The Union scrapped to a 0-0 draw with Sporting Kansas City on a cold and rainy Saturday night at Subaru Park.
It wasn’t a pretty game, and the Union ultimately got rolling for the final 15 minutes, but Sporting Kansas City came to town looking for a point, and got what they wanted.
The Union rolled with nine of their usual starters, including the return of Andre Blake in goal. Nathan Harriel played at right back and Matt Real stepped in at left back.
Sporting Kansas City made some changes to their lineup as Peter Vermes stuck with his 4-3-3, with the return of Johnny Russell as a starter on the wing. Tim Melia returned to goal, and in midfield, Vermes left out Roger Espinoza for Nemanja Radoja. Usual center back Robert Voloder shifted to left back and the actual center back pairing was a new-look duo of Dany Rosero and Robert Castellanos.
The gameplan for SKC was as anticipated, and they sat with a relatively deep back line without the ball and tried to attack with long balls over the top to William Agada. Johnny Russell and Erik Thommy were the primary creative engines, and Graham Zusi was trying to find space on the right.
The interesting wrinkle to the first half was that SKC’s front five decided to press the Union a little bit and dared them to play out of the back. The Union usually prefer to hit it long and win second balls, but the Union center backs knew that if they bypassed the press, they could create transitional moments with the ball.
José Martínez was not perfect, but overall very strong in both phases of the game. His ability to both beat the press (sometimes) and cover so much ground in the single pivot was the best part of the first half, and a noticeable difference from his absence last week.
Leon Flach had a great game defensively, shutting off any entries into the midfield and making the right reads to deny Zusi time on the ball. Offensively, he was much less effective and often the weak link in beating the press.
Overall, the first half was intense and organized from both teams, and with a good Sporting effort, it meant there were very few chances either way – the halftime xG was 0.4 to 0.1 for SKC. The best chance came on a recycled ball on a set piece in the 35th minute, and a cross looked aimed right at Agada inside the six. At the last second, the center back Rosero jumped in front of him and headed directly into Andre Blake, who made a good save.
Radoja picked up a knock in the 33rd minute, and Vermes had to turn to Espinoza in central midfield early. It didn’t change much – SKC was largely limited with their midfield personnel anyway and weren’t using them in the buildup.
The singular other most amusing part of the first half is when Zusi launched a shot over the River End into the Delaware, to the delight of the crowd. On color on Apple TV, Warren Barton joked that there might be fans in the river waiting for the ball like McCovey Cove in San Francisco.
The second half brought more action, as both managers made changes around the 60th minute. Alan Pulido returned to the field for his first game in almost two years to take Agada’s place, and Khiry Shelton swapped in for Russell, working on a minutes limit. Curtin swapped in Jack McGlynn for Flach, which seemed pretty on the nose given Flach’s issues in the buildup and McGlynn’s strong passing.
With less of a threat over the top without Agada, SKC began to play much more through the middle to find Pulido’s feet and run off of him, with Thommy progressing the ball. Jakob Glesnes did good work in shutting him down near the top of the box.
Even before the subs, a bicycle kick clearance from Martínez led to the Union’s best chance of the night, a transition look for Uhre that was nipped by a proactive Melia. Melia was excellent all night, and made another strong save on a header from Julían Carranza minutes later.
It took 60-70 minutes, but the game finally opened up as a result of SKC having to commit more numbers forward to try and attack. The Union really began to take over the game and push for a winner, tilting the field on SKC in transition and forcing them to hang on for a point.
Quinn Sullivan came on for Mikael Uhre, and Carranza became the main runner in behind. He had a golden chance that he missed in the 74th minute which was ruled to be offsides anyway. Then Gazdag forced Melia into a strong save from distance a minute later and a couple minutes after that, McGlynn dimed Carranza into the box from 40 yards out, only for a last second intervention from Romero.
The Union made a handful of extra changes in the closing stages, bringing on Olivier Mbaizo and Joaquin Torres, and there were a handful of goalmouth scrambles after that, but ultimately no payoff. The final xG tally was 0.8 to 0.5 for the Union, reflective of a strong second half but no clear cut chances. Uhre’s was the best of the bunch at 0.25 xG and I think in context, Melia shut down the chance completely.
In the end, it was a good result for SKC on the road and their third scoreless draw of the season. Vermes is extremely pragmatic and with the talent at his disposal, got a disciplined effort for a team looking to find its identity.
The Union did not get their attack firing, but I think with KC’s strategy, it was to be expected. The Union couldn’t hunt transition opportunities since SKC never played through the midfield in the first place.
Defensively, the Union were very solid. Andre Blake was his usual self, and Glesnes and Jack Elliott rarely put a foot wrong.
It’s obviously disappointing not to get three points at home and the Union didn’t dispel the talk of their slow start, but this was an early April game against SKC in cold and wet conditions. There’s a lot of time in the league and a massive CCL tie coming.
That tie begins on Tuesday night, when the Union host Atlas in the first leg of a Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal.