The 2019 Major League Soccer schedule is out and now fans across the league know the exact paths that their teams will be on as they look to make the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. Philadelphia Union ’s opening month features three road matches, each providing unique challenges.
Each of the last four seasons, the path to the postseason has required some road point accumulation along the way. In 2015, Eastern Conference playoff teams averaged 17.7 road points (4.8 wins and 3.3 draws) while 2018 saw teams claim 20.1 points (5.3 wins, 4.2 draws). With three matches away from Talen Energy Stadium in March, the schedule provides the opportunity for Philly to claim valuable road points.
Sporting Kansas City: March 10
Philly's first road match takes them to Sporting KC for Peter Vermes' side's opening home game of the season at Children’s Mercy Park. The Union own a 6-5-5 lead in the all-time series against SKC after claiming a 2-0 victory at Talen Energy Stadium last year.
Sporting KC is looking to rebound from a rough end to the 2018 season. They came up just short in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Championship after looking poised to advance when Daniel Salloi scored in the 20th minute of play. Things began to unravel, though, after Sebastian Blanco’s 30-yard golazo early in the second half.
SKC has made some changes during the offseason, bringing in Rodney Wallace and defender Botond Barath while trading for forward Erik Hurtado and midfielder Kelyn Rowe. Those additions coupled with their returners will present challenges for a young Union back line that could feature four starters under 21.
While the past doesn’t predict future results, it is worth noting that of Western Conference opponents, the Union have taken the joint -- 9 -- most from Sporting KC.
Atlanta United: March 17
The Union continue their road slate the following week at defending MLS Cup Champions Atlanta United. While it’s not the banner raising match, Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be full and that atmosphere provides quite the homefield advantage. In 2018, Atlanta won 11 of its 17 matches at home with only two teams -- Sporting Kansas City and New York Red Bulls -- escaping with all three points.
A lot has changed since the last time the Union and Atlanta squared off. Gone is Tata Martino, but former Dutch player and Ajax manager Frank de Boer has stepped in to helm the defending champs. Also gone is outside back Greg Garza, who was sent to FC Cincinnati, with 2011 MLS MVP finalist Brek Shea arriving as potential cover. Also, the club re-signed captain Michael Parkhurst.
The early season trip to Atlanta could provide a great chance for the Union to claim points as the Five Stripes learn a new system under de Boer. Last season, Atlanta started off their championship campaign with a 4-0 loss to Houston but rebounded with seven wins in their next eight matches.
FC Cincinnati: March 30
Philly concludes March at league-newcomer FC Cincinnati. After making a splash in the second-division with 23 wins in 2018, Cincinnati hasn’t rested on their laurels during the transition up a level. The club acquired MLS vets Fatai Alashe and Fanendo Adi last season via trades and have continued to build their defense with moves to pick up Alvas Powell, Kendall Waston and Greg Garza.
FC Cincinnati has kept a lot of its core group from their USL squad as well, with eight players moving up with the team. That continuity should help manager Alan Koch since numerous players know his system. Still, the transition to MLS is rarely an easy one.
In the USL, Koch’s system implements an aggressive version of a 4-2-3-1. The Union will be prepared for the new side and have plenty of film thanks to their affiliation with Bethlehem Steel FC who were 2-3-2 overall in three seasons against FC Cincinnati. In 2018, two current Union players found success with Cory Burke and Derrick Jones scoring spectacular goals against the orange and blue.
The Union has had success in debut matches against MLS-newcomers with their only loss since 2012 coming last season to LAFC. In the past, the Union has knocked off NYCFC and Montreal Impact while battling Atlanta, Minnesota United and Orlando City to hard-fought draws.