Although most of the numbers from last weekend's match between Sporting Kansas City and LAFC look fairly similar, this one stands out. When LAFC got the ball deep into KC's area, they didn't always create a chance. But they did make it difficult for the home side to work the ball out of their end. Despite this, KC was able to remain dangerous because their center backs were so good on the ball once they established a spell of possession. The two combined for only eight misplaced passes all match, and only three of those ended up both in play and in their own half.
This continues a subtle theme running through many Peter Vermes teams: You can limit them, and you can even take them away from their preferred strategy, but it is very difficult to force them into mistakes. That said, fatigue leads to errors, and on Wednesday night a tired midfield gave up the ball far too often, and a normally-secure defense was rocked by great finishing and a breathless transition game. Importantly, though, Vermes rested a number of key players on Wednesday in preparation for the Union's arrival. Both fullbacks -- Graham Zusi and Seth Sinovic -- sat out, along with Krisztian Nemeth, Gerso, and Johnny Russell. The latter two came on late as KC made a push for a tying goal after Independiente's second half rocket put them up 2-1, but those cameos won't keep them out of the starting lineup on Sunday.
How they play
In your face? Relentless? Organized? The Kansas City approach relies on an active three-man midfield supported by a high back line and a front three that pushes play wide defensively. That midfield is the secret ingredient, and over the years Vermes has shown an incredible knack for putting big-engine players with a diverse skillset -- though often no singular outstanding attribute -- into the right positions at the right times. Perhaps, then, you could argue that KC's midfielders all tend to have very high on-field awareness, and the team's high back line means they use that to own the relatively small space available to play.
Against Independiente, however, Kansas City struggled to exert their typical midfield control. With Ilie Sanchez and Roger Espinoza joined by Kelyn Rowe in the center, KC gave up numerous attacking transitions that continually targeted the gap between right back Jaylin Lindsey and right center back Botond Barath. The issue may simply be that Ilie and Espinoza were beat after an intense start to the season. But there could be larger cracks in KC's vaunted defense, which was one of the league's best last year, stemming from the sale of defender Ike Opara in the offseason. Andreu Fontas started the club's first match of the season but pulled up injured, so Barath is the go-to man in his stead. Both LAFC and Independiente have targeted the right side of KC's defense with great success in the past week, and that leads to some interesting questions as to how the Union will attack on the road.
The transition-oriented nature of the Union's attack should help them create opportunities if they can use their fullbacks to pull Zusi and open lanes through the Kansas City defense. There are a number of things to look for that will signal Philly is creating the types of situations they want on the road. First, forcing the Kansas City midfield to drop deep to receive the ball -- the entire midfield, not just the deep-lying player -- will help the Union trap and create turnovers high up the pitch. Additionally, this means Philly's strikers can remain close to KC's central defenders and prevent Matt Besler from playing long switches to unlock the Union's narow defensive shape.
Next, Philadelphia's fullbacks must join attacks quickly to stretch Kansas City's back line before the home side's midfielders can make their recovery sprints. If the Union fullbacks are beating Kansas City's midfielders up the pitch, expect good chances galore. Both of LAFC's goals came from situations in which Bob Bradley's side isolated Zusi 1v1 and midfield help was late arriving to the box. Particularly with Barath's fairly conservative positioning in the box, if the Kansas City midfield's recovery runs are slow the Union should find chances against a midfield filled with tired legs or a lack of familiarity.
The Union will likely take on a more defensive approach on the road against a strong opponent. Owning the middle is a priority, so expect the team's diamond to morph into something that looks more like a 2-1-1 during Kansas City's buildups. That will allow both strikers to push the ball inside with Marco Fabián preventing the holding midfielder from turning and playing through the lines.
Once Philly enters an offensive transition, though, the diamond should return, with the wider midfielders moving forward to create combinations with Fabián and make runs into the spaces the strikers create as they make vertical runs into the defensive line.
Matchups to watch
Fabián against Ilie or whoever Vermes deploys in that deepest role will be the key one, but how Philly controls Zusi will also be extremely important. Last season, the right back pushed forward early and often, and he used his experience in midfield to drift inside and provide an extra man to overload defenses. Toronto created chances by sending an extra man into wide areas against the Union fullbacks, and Zusi's strong delivery is ideal to exploit that weakness if KC can find it. If everything is working well, though, moving the ball through midfield into that wide zone will be extremely difficult.
The Union take on Kansas City on the road at 3 p.m. ET on PHL17.