This Saturday, Sporting Kansas City comes to PPL Park with 29 points, a 9-3-2 record, and a second-place spot in the Eastern Conference.
Peter Vermes' side came out of the gates on fire in 2012, winning seven straight games to begin the season. They hit a bit of a skid after that, losing three straight before righting the ship and starting another unbeaten run.
Kansas City is coming off a 1-1 midweek draw at Seattle after beating Toronto 2-0 at home last Saturday.
Philadelphia and Sporting played to two draws in last season's race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. After a scoreless draw at PPL Park, Sebastien Le Toux's second half goal earned the Union a 1-1 result in the return trip to LIVESTRONG Sporting Park.
Kansas City uses a free flowing 4-3-3 formation with a lot of interchangeable parts.
You're likely to see C.J. Sapong or Teal Bunbury playing at the "tip" of that formation, occupying opposing central defenders and providing a big target for crosses into the box.
MLS veteran Kei Kamara is the primary option on the right side of the attack, but Vermes has started Jacob Peterson in that spot in the last two games.
Kamara and Sapong lead the team with five goals each this year.
Graham Zusi is the key supplier on the wings, leading KC with eight assists this year. The dynamic midfielder has played a big role for Kansas City these last two years, and earned himself a second call-up with the United States Men's National Team in late May.
New addition Bobby Convey would normally start for Kansas City, but he’s out for this game with a calf strain. Soony Saad is another option and got a rare start against Seattle.
As much as analysts talk about the Sporting attack, Kansas City's backline is actually better. They are statistically the best in the league with just 11 goals conceded this season.
It really starts with second-year center half Aurelien Collin. The Frenchman is having a season worthy of an All-Star selection and even has three goals and an assist to go along with his rock solid backline play. He’s incredibly effective in the air and among the best center backs in the league.
His usual partner Matt Besler is out of action with appendicitis. He had started 12 straight games before doctors ruled him out for 1-3 weeks.
Backup Lawrence Olum has filled in admirably for Besler, and even saved KC with a late-game goal line clearance against Seattle.
Kansas City’s first choice fullback pairing features Seth Sinovic on the left and Chance Myers on the right. 26-year-old Michael Harrington can play just about anywhere on the backline.
Sporting also has a pair of quality defensive midfielders in Julio Cesar and Roger Espinoza. Cesar is a veteran journeyman, a distributor and experienced mind in front of the defense. Espinoza is a bulldog box-to-box type, built in the mold of a Gennaro Gattuso or a Scott Parker. The Honduras international covers acres of space and will throw in crunching tackle after crunching tackle to stop opposing attacks.
Keys to the Game
Could we see two teams playing a 4-3-3 on Saturday?
Kansas City plays a more uptempo 4-3-3, with emphasis on pressing and early crosses into the box. Philadelphia’s 4-3-3 is a bit more possession based, with the focus now on movement and fluidity under interim manager John Hackworth.
The biggest difference between the teams is size, as Hackworth noted during Wednesday’s weekly press conference. Bunbury, Sapong, and Kamara all stand taller than 6-1. Amobi Okugo and Carlos Valdes will be tested early and often on Saturday.
Offensively, the Union created tons of chances against D.C. United, but failed to finish. Kansas City has the best defense in the league and will play a physical game to try to keep Philadelphia's attack off balance and out of rhythm.
It should be another good one at PPL Park.