Three hundred and seventy nine days after the heart breaking 3-1 defeat the Seattle Sounders handed the Union in 2014 U.S. Open Cup Final, the Union have a chance for redemption vs. the 2012 champions, Sporting Kansas City. This year, the Union went on an inspired run and looked like a team on a mission in the U.S. Open Cup, but not quite the same in league play. The Union stand close to the bottom of MLS in league play, but having defeated league leaders DC United and the New York Red Bulls and survived nail biters against the Rochester Rhinos and most recently the Chicago Fire on the road to the Open Cup Final. Now with another shot at the team’s first trophy in an otherwise lost season, the Union must give it all they’ve got on Wednesday if they are going to find a way to beat the powerful Sporting Kansas City.
Scouting the Enemy
Union fans will of course remember the April match at SKC as the epic collapse of Rais M’Bolhi. In that match, the Union went up 2-1 in the 19 off a Fernando Aristeguieta goal. Then late in the second half, Sporting’s attack roared to life. The Union conceded goals in the 91st and 94th to lose a game many fans were expecting to be the Union’s first win of the season. The heart break of seeing the team give up late once again after playing so well devastated many Union fans as they realized it was going to be another long season for the Union.
Since that April match, Sporting Kansas City has been struggling in its first year in the Western Conference. Typically a top-three team back in the Eastern Conference, Sporting Kansas City finds themselves clinging to their playoff lives in 5th place with three and four point leads over Houston and San Jose. Sporting had a red hot summer but they have only won one game since August 15, and lost to bottom-feeders Colorado and Orlando and conference rivals San Jose and Houston. The renowned defense has also been uncharacteristically leaky, allowing an average of 2.0 goals a game over the last 8 games and only scoring an average of 1.0. The team did rest its starters in its last match, a draw against Seattle. Dom Dwyer entered the match with 16 minutes left, and scored to salvage a point in league play.
While the team has played very poorly over the last month and a half, Sporting Kansas City is a very dangerous team. From back to front, KC has elite-level talent at every position. The defense is anchored by USMNT center back Matt Besler, a 4-time MLS All Star. In the midfield, Sporting has MVP candidate Benny Feilhaber and USMNT Graham Zusi, another 4-time All Star. Finally, up front, KC has the ever-dangerous Dom Dwyer, the 2014 Golden Boot runner-up.
Recently, Sporting has played a 4-3-3 formation with Besler in the back, Feilhaber as center-mid and Dwyer in the middle with Zusi sliding in at right forward. Feilhaber is the player the Union should watch out for as he is having an unbelievable season, having set the record for most points in a season in franchise history last month. He is tied for second in the league with 14 assists in league play to go along with 10 goals. But the Union can’t count out Dwyer, who had 33 goals in the last two years and Zusi who has reached double digit assists before in his career.
The Union look to finalize “Unfinished Business”
Last year, the Union went up 1-0 on Seattle before Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins were subbed on to secure the game for the Sounders 3-1. The Union faithful and the fans on the field were shocked: the players on the field and the fans in PPL Park had lain all on the line but had fallen just short. This year, the players vowed not to let that happen again.
Heading into the final, Jim Curtin has strategically handled the Union lineup to field the best team possible come match day. With injuries to Vincent Nogueira and Maurice Edu, and the introduction of Tranquillo Barnetta to the lineup, Curtin has built chemistry despite absences in the starting lineup over the last month. Over the last few games, Barnetta has scored his first goal for the Union, Richie Marquez and Steven Vitoria have created an impressive partnership in the back, Le Toux, Aristeguieta, and Sapong have all regained their goal scoring form, and Vincent Nogueira has renewed his passing prowess. The most recent game with the full team saw the Union defeat the Houston Dynamo 2-0, making a statement on both sides of the ball. The Union need to continue the dedication on both offense and defense in order to beat a slumping but threatening Sporting Kansas City team.
Wild Cards of the Match
Heading into the match, both teams have one wild card that could change the outcome of the game. For the Union, the center back partnership is key. When playing well together, the center backs go a long way in recording 10 shutouts for the Union across all partnerships this year. Previously, I have written about the Richie Marquez-Steven Vitoria partnership as being the best partnership for the Union, but Jim Curtin seems to believe that Maurice Edu is the team’s best defender and should start there whenever possible. While I believe that Curtin should start Marquez and Vitoria at center back so that Edu can move back to center defensive mid, it is likely we will see a Marquez-Edu partnership. While it worked well against Houston, I believe the partnership still needs time to be tested before it can be ordained as the answer.
For Sporting Kansas City, Krisztian Nemeth is the wild card. The forgotten forward in SKC’s offense, the 26-year-old Nemeth is no less of an offensive force. Registering nine goals and six assists in his first year with the team after a career in Europe, the Union can’t forget about Nemeth while they focus on Feilhaber, Dwyer and Zusi.
The Game for the Union
This game is the biggest one of the season and one of the biggest in Union history. Jim Curtin needs to put out the strongest lineup he can and make key substitutions at the right times to secure the win for the Union. Another loss will be a huge blow to the morale of the team and the fan base. According to Curtin’s preferences over the last season, here is my projected lineup:
Now I would argue that Edu should play CDM (see above), but I also think that Blake should start over McCarthy. But the Union can still win using this lineup. One area that the Union excelled in in their first encounter with SKC is by attacking the left back and crossing to the center. Le Toux has the speed to take advantage of the weak left side and when he starts to tire out, Andrew Wenger and Eric Ayuk are waiting to step in and continue the assault.
In addition, Barnetta adds another threat on the other side of the field. The speed on the wings will be crucial as Sapong will be tangling with Besler in the middle of the field. Around the 60th, Curtin should insert Aristeguieta alongside CJ. Fernando can then engage the center backs while CJ uses his speed to get open in front of the net.
About the 70th minute, Vitoria should come in for Carroll, and Edu can move forward to CDM next to Nogueira. This allows the Union to have an extra force in the midfield while maintaining a strong defense. About the 80th minute if the Union are ahead, I would sub in Warren Creavalle for an attacking player so the defense can operate with essentially seven defenders, including the CDMs. If the Union are behind, Eric Ayuk should come on. Ayuk has two goals and two assists this year in 12 games (league play) played, but he is a game changer. He is very raw, but that contributes to his effectiveness as other teams have a hard time defending him and his speed. At this point in the game, if the Union are down they need to pull out all the stops to try to get the win.
Prediction: Philadelphia Union 2-1 over Sporting Kansas City.
The Union have mentally prepared for this game for a year, and physically prepared for the last month. They have been scouting SKC for the last few weeks. With the additional firepower of Sapong, Barnetta and Aristeguieta to the Union’s arsenal this year, I don’t see them being held to one goal again. Look for Le Toux, Nogueira and notch the goals. In addition, Sporting has struggled both offensively and defensively in recent games. I see the Union’s defense locking down early but conceding one late as SKC fights to get back into the game. In the end, the Union raise their first trophy in front of PPL Park faithful and cheers rain down from the River End.