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Union travel to Kansas City looking to spoil a home debut while juggling continental campaign



Photo by Carl Gulbish

The Philadelphia Union’s early season thicket of fixtures continues on Saturday with the club’s first MLS road trip to Sporting Kansas City, with kickoff set for 8:30 p.m. ET at Children’s Mercy Park. The match will be free to stream on Apple TV.

The Union drew in the league opener last week, 2-2, at home to the Chicago Fire, thanks to a late equalizer from Daniel Gazdag .Perhaps more importantly, the U also advanced to the Round of 16 of the Concacaf Champions Cup after a draining two-legged tie against Saprissa from Costa Rica.

The Union needed 120 minutes in the second leg at home on Tuesday to finish the job, including playing all of extra time down to 10 men and a scrappy set piece winner from Mikael Uhre.

Sporting Kansas City opened the season with a 1-1 draw away to the Houston Dynamo, in a rematch of last season’s Western Conference semifinal that Houston won. Houston was dealing with its own CCC clog, but dominated possession and doubled up SKC on shots –– Erik Thommy scored a nice goal against the run of play to give the visitors a 1-0 lead in the 60th minute that was given back less than 10 minutes later. The match finished at 1.0-0.2 xG in favor of Houston.

Sporting Kansas City will look to find its first win of the season in its home debut against a Union side with three matches under its belt already and an eye already on the next CCC test, a first leg at Pachuca on Tuesday. Pachuca sits in third place just over halfway through the Liga MX Clausara.

So, the Union are in a tricky spot against a hungry, playoff-caliber team making its home debut.

“Going to Kansas City is always very, very difficult,” said Jim Curtin in his pre-match press conference on Friday. “Peter Vermes does an incredible job with his group, being tough to play against, having [not] gone to the stadium in quite some time. And to have to go there in a home opener is a real challenge.”

The recurring question of how much Curtin and his staff will rotate to juggle early season MLS with continental competition rears its head again.

“We’ll put a group on the field that will go there to try and get a point or three and we know that task will be tough,” continued Curtin. “Will have to be almost perfect on the day to get that done.”

Historically, Curtin is rather conservative at rotating his squad, reasoning that more than three players of turnover leads to a drop-off in performance, and given the realities of MLS roster construction, it checks out. Curtin rotated Olivier Mbaizo, Jesus Bueno, Jack Elliott and Markus Anderson into the Union’s match against Saprissa after the game with the Fire, and well, Tuesday was a hot mess.

I think trying to predict the exact lineup is a fool’s errand, but the center back pairing of Jack Elliott and Damion Lowe is to be expected since both will miss the Pachuca first leg due to suspension. Beyond that, we’ll see what surprises Curtin has in store for Saturday night. Andre Blake remains questionable and it could be the third match of Oliver Semmle in goal, who has filled in admirably.

As for the match itself, the Union and SKC have played pretty grimy, physical encounters you’d expect from two of the most intense and seasoned managers in the league. Peter Vermes gets the most out of his players, and admitted last year after the two teams met early in the season that the Union’s predictable style can be met with full-on physicality and attention to detail to neuter some of its advantages.

I don’t think Vermes meant this as a dig at Curtin or the Union, but more as a sign of respect and expectation of professionalism from his squad. The 2022 Union rolled through the league with an outrageous goal differential and battered weak teams that weren’t up for Union’s brand of high-octane soccer. He wanted his side to be ready.

That led to a 0-0 gridlock in April in 2023 in Chester where the Union looked a little stifled by SKC’s ability to suffocate the game into a traffic jam. Things have changed since then, with SKC better settled into their identity after all of last season, and in that game the Union were definitely feeling the ball progression effects of playing Leon Flach at the base of the diamond.

SKC is largely the same, though now without right back maven Graham Zusi, and so is the Union. However, the key emergence and overall top storyline of the season so far has been Quinn Sullivan.

The 19-year old has sizzled on the right side of the diamond with smart passing, a two-way workrate and most notably a lively dribble to help the ball into the best areas for crossing. That particularly is helping Mikael Uhre and Julian Carranza thrive in the box.

“We try to get into that – we call it – the assist zone, the place where Quinn played a couple balls from in that last game,” said Curtin. “We coach a really hard run at the near post and it also clears space for others.”

It’s that zone just on the edge of the box on the right side, where Quinn can cross himself, spring an overlap, or find McGlynn inside to slice the next ball for a striker or fullback behind the backline.

A newly polished final product is showing up for Sullivan in goal contributions too, and he looks like a modern winger ready for the next level. I’m not sure how many minutes we’ll see of him on Saturday, but his ability to consistently create chances on the right side and link up with the strikers in front of him and his fullback behind him will be one of the headaches for SKC to solve.

Generally, I’m not sure which team is going to make the other play with the ball, as both sides try to be rather direct and vertical when possible, but the Union’s circumstances make it more likely to be on the back foot.

I think there will be a lot of long balls, duels, and key second balls. SKC’s defense is very stout and the Union’s verticality is not going to catch them by surprise. If the Union can find a way to play with the ball, Jose Martinez’s ability to switch the field for cutbacks and crosses can be a difference maker the same way Houston scored its equalizer:

The Union will count on striker runs in behind, Sullivan brilliance and Martinez switches, but this game ultimately comes down to defensive work rate and diligent defending for 90 minutes. The Union attack has looked sharp-ish in three games, but the defense has been sloppy.

“Some of the goals are strange, some of them are mistakes,” said Curtin. “I think with all the goals, they’re very, very fixable … We’ve stressed to the entire team our foundation still will be our defending and how hard we are willing to work on the defensive side of the ball.”

Particular keys will be Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell, wingers who thrive running at backpedaling defenses in SKC’s 4-3-3. Alan Pulido’s ability as a chance creating No. 9 remains elite when he drops back for the ball. That will be a good battle between Pulido and Lowe/Elliott, and the Union have to track his movement between the lines.

First, the Union should and will condense space and muck this up, and Curtin noted the need for compactness in his press conference as well. Second, when SKC does find time, Union defenders must shepherd ball carriers away from danger. Erik Thommy’s goal was a spectacular, mazy solo effort, and Thommy and the aforementioned wingers will be searching for contact, set pieces, and crosses from behind the backline.

It’s going to be an all hands on deck effort for the Union to survive with points here. If Oliver Semmle is in fact in goal, Union defenders need to be particularly wary of loose balls in the box. Semmle has flashed MLS-quality shot-stopping but the positioning and rebounds conceded are an area of work. Kansas City is going to hunt those touches and pepper shots on frame. Defenders cannot be asleep.

And in this kind of game, of course, set pieces will be vital both ways. Lowe is going to be massively involved in this game defensively, but he can make a difference on the other end when the Union find rare chances to get a lot of numbers in the box.

Ultimately, while it’s a tricky spot for the Union, they have a little bit of house money to play with in this type of game. Early season MLS road contests are tricky for everyone, and even harder for teams gearing up for a midweek road trip to Mexico. Any result or good performance here will reflect the Union’s resilience.

“Can we go and transition and try to hurt them?” asked Curtin. “Every team in the league has strengths and weaknesses. We’re going to give maximum effort on Saturday and then recover as quickly as possible on Tuesday.”

Curtin’s team has earned the expectation to be up for a valiant shift in a spot where most teams would be counted out. The team might not get anything to show for it but we’ll continue to find out more about this new iteration of the Union.

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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