Photo: Paul Rudderow
Call it gritty if you’d like. You’re entitled to your opinion.
But only two words accurately describe the Union’s slump-breaking 1-0 victory on the road at Kansas City:
That Zac MacMath played his best match of the season on Friday was fortunate, because his top-shelf performance along with the bargain basement finishing of Kansas City’s forwards were the only things keeping the home side from claiming the victory. With Kansas City looking primed to put the Union in a deep early hole, MacMath’s big first half saves kept the Union in the match, while Kansas City forwards Dom Dwyer and C.J. Sapong took nine shots and put none of them on frame, with Dwyer sending five headers off target from inside six yards. It wasn’t until the 85th minute that a Kansas City forward (Claudio Bieler) actually put a shot on target.
KC dominated the run of play
That Kansas City racked up more than 60 percent of the possession is not surprising. They are a quality side with a forward-thinking mentality and three midfielders who are comfortable and dangerous on the ball. Considering the Union’s bunker first, second and third road approach, they were always going to cede possession and territory to their hosts. What should alarm John Hackworth, his staff and Union fans everywhere was their side’s inability to string passes together at any point of Friday night’s match.
Not only did the Union fail to reach the 300 pass threshold (they completed only 277), their completion percentage was an paltry 64 percent. Put in simple terms, the Union turned over possession with more than a third of their passes. Out of the back, no outlet was presented for the frustrated fullbacks. On the rare instance when the Union got the ball into the midfield, they dallied on the ball and were quick to either hoof it back to their opponents or get caught in possession.
Despite the 1-0 scoreline, the Union hardly kept out SKC once they had conceded possession. Despite the Union deploying five midfielders, one of whom is typically a fullback, Kansas City carved the Union apart with alarming ease, and it was only Dwyer’s inaccuracy in front of goal that kept the hosts off the board.
Employing the same unexpected 4-2-3-1 that backfired on opening day against Kansas City at PPL Park, John Hackworth’s Union arrived at Sporting Park intent on a full 90 minutes of bunkering. And bunker they did. Yet despite their 5 to 3 numerical advantage in midfield, Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber had little trouble slicing past the static figures of Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud.
Peter Vermes’ wrong call
At the other end, the Union owe Kansas City manager Peter Vermes an enormous debt of gratitude for his surprising managerial blunder in starting Ike Opara instead of the speedier Matt Besler. With Fabinho a black hole of quality on the Union’s left flank, it was down to Danny Cruz to push play forward on the opposite wing. As he does week in and week out, Cruz did just that, running straight lines up and down the right touchline. Only Vermes failed to read the email sent to him by every coach that has had success against the Union this season: Drop your left back 5 yards deeper than normal and voila! No more Cruz!
Instead, Vermes allowed his aggressive nature to get the better of him, and with Seth Sinovic politely trapping himself upfield, Cruz found the space he needed. His sum total contribution to the match consisted of two forward runs and two mishit crosses. Luckily for Cruz and the Union, Conor Casey got the touch needed to feed Farfan for a volley on goal before the big striker barreled home the rebound for the match’s only goal.
A 1-0 scoreline was always what the Union were after. Once they had their goal, it was back to the bunker, where they were protected by the calm, safe hands of Zac MacMath, the heady defensive play of Amobi Okugo and Jeff Parke, and the comically inept finishing of Dwyer, Sapong and Co.
Zac MacMath – 9
There are games where, despite a team looking a total mess in front of him, a goalkeeper can steal a game. For MacMath, this was that game. It was his first and came at an ideal time. MacMath now sits alone atop the MLS charts for most shutouts with 11, 8 of which have happened since June.
Sheanon Williams – 7
For all that is made of Williams’ pace and long throw-ins, his defensive body positioning is very underrated. Whether it was Sapong, Peterson or Saad, there was no joy for Kansas City down his flank.
Amobi Okugo – 8
Showed just how far he has come as a defender with intelligent defensive movement and critical interventions. He might have been found wanting on a handful of the same plays earlier this season.
Jeff Parke – 6
Strong in the air but exposed for his lack of foot speed at times. Isolated himself from his center back partner while being careless with the ball, leading to a completion rate of only 9 out of 20 successful passes.
Ray Gaddis – 4
Exposed often at the back, Gaddis struggled to deal with Zusi while being put under additional pressure by Fabinho’s slack play.
Brian Carroll – 4
Ran his socks off, but unfortunately for Carroll, his socks are no longer quick enough to keep up with top tier MLS competition.
Michael Lahoud – 3
Fairly typical performance from Lahoud as he played slowly and conservatively, often putting his teammates under pressure. Looked like a player who hasn’t played 90 minutes in a long time as he was unable to track Kansas City players who consistently crashed passed him into the box. Did well to break up a KC passing sequence to jump start the series that led to the Union’s goal but we need to see that more.
Danny Cruz – 5
At this point in the season, two solid runs from Cruz before an injury around the hour mark is roughly what can be expected out of the attack-first, defend-rarely winger. Might have had an extra point for setting up the goal had he not been caught on camera so often walking behind the play, watching passively while Williams took on two men by his lonesome.
Michael Farfan – 6
Starved for touches for much of the game, Farfan still added quality and a body in the box, when he had the opportunity setting up Casey’s goal and nearly grabbing one for himself with a neat redirection that Nielsen did well to save. Fought hard for 90 minutes, giving the Union midfield some of the steel that was missing from Carroll and Lahoud.
Fabinho – 2
Had an absolute shocker at left midfield. Was a liability on both sides of the ball, turning over more than half of his passes while only completing 10 over the full 90 minutes. Conceded possession cheaply in his own half and offered Gaddis negligible defensive cover.
Conor Casey – 6
Looked to have had some of his energy restored in the bye week, as he was again at his combative best. Grabbed the all important match-winner, while also helping the ball along to Farfan earlier in the play to keep the scramble alive. His constant berating of the referee continues to win him no friends though, as he has an obvious reputation, the proof of which is that he failed to win a single free kick despite being subjected to a heavy beating from Collin and Opara.
Sebastien Le Toux – 3
Came into a sloppy match, and made it sloppier. Le Toux’s first touch on the ball, never a strength of his, was particularly bad. His passing too was well off the mark.
Aaron Wheeler – 3
While the big man for big man move made sense on paper, Union fans may have to accept the fact that Wheeler simply does not have the tools to compete at this level. He certainly had the chances, but he managed to connect on only 2 of 9 passes and sent his one shot opportunity badly wide of the mark. Was not successful in his task of either putting the game out of sight or simply holding on to the ball.
Jack McInerney – 5
The only substitute to offer the aggression and energy fitting of a player trying to help his team secure a precious road victory. In his brief cameo, he helped slow down play and set the table well for Wheeler, who lacked the poise to finish the chance, or cut the ball back for McInerney in the box.
From a Union perspective – 9
From a Sporting Kansas City perspective – 2
Playing in dominant fashion in their home arena, Sporting Kansas City would have been furious at Salazar’s no blood, no foul approach to refereeing. The 17 fouls that were whistled against the Union (compared to 11 against SKC) were a paltry sampling of the clutching, grabbing and cynical play the visitors used in an effort to slow down their hosts. But Salazar ate it up. The Union got away with far too much, allowing them to slow Sporting’s pace to a furious crawl. Like the violent, negative approach the Union bellyached about when Toronto came to PPL Park, the Union flipped the script to great effect, using the same tactics to steal a precious three points. Considering Salazar never seemed to bat an eye over it, fair play to them.