Here are some key numbers to help explain how Philadelphia Union, with only one of their standard front six in the starting lineup and a debutant facing off against a winger coming off a two-goal performance against San Jose: David Accam worked his dang tail off to the tune of seven recoveries, four interceptions, and a tackle. In the 38th minute, moments after Fabian Herbers’ shot hit the bar and Jay Simpson’s follow-up was cleared off the goalline, Accam streaked back to break up a counterattack going the other way.
No wait, here are the key numbers that help explain how Philly did it: Their central midfielders combined for 23 recoveries, equalling the number that KC’s midfield — their top trio, and one of the best in the league — collected.
Hold on, what about Jay Simpson’s five shots, four on goal, and two in the goal? Or John McCarthy’s six saves, three on shots from below the penalty spot?
This was not a dominant performance, but it was indisputably a strong one. The Union rested many regular starters and still prevented KC from ever establishing a rhythm with the ball.
Defending from the front
Philly made Sporting Kansas City work hard to move the ball out of the back line, and this limited number of ways the visitors could attack the Union. Throughout the opening phases of the match, Simpson and Dockal harried Matt Besler and Ike Opara, seeking to separate the center backs. The result was a series of long diagonals to the far-side winger: Besler targeted Johnny Russell up the right and Opara looked to Gerso up the left. Since KC pushed their fullbacks high early on, they often didn’t have easy outlets on the flanks other than long aerials.
Additionally, the Union’s midfield tracked runners extremely well, ensuring that both Roger Espinoza and Felipe Gutierrez were unable to progress the ball with their feet. This helped keep pressure off the back four, and when Krisztian Nemeth checked back to drag Auston Trusty out disciplined wingers helped allow the rest of the defense to get compact and prevent wide lanes from opening.
Attacking behind the fullbacks
If nothing else, this match was a great reminder of what a threat David Accam can be when he gets the ball in space. From the outset, the winger was on a mission to pin Graham Zusi deep, and he was relentless throughout.
Borek Dockal dropped as deep as necessary to collect the ball, and KC was often unwilling to attack him with their wingers for fear of leaving the flank unprotected. This meant Philly’s playmaker could spread the ball horizontally, pulling KC’s formation apart. Even so, Peter Vermes’ team showed impressive discipline to maintain the distances between their players both vertically and horizontally, and the Union were trapped at times on the wings. Both Fabinho and Olivier Mbaizo committed turnovers or lost the ball wide in the middle third, and the fact that the Union’s back line was able to rotate across and prevent Sporting’s midfield from threatening off those turnovers was no small feat.
If there was one broad, overarching key to this match, it’s that Philly largely prevented Sporting from getting behind their back line, and while they didn’t get past the visitors’ defense that often, they were able to put balls behind it and push the formation deep. This allowed the Union to trigger what turned out to be a very effective high press, with Derrick Jones and Warren Creavalle covering acres of ground and exchanging players extremely well.
Both Fabinho and Mbaizo were rarely beaten on balls over the top, and — in a moment that should stand out to television viewers — Mark McKenzie turned on the jets to run down a ball in behind in the 12th minute. Along with Auston Trusty’s incredible defense in the box, this consistent effort allowed the Union to be in position to win the match when Ale Bedoya’s energy put additional pressure on KC’s back line and, eventually, led to a pair of Jay Simpson specials.