Photo: Nicolae Stoian
What: Philadelphia Union vs Sporting Kansas City
Where: PPL Park
When: Saturday, 7 pm EST
Broadcast: TCN, MLS Direct Kick, and streaming at MLS Live
It’s so tempting to use Sporting Kansas City as the measuring stick. They’ve drafted well (Bunbury, Sapong), they’ve developed players (Zusi, Myers), they’ve made smart trades (Kamara), and they’ve left the door open for anyone who can play (Collin). When a team makes so many right steps, it’s tempting to imagine they have a secret formula and, by paying close attention, that formula can be learned and applied elsewhere.
Unfortunately, there is no formula. One day Sporting Kansas City will trade a young central midfielder for a second round pick and that guy will go on to earn a starting role on another team. Good on you, Andrew Jacobson.
What Hack can do
Recently, John Hackworth said that the Union don’t want to be Kansas City, but they wouldn’t mind improving on some of the things KC does so well. Hackworth was talking about tactics: Playing faster out of the back, improving the counterattack, returning to shape when the ball is lost, and attacking crosses no matter your size.
It will take a while for Hack to change the tactics. The most important thing Hackworth can change short-term is how the Union channel their passion. If Peter Vermes does have a secret that he stores away in a hidden vault it is this: Make impossible players less so.
Passion used well
Top tier athletes reach that level by pursuing a single goal with a level of passion and commitment that is difficult to muster no matter what your profession. One element that fuels this pursuit is the constant positive feedback players get as they rise to the top of the heap. Not positive reinforcement in the form of encouragement or direct praise, but instead: Playing time.
For many players, the hardest part of becoming a professional is figuring out what to throw into the furnaces of their passion when playing time is no longer a given. Jack McInerney said as much when he described life under Peter Nowak, and Hackworth has said all the right things since taking over.
Peter Vermes has taken his most volatile player, Kei Kamara, and turned that volatility and inconsistency into a visceral passion that filters down to the rest of the team. He has rewarded Aurelin Collin for early performances that were more bustle than brain, and for his efforts Vermes has seen the Frenchman grow into a solid defender and an unstoppable corner kick-seeking missile.
If you do it, they will notice
Teams are built on the backs of their most talented players, with role players keeping the ship on course. But teams are powered by a passion that infects everyone in a different but positive way. Perhaps a guy like Michael Farfan didn’t see McInerney’s performance last Saturday and think, Yeah, I’ve got to make more diagonal runs. But maybe he remembered how focused he was when he was earning his spot in the eleven last season. Perhaps Freddy Adu didn’t see Amobi Okugo turn himself into a quality center back overnight and think, I can be a pro central defender, too. But maybe he saw that a willingness to adjust your game to any position is something the team notices and appreciates in how they move for you.
Gabriel Gomez is the closest thing the Union have had to a fiery presence this season, though Gomez often seems to get his kicks from his own play more than that of others. Sheanon Williams can show the same fire but it’s hard for a defender to be the spark that lights an offense. While there were those who derided his first touch and intelligence of movement, McInerney won PSP’s Player of the Week award because he asked more of the team behind him. Even the great strikers have a low touches-per-goal rate, but they act like they are going to score every single time, and they force their teammates to treat them like they have a 100 percent strike rate. Suddenly heads are up, a goal seems only a pass away.
Sure, it’s probably all mental. But that’s soccer.
Feed the Farfan. If Michael Farfan is open, he has to demand and receive the ball. This is how Roger Torres played when he helped lift the Union out of 2011′s long mid-season slump, and it’s how the Union’s preferred playmaker must go about his business. Farfan, like Torres before him, can play the short passes that get people involved and spray an occasional beautyball wide or over the top.
With Kansas City in a 4-3-3, their wide forwards must track back if the Union can pin the outside backs in their own half. Kamara and Sapong may seem like they can run all day, but it’s a lot easier to find that extra burst in the legs when you’re going forward compared to when you’re tracking a Sheanon Williams run.
The final—and most important—thing the Union must do to compete on Saturday is have every player defend every cross like it’s heading directly into the goal. Throw your body in front of the ball, stick on your man’s hip until the ball leaves the box, and do it over and over and over. For those who have followed Euro 2012, it’s all too clear why I say this. Ronaldo’s winner against the Czech Republic, Wayne Rooney ghosting in behind the Ukrainian defense, and Lars Bender finishing off Germany’s perfect group stage by following the play to the finish are just three examples of how turning off for half a second can be all it takes.
Sporting has been taking advantage of these half-seconds all year. Kamara and C.J. Sapong attack the box as well as anyone in MLS, and while the Union are watching Teal Bunbury, the other strikers will be charging in behind. If Philly can keep their heads on a swivel they can blunt the Kansas City attack and give the PPL Park faithful the win they crave.
- GK: MacMath
- DEF: Williams (If he can move, he’ll play), Okugo, Valdes, Garfan
- MID: Carroll, Gomez, Marfan
- FWD: Martinez, McInerney, Adu
- GK: Nielson
- DEF: Myers, Collin, Olum, Harrington
- MID: Thomas, Espinoza, Joseph
- FWD: Sapong, Bunbury, Kamara
- OUT: FW Krystian Witkowski (concussion symptoms)
- DOUBTFUL: DF Sheanon Williams (R big toe sprain)
- QUESTIONABLE: MF Gabriel Gomez (L knee patellar tendonitis); MF Cristhian Hernandez (R knee sprain)
- PROBABLE: MF Keon Daniel (L ankle sprain)
- OUT: MF Korede Aiyegbusi (R knee sprain); DF Matt Besler (appendicitis); FW Bobby Convey (R calf strain); DF Cyprian Hedrick (L fibula fracture); GK Jon Kempin (R ankle fracture); MF Paulo Nagamura (R abductor strain); MF Luke Sassano (L knee sprain); DF Shawn Singh (L quad strain)
Check out PSP’s Union vs Kansas City quick reference for quick links to match reports, analysis and player ratings, photo essays, stats and video highlights of past meetings between the two teams.