The day every single Philadelphia Union fan has been waiting for has almost arrived. We’re less than 24 hours way from the teams second consecutive U.S Open Cup final and there is some unfinished business to be taken care of at PPL Park.
Sporting Kansas City make the journey to Chester, PA to play the Union for a second time this year. The last result saw Kansas romp to a 3-2 victory, taking advantage over one of M’bohli’s most infuriating appearances. The Union will be hoping for a very different result tomorrow and a different result to when they were eliminated in the Semi Final of this trophy just two years ago.
In preparation for the game, head coach Jim Curtin rested the big names against New England and was able to come away with a spectacular point. Andre Blake played a career defining game whilst newly nicknamed “ginger Pirlo” found the back of the net to hand the Union a boost coming into the Open Cup Final.
The bad news is, that Sporting Kansas had the same idea. With Matt Besler already suspended, the team also rested their starters in what was similarly a draw against Seattle. This means that it’s going to be a battle of first team gladiators at PPL Park.
The travelling side now have only five points from their last seven games whilst a surprisingly in form yet unlucky Union have an impressive eleven. But this is Cup football. It’s almost rude to talk about league form. A perfect example would be Arsenal. A huge 5-2 win over Leicester at the weekend and before that a Cup win over local rivals Tottenham Hotspur, but just hours ago the Gunners lost a match against Olympiakos in the UEFA Champions League…a match they really should have won.
There’s something very special about cup football, and something even more so when it comes to Philadelphia’s rich history with the US Open Cup. For a detailed history on the city’s association with the trophy check out this article on Philly Soccer Page.
Keys to the game:
Whilst talking about form could prove to be irrelevant, talking about how a team looks is not. The Union have looked much better in recent weeks in almost every aspect. The chemistry between Maidana and Barnetta is starting to flourish and with the former Schalke player getting his first franchise goal at the weekend he will be hungry for more. Whilst the team were overrun by Kamara against Columbus, they have only lost two of their last eight games and in that time conceded just eight goals. There has been a complete transformation in terms of productivity and it seems to be overshadowed by how low the team are placed in the Eastern Conference.
The Union come into this game with all the momentum on their side, a close to perfectly healthy squad full of players, a home field advantage and a system that players are finally starting to utilise. This could be the perfect scenario for the Union.
War in the middle third-
The Union’s counter-attacking style of soccer is going to be key in this game. Even against the tougher opponents, the Union seem to win possession battles. They have an average possession rate of 46.1% and a now improved Pass Accuracy rating of 75.4% according to www.whoscored.com. Both of those factors will be crucial in cutting out balls from the likes of Benny Feilhaber who has the ability to become a real threat as a deep lying playmaker. All it takes is a nifty ball to Zusi to get in behind Fabinho and they exploit a Union weakness. However the winger had a very quiet season thus far. Despite some injuries he has bounced back with a spike in the graph following some eccentric performances. Zusi adds an unpredictable element to the attacking third and instead of trying to align DM’s and CB’s with marking him out of the game, it makes much more sense to control the middle third of the pitch and dictate the pace of the game..forcing Kansas to play a game of Cat and Mouse and chase the game at their own will.
The 25 year old Golden Boot contender has eleven goals for SKC this season and will be keen to add more to that tally at PPL Park. Whilst Curtin hasn’t released his lineups yet, one has to assume that the strongest CB pairing will be out on the field. But Ethan White could partner up with Marquez to make up for the speed that Vitoria lacks. But the Union will be facing a double whammy in terms of Hungarian Krisztián Németh who has nine goals for his team on the year. This is why quicker defenders are more likely to start. The Union have given up far too many penalties this season with reckless challenges or silly mistakes when a player escapes them as a last gasp effort. It’s important that the back four can stay composed and whilst physically challenge players, that they don’t make any silly errors to either give away a set piece..or leave gaping holes for two very dangerous strikers to charge into.
Distracting the Defense-
Forme this is probably the biggest key to the matchup. When facing a defender as prominent as Matt Besler, there’s going to be problems. The Union in the Open Cup tend to endure low scoring affairs, leading to extra time showdowns or penalty heroics. But with Sapong scoring in his last two you have to feel like the Union have some Offensive push and shove about them. But that’s not the best form of attack. In recent weeks, the team have realised that with such a dynamic playmaker in Maidana and wide midfielders who are finally delivering the goods, the Union can work the ball into the box in more than one way. Sapong likes to flick the ball on and with the all time leading goalscorer for the Open Cup on your side as well as someone as elusive as Barnetta, Sapong may end up playing a Supporting Striker role or even a false nine..it would certainly give a defense who have conceded over 40 goals this season a headache..
In terms of a lineup, it can go one of two ways..but I think Curtin is intelligent enough to know that if the Union can play at their own pace and draw the game out then they can seal a win. With that being said I also think he will give the start to McCarthy based on merit and the fact he got the team there in the first place. Personally, I would prefer to see Blake in goal but I can understand the decision and from a managerial perspective, you have to see it from a morale stand point.
White and Marquez could link up at CB allowing Edu and Lahoud to play in defensive midfield roles. Lahoud has been great in recent games when it comes to transitioning the play and keeping short passes accurate. Edu’s first full game since minor injury will be assisted by Lahoud to take some weight off of his shoulders.
Maidana will be playing in the central role with Barnetta alongside him and Le Toux on his right. Directly ahead likes CJ Sapong but these four players will have to retain a fluid shape to have a chance of unlocking this Kansas Defense.
I honestly think this game belongs to the Union. All signs point to PPL Park and if the boys in blue and gold can stop a full New England side when fielding their reserves? They may just finally be the complete package Curtin has been trying to create. The team have been here before, it’s their turf, and it’s their one shot at silverware..the players want this. The team want this. The fans deserve this. It’s one of those games where the odds can’t calculate who wants it more..and for me, that’s the Union.
Philadelphia Union 2-1 Sporting Kansas City