Thursday night the Philadelphia Union will play Sporting Kansas City in the quarterfinals of the MLS is Back knockout tournament. Kickoff is set for 8:00 p.m. and will air on ESPN platforms. Here are three things to keep an eye out for in this knockout battle.
1.) Confidence is key and both clubs have it…
Both Philadelphia and Sporting KC were unjustly labeled as dark-horse picks to win the MLS is Back tournament back when the details were first announced.
Since both clubs have been on hot streaks. Philadelphia fought tooth and nail in the group stage to avoid a defeat. Kansas City only lost once but found great success offensively with six goals, two W’s, and the title of Group D winners.
Most recently, Kansas City dominated large chunks of their match against Vancouver Whitecaps posting some heavily slanted offensive stats in a match that ended in PKs. Sporting KC ripped a total of 37 shots while bossing over 63% of the possession overall.
Philadelphia battled a scrappy yet talented New England Revolution side to a 1-0 victory. The stats weren’t as heavily skewed in Philadelphia’s favor, but their team defending and more importantly their star goalkeeper, Andre Blake, remained in top form with 5 saves.
Union forward Kacper Przybylko banged the drum a bit earlier this week when he mentioned the confidence level for him and his teammates is high. “Every game you win, you get more confidence,” said Przybylko. “I see my team in the finals.”
Kansas City forward Johnny Russell responded shortly after during his media session when he mentioned Przybylko as a “confident” guy. “They’ll have to get through us to get there,” said Russell. “We’ll see how that plays out.”
It’s clear both teams are riding that confidence wave into Thursday night.
2.) Can Union defense contain Alan Pulido?
Through four matches in Orlando’s bubble, Philadelphia have allowed just two goals. Andre Blake has been in a word phenomenal. He deserves his own column…
The Jamaican shot-stopper has racked up an impressive 21 saves through four games. If he can continue to be cat-like in net, Philadelphia should be safe.
But Kansas City have scored six times through their first four matches. And they have a secret weapon of their own in Alan Pulido.
He’s physically strong but has the pace to burn down the wing. He has great vision and loves to create chances for his teammates. And he likes to exploit the wings.
Can Philadelphia stop Pulido? It’s a tough task. Though he has just one goal in regulation (banged home a crucial PK in the W v. VAN), Pulido has 3 assists so far. And despite a higher number of goals to his credit so far, he’s always a threat to score. He leads the team in shots with 9 and shots on target with 3 against Vancouver. Stopping him is a major key for Philadelphia.
3.) Union needs to find scoring boots… which player steps up?
While Philadelphia have been thriving off their defensive efforts and Blake’s heroics in net, their offensive outputs have been lacking.
And with Kansas City bringing a high likelihood of goals with them Thursday night, Philadelphia will most likely need to find ways to score 2 or more goals to advance – something they’ve only managed to do just once so far in the bubble.
While they’ve had plenty of chances to convert, the final product is just off. You can rely on the old saying “defense wins championships” or in this case “defense wins impromptu mid-season tournaments in a bubble.” But after a while, the offense needs to pick up some of the slack.
Sporting KC is a well-coached team, with Peter Vermes – a Delran, NJ native – at the helm. You can almost count on him and his staff finding weaknesses and unique ways to break Philadelphia down. It’s no easy task, but it seems highly likely they will.
Whether or not Philadelphia can sharpen their final third play and find ways to finish chances will be key #1 heading into Thursday night.
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Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports