Sporting Kansas City is on top of the Western Conference. While other clubs have gone after expensive game-changers, KC has built an efficient and, frankly, scary squad of largely interchangeable pieces. When Yohan Croizet wasn’t pushing the team forward, Johnny Russell and Diego Rubio did. When Khiry Shelton couldn’t find the back of the net, Daniel Salloi and Felipe Gutierrez stepped up.
And this is more than just a regular matchup for Peter Vermes’ men. With a win and some other results going their way, Sporting Kansas City can clinch a playoff berth. Those results are actually quite likely: Atlanta United, FC Dallas, and Minnesota all need to win or draw for KC to lock up a postseason berth, and of those teams only Minnesota won’t be favored to at least take a point (the Loons face Portland Timbers).
This is also more than a regular game for Philly. The 2018 US Open Cup final is lurking around the corner, and the Union want to build momentum for that showdown against Houston without looking past KC. Head coach Jim Curtin is likely to rest key players, which means there could be some debuts and rare minutes for guys that have been hoping to show their talents to the Union faithful. Let’s break down Kansas City’s squad before moving on to who might feature for the Union.
KC can squeeze
For all the ink spilled on New York Red Bulls’ pressing system — and it does stand on its own on many statistical measures — there are many others in MLS that can suffocate an attack. KC’s pressure does not generate as many turnovers or chances directly off turnovers as Red Bulls’ system, but that’s because Sporting KC has a greater ability to generate offense through possession.
In Ike Opara and Matt Besler, Vermes and company have two players that can both hold a high defensive line and make a broad range of passes through opposition lines. If you saw how New England and Chicago played when they came to Talen Energy Stadium, you noticed that their attempt to control the Union midfield with man-marking left the center backs free to advance the ball with their feet. While Philly has some talented players in back, Opara and Besler are probably the best pair of central defenders in the league from a purely distributional standpoint. Their range of passing prevents opponents from simply stacking the midfield to close off the dangerous Roger Espinoza, Ilie Sanchez, and Felipe Gutierrez. Besler can play long diagonals in his sleep, and Opara may look ungainly on the ball, but he certainly knows what to do with it, and that intelligence makes him extremely good at picking apart midfield structures.
The Union will look to press these players and force Kansas City to play through their left back, which is likely to be Seth Sinovic. This can be difficult since KC won’t mind dropping Ilie deep to maintain a numerical advantage in buildup. Overcommitting on the center backs will allow Ilie to advance with the ball, and then you may lose the midfield battle to Espinoza and Gutierrez, both of whom find the gap in front of the opposition defense quite easily.
The one thing Philly cannot do is what they offered up at the start of the win over Seattle. Granting KC’s midfield time on the ball is a death wish, as every player can make a pass through the lines and they interact well with the wingers who will pull wide to open a lane next to the fullbacks and then dart in behind.
Threats from everywhere
Nobody on Sporting Kansas City has more goals than Fafa Picault or Cory Burke. However, KC does have four players with at least as many or just one fewer than Philly’s leading scorers. Furthermore, Gerso is sitting just below that group with five goals, and everyone that scores also contributes assists.
Put plainly: This is a difficult group to stop because… how do you stop the whole group?
For a possession-oriented team like Philly, retaining the ball is key to limiting KC’s options. The simple equation is: As long as the Union have the ball, Sporting does not.
The flip side of that, and the one that managers like Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp look to exploit against Pep Guardiola, is: As long as you have the ball, you can make a mistake. Thus, the Union need to hold the rock without dropping it in inopportune areas.
A key principle for Philly will be to play forward after winning possession back. Sporting KC does great work dropping their wingers into what can appear to be a 4-1-4-1, and to threaten in wide areas the Union will need to get the ball up to their danger men before the opposing wing men can get back to help the fullbacks. Neither Zusi nor Seth Sinovic are elite defenders, but with a bit of help both can be aggressive and use their brains and bodies to muzzle wide attacks.
Jim Curtin has been open about his plan to rest a few players before Wednesday’s Open Cup final. The question: How many players? The follow-up? Who?
Given that Ale Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin went the full 90 against Seattle, it’s likely both will be rested this weekend. That could lead to the exciting prospect of seeing Anthony Fontana and Derrick Jones in the same midfield together.
Mark McKenzie may also return to the lineup and Auston Trusty could see his first rest of the season. With Ray Gaddis picking up a slight knock on Wednesday, Fabinho is almost certainly Sunday’s starter, and Curtin could choose among such options as Josh Yaro and Olivier Mbaizo on the right, though there’s always a chance Keegan Rosenberry could hold his spot.
Philly has plenty of depth on the wings, so they could attempt to get David Accam rolling and pair him with either Marcus Epps or Fabian Herbers. Up top, Curtin may give Jay Simpson a chance after his hard-working shift Wednesday, though he could also turn to Herbers as well.
Regardless of the specific names, expect to see a lineup that looks to impress with hard work, and if they can hold onto the ball for long periods of time, so much the better.
Philly has been preaching a “next man up” philosophy all season, and now those men have a chance to show they’re ready.
The Union and Sporting Kansas City face off on Sunday at 1PM EST at Talen Energy Stadium.