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Union aim to course-correct at home against winless but dangerous Sporting Kansas City

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Photo by Jack Verdeur

The Union continue their homestand this Saturday against Sporting Kansas City, with kickoff set for 7:39 p.m. at Subaru Park. The match will be streamed on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV, behind the paywall, with Ed Cohen and Warren Barton on the call. The match will also be broadcast on 97.5 FM in the Philadelphia area and fans can select this audio feed on Apple TV.

The Union are eighth in the East with two wins and three frustrating losses, the last of which came to Orlando City by a 2-1 scoreline last Saturday, snapping a 13-game home winning streak.

Sporting Kansas City has yet to win this season with three losses and two draws, which puts them at 13th in the West. They took a 1-0 lead at home against Seattle in their last game before crashing to a 4-1 defeat against a Sounders team that looks like one of the best in the league again. 

First, I’m going to focus on the Union – obviously the team has not played up to its lofty standards, and six points from five matches is not a great pace. However, I’m firmly in the ‘don’t panic’ camp, which I’ve distilled down to three reasons:

The Union are juggling the CCL

Before the season, I noted that in 2021, when the Union made a run to the Concacaf Champions League semifinals, they went 3-5 in the eight games either directly preceding or following CCL. This year, the Union are 1-2 already, losing to Miami and Montreal while scraping out an ugly 1-0 win against a Fire team reduced to 10 men for the majority of the second half.

Even with a historically deep squad and a round of 16 tie against an Alianza side that was very pedestrian, the physical, mental and emotional toll of the fixture congestion can’t be overstated. 

It’s not going away. The Union are back home for the first leg of the quarterfinals against Atlas on Tuesday night. It’s too early for anyone to say that the Union should punt the league and focus on CCL, but I’m having a hard time thinking an early April inter-conference match against SKC carries the same weight as the home leg of a CCL quarterfinal against a Liga MX team. 

The losses have been fluky

I mean this in a purely objective sense – the Union didn’t play well in any of their losses. They were, however, snakebitten to some degree in all three. Miami scored two absolute golazos on low xG shots from distance. The Union went down to 10 men against Montreal (which is their own, and specifically Julián Carranza’s, fault) and then gave up two really sloppy goals reminiscent of some Stade Olympique CCL fever. 

The Union got absolutely punked in two moments of transition against Orlando and found themselves down 2-0 after 10 minutes. Both chances were well taken by Orlando, with a combined post-shot xG of 1.6 on the two chances, but the normal xG was 0.7 on the two shots. Orlando was ruthless, but it was also bad fortune to be down 2-0 on those two shots, that early in the game. From there, the Union outproduced Orlando 1.8-1.2 in xG. It was more of a volume effort than solid chances, and those numbers came from chasing a goal. Martín Ojeda had a big chance to make it 3-1 for Orlando, but the Union probably should have come away with two goals on the night. 

The underlying numbers are good

The Union rank third in the league in xG with 8.3 and third in the league in xG differential, with +2.3, a mark that leads the East. The Union’s attack within individual games has been wasteful at times with four goals in the four non-Columbus games, but overall the Union have 8 goals on their xG, which is objectively fine finishing. 

The Union massively over performed their xG last season with 70 goals on 59.3 xG. It was the third best xG in the league last year, and the Union are right around there with the fourth best mark so far. It’s too early for the underlying numbers to be truly conclusive, but I think the numbers match the overall eye test that Union are playing their game and creating chances. The goals will come, and the Union simply are going to have worse finishing luck this year compared to last year. 

Defensively, the Union have been frustrating, but their mark of 6.0 xG against is just average, and they’ve been unlucky to concede 8 goals on those chances. Andre Blake was hurt, but before that, had not been in his usual fine form (29th out of 39th on post-shot xG minus goals allowed). I think Joe Bendik is a strong backup and has played fine, but I also don’t think that Union concede the same five goals they did against Montreal and Orlando with Blake in net.

While it’s not time to panic, that doesn’t mean the Union can’t just keep playing the way they’re playing and expect it to get better (although I suspect they’d be fine eventually). The Union have been extremely sloppy defending in their box (see Montreal), a step slow in recognizing danger as it progresses into their attacking third (see Miami and Orlando), and overall not sharp in composing timed attacking sequences (see every game but Columbus). 

I think Jim Curtin has been solid managerially, and his in-game adjustments have been strong as usual. Another factor to points two and three for team don’t panic – Curtin’s style is creating the chances it should, and the losses aren’t on coaching in my opinion.

However, I’m going to nitpick his habit of minimal rotation to his starting XI and say that rolling with the mostly the same outfield against Miami, Chicago and Montreal while also playing a handful of starters against Alianza added up to too many minutes. I don’t expect Curtin to change, and history suggests MLS isn’t a league where rotation gets rewarded, but my personal preference is to manage workloads and bank on Curtin’s superb development, system, and in-game coaching. Easy for me to say without being in the locker room. 

I’ll also add though, that in the lineup he had the most to decide, against Orlando in the international window, his decision to put Flach in José Martínez’s spot instead of say Jesús Bueno or Andrés Perea, left the Union without an extra bit of oomph that was exposed on both early goals. Flach’s defensive workrate and pressing are monstrous, but he has the license to hunt on the side of the diamond with a player like Martínez behind him. 

The difference in stats: Flach ranks in the 13th percentile of midfielders in ball recoveries while Martínez ranks in the 99th percentile. Flach also ranks in the 30-50th % in stats around tackling dribblers while Martínez ranks in the 85 percentile and above in those stats. We’re comparing Flach to Bueno or Perea (who ranks very highly in tackling dribblers) and not Martinez, and Flach put up those stats in his normal position, but it felt off against Orlando. 

Okay, 1,000 words later, onto the game against Sporting Kansas City. I took a little license to reflect on the Union’s start partially because SKC are a team in flux. The results have been bad, but SKC have been without two of their DP players in attack in winger Johnny Russell and striker Alan Pulido, as well as another starting winger in Dániel Sallói for a few games. The goals understandably haven’t come (seventh-worst xG, tied for fewest goals) , but the defense has been solid, and there’s less to say about the past five games that could apply to Saturday. 

The forecasts, per usual: The Union are -175 to win, +300 to draw and SKC are +425 to win, per Bet MGM. At 538, the Union have a 63% chance to win, 23% to draw with SKC at 14% to win. Markets and books are in sync here and I’ll add this as another reason for the don’t panic camp. When the computers stop treating the Union like one of the best teams in the league, I’ll worry.

Under Peter Vermes, the longest tenured head coach in MLS, Sporting have played mostly a 4-3-3 this season, but that would change if Alan Pulido is to start up top alongside William Agada. The 23-year old Nigerian came to KC last summer from Israel and lit the league on fire with eight goals and two assists in 918 minutes. He boasts elite speed and tortures defenses by constantly running in behind through the channels, and finds a way to finish with a head of steam already built up. Pulido is a playmaking striker who can roam behind Agada and combine with others to make SKC lethal with quick combinations. 

If Vermes opts for a 4-4-2, however, with Russell and Sallói on the wings, that leaves just two central midfielders. Erik Thommy has been extremely creative from the center of the field with dribbles and long balls, but he has little defensive workrate. That leaves just Roger Espinoza for protection as French midfielder Rémi Walter also has very bad defensive stats. I don’t think SKC’s strong defensive start would continue on the road in a 4-4-2 setup, so Vermes might have to leave an attacker on the bench to give Espinoza some help against the Union’s diamond. 

Overall, SKC like to create verticality with the ball with lots of long balls and switches, which allows all members of their front line to crash the attacking third. One of the key ingredients in this system is the incomparable 36-year old Graham Zusi at right back. He’s not very fleet of foot, but remains one of the best passers, period, in the league. He ranks in the top eight in progressive passes this season and in total distance of passes. It’s a cheat code in the build-up to swing the ball to an outside back who can drop the ball on a dime to any position on the field, and it enables field-stretchers like Agada and Russell. This is a problem for the inherent narrowness of the Union’s diamond. SKC will be missing their left back, Ben Sweat, after a red card against Seattle, and don’t really have any great options

Keys for the Union

I don’t know if Curtin will rotate despite CCL on Tuesday. I don’t think he will, as it’s not his style and I think the team wants to right the ship in MLS. Andre Blake could be back, and that should help.

I think Vermes will be content to draw a deep line of confrontation on the road and look to exploit the Union in space and transition. The Union play a high line in their pressing system, and so have the twofold task of tracking Agada, and more importantly, denying service in the first place. Those long balls come from Zusi, Thommy in midfield, and both center backs. 

It’s an extremely important game for both strikers and Gazdag. Less important for Gazdag is hanging around a CM in the buildup, and more important is getting bodies on the backline to deny long balls. Flach needs to be willing to push high and wide to press Zusi. 

The Union’s outside backs need to make life miserable for Sporting’s outside backs defensively by constantly overloading and pinning them back. 

Overall, the Union will not have a lot of pretty buildup in this game, but I think if they play towards their peak intensity, they should be able to hammer away at the visitor’s box until it breaks. Win the ball in the middle third, get numbers wide, cross, and repeat. If the Union’s press isn’t suffocating enough, they either need to drop off their line or be ready for a track meet the other way. Glesnes and Elliott aren’t bad at playing free safety, but Agada is a different challenge. 

Prediction

Sporting KC are desperate, and while Peter Vermes has gone out of his way not to call the game in Matchday six a must win, the pressure is on a team yet to do so this season. It should be a fun game and closer than the oddsmakers have it. 

I think the Union are going to be just fine this season, but with CCL on Tuesday and an attack not quite humming, I think this will be a good Union performance with a Gazdag penalty canceled out by a SKC goal from Russell or Pulido. If this is the game for the Union to get back on track though, I won’t complain.

Amit grew up in Lansdale, Pennsylvania and has been a Union fan since the franchise started. He has contributed to coverage of the Union and the United States Men's National Team for this website dating back to 2017. At his previous job, Amit was a collegiate sports information director, including time with men's and women's soccer programs. He also was one half of the World Cup After Dark podcast in 2018 and 2022. He is pursuing a master's degree in data science and lives in Chicago.

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