goalscorers in the league on a per-game basis, Moreno consistently works as hard as anyone on the field and sets up his teammates, and super-sub Mwanga has been the king of stoppage time over the last three weeks, registering a third straight extra time goal in as many games against Chicago.
The next step for this unit is producing multiple goals per game on a relatively consistent basis. The Union have yet to score multiple goals in consecutive games, something that will need to happen for the expansion side to put together an extended run of success. It won’t be easy in a stadium where the visitors have only managed an average of 0.6 goals per game, but the attacking mentality that Nowak has brought to the club gives them a chance to excel offensively on any given night.
While Le Toux and Moreno are staples up top for the Union, and rightfully so, Mwanga has undoubtedly earned playing time with his performances the last three weeks. Don’t be surprised to see Mwanga subbed in early in the second half like he was against Toronto, with Philadelphia playing three strikers or Le Toux moving back into an attacking midfield role.
Attack - KC Wizards
Kansas City’s offense has been one-dimensional, with Kamara’s five goals accounting for over half the team’s goals this season. The striker’s pace can be problematic for opposing defenses, just as Patrick Nyarko’s speed gave the Union trouble last week. If Philadelphia can shut down Kamara, the club could steal three points with only a single goal.
Teal Bunbury, selected three spots after Mwanga in this year’s SuperDraft, has earned a starting spot on Vermes’ squad alongside Kamara, but the talented striker is still looking for his first career goal. Harvey will be tasked will stopping Bunbury, who possesses a combination of size and speed that will be dangerous once he acclimates to the league.
Rounding out Kansas City’s frontline is Ryan Smith, who leads the club in assists with three. Smith came to the Wizards from Crystal Palace of The Championship, England’s second division. Smith came up through the youth ranks of Arsenal and has proven he can hold his own in MLS. More goals will come for the talented striker, but the Union and Cristian Arrieta in particular will hope they wait until after the World Cup break.
Last Match Highlights
Chicago 2, Philadelphia 1
Toronto 0, Kansas City 0
Philadelphia Union Injury Report
PROBABLE: DF Michael Orozco Fiscal (L ankle contusion); FW Danny Mwanga (R ankle contusion); MF Stefani Miglioranzi (R foot contusion)
Kansas City Wizards Injury Report
OUT: MF Zoltan Hercegfalvi (R knee sprain/torn ACL); MF Stephane Auvray (R knee strain)
Date: Thursday, June 10, 2010
Time: 8:00pm ET (7:30pm ET pre-game show)
Location: Community America Ballpark, Kansas City, KS
Television: Live Well HD Network, MyNetworkTV