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Four questions with Xander Kennedy of KC Soccer Journal



Photo by Tracy Valko

One game up, one game down.

The Philadelphia Union are 0-0-1 to start the 2024 MLS season and, after a short intermission with a Concacaf Champions Cup win against Deportivo Saprissa, are heading out to play Sporting Kansas City for a road dual.

To get the inside scoop on Sporting, we spoke with Xander Kennedy and our pals at KC Soccer Journal to learn about a Kansas City team that actually plays in Kansas.

Philadelphia Soccer Now: Last year, Sporting finished in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference, though they did reach the Conference Semifinals of the playoffs. What’s changed about the team since then (i.e. new signings, new tactics, etc.)?

Xander Kennedy: Yes, last year Sporting finished in playoff position (8th place), but as has been well documented, the season was a tale of two halves. SKC started off historically bad and didn’t notch their first win until May 7th. They actually had more red cards than goals through the first couple months of the season. So, to dig themselves out of that hole and secure a playoff spot was no small feat and meant that they actually had the best record in the Western Conference from May onward. They carried that momentum into the playoffs, dispatched San Jose in the “play-in” match, and then thoroughly dismantled the No. 1 seed St. Louis City before bowing out to Houston.

The last time that Philadelphia and KC squared off was in April of 2023 (during that woeful starting stretch), but honestly, the team hasn’t changed that much since last year. Part of what contributed to that poor early-season play was a rash of injuries, so the Union will be seeing a healthier team this time around. Otherwise, the most notable changes for Sporting are the departures. Club legends Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza are gone, as is former DP Gadi Kinda. The hope is for the team to add in a new designated player, but that hasn’t happened yet. Therefore, the starting 11 that Peter Vermes trotted out last weekend were all on the roster a year ago. Three new signings did sub on in the second half, but expectations are modest for the potential impacts of any of the new players.

PSN: Kansas City started off the season with a 1-1 draw against Houston. What stood out in that game?

XK: At the risk of stating the obvious, one of the primary takeaways from the season’s first match was simply the rust. There were poorly played balls all over the field (for both teams) and the hope would be for a more complete product to take the field Saturday night. Yes, SKC briefly held the lead after a great individual effort from Erik Thommy, but the team seemed perfectly satisfied departing Houston with a draw. Much of the defending was suspect, especially on crosses into the box. Simultaneously, the attack lacked teeth. Again, hopefully, the team has had a good week of practice and will be ready to show off for the home crowd.

I suppose one other note might be that Vermes actually used his full complement of subs last match. He’s been notorious for being stingy with substitutions, which sometimes seems to lead directly to wearing down his starters. He likely recognizes that his lineup isn’t full of spring chickens and so rotation will be important.

PSN: What is the ceiling for this Kansas City team? What are its strengths and weaknesses?

XK: Referencing what happened last season and so little turnover, the ceiling and floor for this team are about as wide as you can imagine. Do we get the team that couldn’t walk and chew gum for months last year? If so, the cellar it is! Do we get the team that put up the most wins in the conference May-October? If so, Supporters Shield, here we come! Realistically, I think this team has too much veteran confidence to fall flat again, but the lack of any real stars probably means a No. 1 seed is too much of an ask.

The trio of starting attackers (Pulido, Russell, & Salloi) all have had seasons where they’ve put up 10+ goals, but they’re not getting any younger or faster. That may be where some of the newer talent steps in. By midway through the second half of match one, there was a complete replacement of the forwards with Willy Agada, Stephen Afrifa, and Alenis Vargas entering. They would seem to have the potential to stretch opposing defenses, but they didn’t do much during their first outing together.

KC’s young right back, Jake Davis, was last year’s breakout star, but he and the rest of the defense had some shaky moments first time out in 2024. The team needs to have addressed leaving players unmarked on crosses into the six or else all Philly will need to do is keep dumping balls into the box.

PSN: Will Sporting have any notable absences? What are your score and lineup predictions?

XK: The primary injury SKC enters this season with is the other hotshot young wingback, Logan Ndenbe, who tore his ACL during last season’s playoff run (after twice scoring in the St. Louis fixtures). Beyond that, Kansas City is dramatically healthier than a year ago at this time.

As for a predicted lineup, I would be mildly shocked if Vermes didn’t run out the exact same starting 11 as a week ago: Melia, Davis, Rosero, Fontàs, Leibold, Radoja, Thommy, Walter, Russell, Salloi, & Pulido (back to front).

A score prediction? Let’s go with 3-2 to SKC. Sporting should be amped for their home opener and have a much lighter schedule than the Union. As much as Melia and the defense will want a shutout, I can’t see that happening after last week’s lapses, but I think KC’s attack overwhelms an either tired or heavily rotated Union side.

Joe is a junior at Penn State studying journalism and sports studies, among other things. He's covered the Union since 2017 and has written for Brotherly Game / Philadelphia Soccer Now since 2019. He seeks to answer life's greatest questions, such as, "How did I get here?" and "Where is that large automobile?" You can find Joe on Twitter (iamjoelister) or via email (

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