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Preview: Union vs Wizards

Saturday’s showdown between Philadelphia Union (5-11-5, seventh place in the East) and the Kansas City Wizards (7-9-5, fourth place in the East) will pit two clubs who are on the outside looking in as the MLS Cup playoff hunt enters the stretch run. KC is in better shape with 26 points through 21 matches, putting them three points behind the San Jose Earthquakes for the final spot if the season ended today. Philadelphia is sitting on 21 points, making Saturday’s match a virtual must-win if the club hopes to keep their postseason hopes alive.

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Both sides are entering the match with confidence and momentum gained from recent road victories. The Union edged the New England Revolution 2-1 thanks to an 82nd minute equalizer from Jack McInerney, which was followed by Justin Mapp's stoppage time game-winner. Kansas City is coming off an impressive 2-0 shutout win against the LA Galaxy at the Home Depot Center. LA had only lost at home in a league match once this season (3-2 to Chicago on August 1), and Bruca Arena’s squad hadn’t been shut out at home all season until the Wizards came to town. Philadelphia further built upon their dramatic win on Saturday with an impressive showing against Chivas Guadalajara, topping the Mexican giants 1-0 Wednesday at PPL Park.

Kansas City’s win was their second in as many tries, marking the first time the club has won back-to-back league matches since winning their first two of the season. Prior to the victory against LA, head coach Peter Vermes’ side dominated New England to the tune of a 4-1 win. After winning just once in a three-month stretch from mid-April to mid-July, losing eight times in 12 games in the same period, the Wizards have lost just one of their last seven games. Philadelphia are still looking for their first winning streak and first shutout in MLS play, two spells the club will attempt to end simultaneously.

Despite the shutout-less streak, the club’s backline has not been a point of weakness lately. The Union have allowed only five goals in their last five matches in all competitions, 18 goals in their last 16 matches in all competitions, and just a single goal in seven of their last 11 league matches. 

Kansas City's defense has been particularly strong during their last seven league matches, conceding only four goals on the way to a 4-1-2 mark. A 2-1 win against Manchester United on July 25, four days after the Union fell 1-0 to the English giants, makes their form of late even more impressive.

WATCH: Seitz, Miglioranzi preview Saturday's match

Over the same stretch Kei Kamara has notched two goals and three assists, with Ryan Smith contributing two assists. Central midfielder Davy Arnaud has also weighed in with two goals and an assist, and the target striker tandem of Teal Bunbury and Birahim Diop has netted four goals combined. The Union will catch a break with Kamara, who leads KC with eight goals, away on international duty with the Sierra Leone National Team for an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Cairo this weekend.

The Wizards will have both Roger Espinoza and Shavar Thomas available, however, as both defenders will join their respective national teams after the weekend. Thomas will be making his first trip back to Philadelphia after being traded on June 30 in exchange for two second round MLS SuperDraft selections, one in 2011 and one in 2012, as well as allocation money. The Union will be without starting midfielder Eduardo Coudet, who will miss the contest with a right calf strain.

Saturday’s match will feature four rookies who were semifinalists for the 2009 MAC Hermann Trophy Award, given annually to the best college player in the nation. Kansas City forward Teal Bunbury (Akron) won the honor, beating out Philadelphia rookies Danny Mwanga (Oregon State), Kyle Nakazawa (UCLA), and Toni Stahl (Connecticut).

A key to the match for the Union will be shutting the Wizards down early. Counting the Manchester United friendly, Kansas City have struck first in seven of their last eight games, and six of those seven goals came before the 30th minute. KC is 7-0-2 in league play and 8-0-2 overall in 2010 when opening the scoring.

Matchups to watch:

Union attack vs Jimmy Nielsen

Philadelphia will face a Kansas City defense that is averaging 1.10 goals against per game in 2010, a mark tied for seventh stingiest in the league, but their form of late has been stellar. Leading the charge has been goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, who has played every minute of every MLS game for Kansas City this season, one of only seven players in the league to do so. In 1,890 minutes of action, Nielsen has 63 saves, tied for third best in MLS, and eight shutouts, tied for fourth most in the league. His goals against average is the lowest single-season average for a Wizards goalkeeper since Tony Meola in 2004 and third best all-time. He is also a five-time NAPA Save of the Week winner this season, including a kick-save this past weekend to stifle the Galaxy’s Chris Birchall. Nielsen was named an MLS All-Star in July and has the distinction as one of only two 2010 All-Stars to earn the honor in their first season of MLS action, along with New York’s Joel Lindpere.

Looking to break through against Nielsen will be the most prolific stoppage time offense in the league. Justin Mapp’s goal three minutes into extra time against New England was the third winning goal scored by Philadelphia after the 90th minute. Danny Mwanga netted the winner against Houston on May 29 in the 93rd minute, while Sebastien Le Toux converted a penalty five minutes into added time for a 2-1 win vs Toronto FC on July 17. The Union have five goals after the 90th minute, by far the most in MLS.

While late-match heroics certainly make for exciting finishes, Philadelphia would be better served scoring early and avoiding the necessity to push forward in the attack at all costs. While it hasn’t been the case this season, an early advantage should theoretically help the club secure their first shutout in league play. The Union are a dynamic offensive bunch, led by Le Toux and Mwanga, with only the final pass or touch in the attacking third failing the club at times.

Ryan Smith vs Michael Orozco Fiscal and the Union's right wing midfielder

With Kamara out of action, Kansas City’s most dangerous attacking player is midfielder Smith, a product of Arsenal’s youth system who has tallied a goal and seven assists this season. Two of those assists came against Philadelphia, meaning the Union should have a better idea of how to handle the 23-year-old Englishman. The skillful left winger, who came to Kansas City from Crystal Palace of The Championship, is a load along the flanks, and will need to be constantly monitored by Orozco Fiscal and whoever lines up on the right for Manager Peter Nowak.

Recent matches have seen Mapp, Jacobson, Fred and Le Toux all start in that role, and it’s hard to predict who it’ll be on Saturday. Fred is more likely to feature on the left, leaving three players who have the ability to track back and help on the defensive side of the ball as the most likely options. If the Union can find a way to shut down KC’s mercurial winger, they’ll greatly increase their chances of walking away with three points Saturday.

More Analysis

Play by Play Plus: Hungry Wizards Need this One

Union Look to Make it Three Straight vs KC

KC Face Tough Test at Philadelphia

Last Match Highlights

Philadelphia 2, New England 1

Kansas City 2, LA 0

Philadelphia Union Injury Report

OUT: DF Toni Stahl (R lower leg strain); MF Eduardo Coudet (R calf strain); QUESTIONABLE: MF Fred (R groin strain); FW Alejandro Moreno (R hamstring strain); DF Shea Salinas (L fibula fracture)

Kansas City Injury Report

OUT: MF Zoltan Hercegfalvi (R knee sprain/torn ACL)

Match Information

Date: Saturday, September 4, 2010

Time: 3:30pm ET

Location: PPL Park (Chester, Pa.)

Television: Live Well HD Network/MyNetwork TV – WQMY

Talent: JP Dellacamera (Play-by-Play); Tommy Smyth (Color Analyst)

Referee: Ramon Hernandez; SAR (bench): Cameron Blair; JAR (opposite): Thomas Supple; 4th: Lee Suckle