Last year, the Union were one of the better road teams in Major League Soccer. Their six wins away from home made them the third most successful traveling team in the Eastern Conference, and tied as the sixth best team in the league. Sustaining that kind of form is difficult, however, and Philly's first two trips offer extremely difficult tests.
First up is Sporting Kansas City, and even though these teams are far apart geographically, they have developed an intense rivalry over the years. Philly and KC met in the 2015 Open Cup final, which ended on penalty kicks, and overall these teams have met 16 times, which is the joint-most matchups for the Union against a Western Conference opponent.
But why watch this one?
When you drop your opener, the second game becomes a chance to show the league you can bounce back in a hurry. The Union's strong first half was undone by Michael Bradley's goal on the stroke of halftime, and Kansas City lost a road point at the very end of their trip to LAFC when Adama Diomande stroked home a late goal. Now KC, the top team in the Western Conference a year ago, needs to show that their offseason moves were worthwhile. New midfielder Kelyn Rowe came off the bench last weekend, and Botond Barath entered as an injury sub after being acquired to help fill the void left by Ike Opara in the backline. With Roger Espinoza on a red card suspension, SKC's depth will already be heavily tested even though the season is still young. That means this is a chance for Philly to roll into town and show that last year's home win was no fluke.
Peter Vermes' teams are always stuffed with talent, but it's the system they play that sets KC apart. Throwing in tweaks each season to fit his personnel, Vermes looks to squeeze space out of a game with a high back line and attack with players that can take up multiple positions along the front line. The Union will attempt to stifle Kansas City's ball-playing defenders with a high press then transition quickly into attack before the back line -- which likes to stretch and create space on offense -- can re-form.
The biggest system question for both teams comes down to personnel. Sporting will likely insert Rowe for the suspended Espinoza, and while the American is looking for a bounce-back season, he is still learning and adjusting to his new squad. The movement between Rowe, Felipe Gutierrez, and Ilie Sanchez won't be as fluid as it would be with Espinoza in the lineup, and that could leave spaces for Marco Fabián to exploit.
For the Union, setting up on the road presents a new set of challenges. Jim Curtin has said the team will remain aggressive, but they could play with the lineup to favor defensive solidity over the attacking push used at home. This could mean players like Warren Creavalle and Derrick Jones slip into the first eleven on the road against a strong opponent.
First road match
After opening their season at home, this will be the first chance to catch the Union on their regular season travels. KC will be coming off a difficult midweek showdown with Panama's Independiente and Philly will be chasing their first points of the season. This one could go either way, and it will be the first time the Union play on PHL17, where they'll be featured often throughout the 2019 season.
Tune in at 3:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 10 to see all the action!