After a convincing 3-0 victory at home against a weakened New England side, the Philadelphia Union will look to extend their unbeaten run tonight in Kansas City, when they face off against Western Conference co-leader, Sporting Kansas City.
Currently, the Union sit 6 points behind Columbus in the Eastern Conference, for the sixth and final playoff position. While the Union currently have two games in hand over Columbus and Orlando City SC, every match is critical, including tonight’s.
Matchday 18 sees the Union in America’s heartland, pitted against one of Major League Soccer’s hottest teams in Sporting.
Here’s what the Union will be up against later this evening:
KANSAS CITY ( 8 W, 7 D, 4 L)
At this point in the season, with the table beginning to take shape, it’s no secret that Sporting Kansas City isn’t just one of the better teams in the Western Conference, but one of Major League Soccer’s best and a sure Supporters’ Shield contender.
Sporting’s claim-to-fame so far has been its staunch defense, which has only conceded 13 goals midway through this season.
Anchored by United States National Team regulars, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, including goalkeeper, Tim Melia, who currently leads MLS in both shutouts (9) and save percentage (79.7), Sporting’s backline has been unyielding in the face of visiting sides, leaking an impressive 4 goals on home soil during this current MLS campaign.
Fortunately for the Union, Sporting will be without the services of both Besler and Zusi, who are currently away with Alejandro Bedoya and the USMNT for the upcoming Gold Cup tournament.
Besler and Zusi have helped on both ends of the pitch this season, contributing a team-leading 3 assists a piece.
Sporting will also be without one of its leading goal-scorers in Dom Dwyer, who was recently capped by the USMNT, as well as Honduran midfielder, Roger Espinoza, who will be serving a suspension for yellow card accumulation.
Only Sporting winger, Gerso Fernandes, has scored more goals (6) than Dwyer (5) on the year. He’s currently listed as questionable by the Sporting medical staff, after dislocating a shoulder in last week’s match against Portland.
Fernandes and Dwyer account for 11 of Sporting’s 23 goals scored in the league this season.
Melia will get the nod between the sticks for Sporting tonight, meaning the Union will need their shooting boots on, and more of the finishing that fans were treated to last Sunday, if they are to have any chance of leaving Kansas City with points.
PHILADELPHIA UNION ( 6 W, 4 D, 7 L)
A quick glance at the Supporters’ Shield table is pretty telling: the Union are languishing near the bottom half, while Sporting is vying for the top. Although the two clubs are separated by points total, there are some similarities between them.
Philadelphia, like Kansas City, has a reliable backline, behind a less than potent attack force. And like Sporting, the Union will be without a key component in their steadfast defense on Thursday night: Andre Blake.
Blake, who has 7 shutouts on the year, is currently away with the Jamaican National Team. Much like his adversary in Melia, Blake has come up big when called upon this season.
Leadership will not be an issue for the Union defense, despite Blake’s absence.
Former US international, Oguchi Onyewu, has been a lynchpin in the Union backline, as well as a revelation for the Union this season. Onyewu has arguably been one of Earnie Stewart’s better signings, and he’ll certainly be called upon by his teammates again, tonight.
Onyewu’s defensive partner, Jack Elliot, deserves just as much praise and recognition for the meager 20 goals allowed by the Union this season. Like Onyewu, the 22-year-old Englishman has been embraced by fans, after several impressive defensive displays for the team.
Elliot is currently listed as questionable heading into tonight’s match, with an injury to his tibia, which he sustained on Sunday versus New England.
Should Elliot not be able to go tonight, look for Richie Marquez to make his return to the starting XI.
Union captain, Alejandro Bedoya, is the only other player on international assignment. Chris Pontius, who received a call-up to Bruce Arena’s USMNT earlier in the week, will be available for selection tonight.
Pontius will join the American ranks, following the match.
Only Haris Medunjanin has more assists (7) than Pontius (6) for the Union on the year. If former Sporting player, CJ Sapong, is to break his regular season career high in goals scored (9) and break into double-digits, he’ll need distribution from Pontius on the wing.
I hate to state the obvious, so I’ll pass the honors off to Judy Garland instead.
They’re not in Chester anymore.
Sunday’s match against New England was the final tune-up at Talen Energy Stadium, before the Union hit the road for their next three league matches, in Kansas City, Montreal and Columbus respectively.
They’ll soon find themselves in the thick of Blue Hell at Children’s Mercy Park, which has been a fortress for Sporting this season. Sporting has yet to lose at home this campaign, dropping only 6 points, out of a possible 27.
Again, I hate to state the obvious, but tonight’s match will be a grueling slop of a match; it’s not going to be pretty.
In a hostile environment, the Union will most likely resort to packing it in and picking their chances to go forward. Normally, this would make the most sense, but if you ask me, Curtin’s men should go for it and here’s why:
Sporting will likely look to pack it in themselves.
Potentially missing two of their top scorers on the year in Dwyer and Fernandes, as well as key players all over the park, from Besler to Espinosa, they’ll be willing to sacrifice two points for a draw.
Keeping pace in the Western Conference, including keeping their unbeaten record at home alive, means playing it safe and taking no unnecessary chances, even if the soccer is less than appealing to the home fans.
Look for the Union to knick a goal on the road, against a depleted Sporting team. I think Roland Alberg gets it; he’s been pretty hungry, as of late.
Kickoff for tonight’s match is slated for 8:30 ET on The Comcast Network, as well as MLS Live. Head on over to our Story Stream during the match, for live updates, commentary and more: