It doesn’t get much better than this: first kick 2013, Philadelphia Union hosting back-to-back eastern conference champion Sporting Kansas City at PPL Park.
In four seasons, this will be the very first time Philadelphia has played a season opener at home. The Union are looking to improve upon a disappointing 2012 campaign that resulted in just 36 points and a 10-18-6 record.
As for Kansas City, Peter Vermes’ team finished with 63 points and an excellent 18-7-9 mark. Despite losing to Houston in the playoffs in consecutive years, Sporting will again be considered a MLS Cup contender in 2013.
Saturday’s season opener will be the eighth meeting between Philadelphia and Kansas City. The Union are 1-3-3 all time against Sporting.
Kansas City Attack
Kansas City won two straight conference titles running a high-tempo 4-3-3 system. Vermes’ team will attack the ball, win back possession, and use both offensive and defensive physicality to wear down opponents.
This season, Sporting will have to get through a transitional phase to keep that system intact.
Among the best players for Kansas City last year, midfielder Roger Espinoza and forward Kei Kamara have departed for the English Premiere League. Both were exceptional at pressing high and disrupting opponents with nagging, persistent styles of play.
The club also parted ways with holding midfielder Julio Cesar, who would generally shield the backline and allow Espinoza to go forward with all-star playmaker Graham Zusi
Among the midfield reinforcements, Oriol Rosell and Benny Feilhaber look be the new starters this year. Feilhaber, the American international, comes to K.C. from New England. Rosell is a promising 20 year old who made the switch from Barcelona’s B team last year. He trained in Barca’s famed “La Masia” academy.
You might see those two guys play with Zusi, but Paulo Nagamura could be a better, more defensive option. In the preseason, Zusi pushed up to a more advanced role, with Nagamura, Rosell, and Feilhaber playing as the midfield trio.
Essentially, Zusi assumed Kamara’s right-sided forward role.
.As for the other forward positions, C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunbury are excellent “point men” in the 4-3-3, playing at the very top of the three-pronged attack. Bunbury is still recovering from ACL surgery, but new signing Claudio Bieler is expected to fit in nicely in Kansas City. Bieler is a 28 year striker from Argentina. He joins from Ecuadorian side LDU Quito, where he scored 20 goals in 36 matches last season.
Other forwards include Jacob Peterson, Soony Saad, Dom Dwyer, and Bobby Convey. Convey is healthy this year and should be a key contributor. Peterson scored two goals against the Union last year.
From back to front, Sporting’s biggest concern in 2013 will be replacing Cesar, Espinoza, and Kamara.
Kansas City Defense
Kansas City returns all four starters from a defense that was statistically top of the league in 2012.
The backline of Seth Sinovic, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, and Chance Myers conceded just 27 goals last season.
All-star Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen played every single minute in 2012, compiling a 75% save percentage and a stingy .79 goals against average.
You’ll see Sinovic at left back with Myers at right back. Both like to get forward in the attack, which is made possible when the three midfielders trend centrally and vacate the space on the flanks. That allows the fullbacks to push up while flooding the middle at the same time.
All-star Collin will pair Besler in central defense, backed up by Lawrence Olum and new signing Ike Opara. Josh Gardner makes the move from Montreal to provide depth at fullback.
Bieler had a slow start to this preseason, but finally got off the mark in a 1-0 win against Toronto FC. Vermes wasn’t concerned about his new striker’s start.
Check out Sporting’s preseason stats right here. Saad led K.C. with 4 preseason goals. Zusi and Dwyer scored twice.
Sporting’s first round draft pick, Mikey Lopez, is currently on national team duty with the U.S. U-20 squad.
Projected Starting XI:
Nielsen (GK), Sinovic, Collin, Besler, Myers, Rosell, Nagamura, Feilhaber, Zusi, Sapong, Bieler (4-3-3)
Contact Union writer Kevin Kinkead at firstname.lastname@example.org