The Philadelphia Union welcome a struggling Sporting Kansas City to town this weekend, hoping to put their own troubles behind them by securing a victory. Unlike last week against Orlando, they should have their full complement of players to choose from in their attempt to begin new home-winning and undefeated streaks (more on that later). With both teams needing a win, we can hope to see a lot of attacking soccer on display.
The Union’s MVP is Back (Probably)
It says a lot about how good the Union was last year and this could be referring to multiple players. With all due respect to Daníel Gazdag, the past few weeks have shown just how vital the goalkeeper position is. That sound you heard the other day- no, the other one, not the roaring for Phillies Opening Day, before that- was Union fans rejoicing after Jim Curtin said in his midweek press conference that, “All signs are pointing to a positive return for Andre [Blake] to the group on the weekend…the hope is that he does play on Saturday.”
It can’t be underestimated how important getting Blake back is for the Union. The three-time MLS Goalkeeper of the Year is the best at his position in league history (yeah, I said what I said) and brings a level of talent and leadership (he’s the captain of the Jamaican Men’s National Team) to the field that no backup can replicate.
For more on Andre Blake’s return, Jimmy King has you covered: Andre Blake Returns to Union Training
And Blake’s return should hopefully contribute to…
Can the Defense Please Bounce Back?
From last week: “The entire defense felt chaotic and unorganized while trying to defend the lead, and you have to wonder how much comes down to missing Andre Blake in goal. There’s a level of comfort and stability that goes along with having a world-class goalkeeper behind you, and the Union’s defense has struggled at times to cope without him. That being said, 18,500+ screaming fans isn’t the worst substitute in the world, and the defense will look to feed off that energy to earn backup keeper Joe Bendik a shutout.”
They did not. It took less than 2 minutes to lose that shutout.
The same issues were present again from the start against Orlando, with the Union allowing two goals in the first 10 minutes of the match, goals in which multiple players made errors and allowed Orlando to waltz through on goal. They managed to shore things up for the remainder of the game, but that was in large part more down to luck than anything else, as, with the Union pushing forward looking for an equalizer, Orlando generated multiple great chances on the counter and probably should have scored a few more.
These defensive struggles are particularly shocking from a team that just last season had one of the best defenses in MLS history, and unexpectedly retained every start this season. The one difference in recent games, as mentioned last week, has been missing Andre Blake since his injury. The Union will be hoping that bringing Blake back will be a big boost to the beleaguered backline.
Speaking of beleaguered…
The International Break is tough on the players who get called up to their national teams. They’re having to spend time traveling to and from wherever their national team happens to be playing, and putting an extra couple of games in their legs. These issues are only exacerbated for MLS players. Most have to travel a great distance, and playing through the break means that even the players who don’t get called up didn’t have the rest that those in other leagues get.
For the Union, several players who started against Orlando haven’t gotten as much game time this season. Getting more match fitness will be good for them in the long term, but it could lead to a bit of short-term fatigue. Fortunately, most of them have at least played some minutes off the bench or in the Champions League, so the short-term impact shouldn’t be as big as it might have otherwise.
All that being said, the end of the International Break is good news for the Union, because it means…
Full Roster to Choose From
Fatigue aside, the Union (and every team who lost players to the International Break) will be grateful to have everyone back and available to play. This includes Julián Carranza, who was suspended for a red card in the match against Montreal, and, as mentioned earlier, should include Andre Blake as well.
The players will be extra motivated to prove that they deserve to start regularly, after two games where very few stood out in a positive light. In the offseason, the Union brought in-depth players who are good enough to start for some teams, and that competition for places should light a fire under those who have been underperforming.
Even having a full roster to choose from is no guarantee the Union will go with their traditional “full strength” lineup (although I suspect they will) because this game doesn’t exist in a vacuum. They have other factors to consider, namely…
Balancing MLS and Champions League
For their first Champions League matchup, the Union rotated heavily, leaving their nominal starting lineup for MLS. Up against stronger opposition this time in the form of Mexican side Atlas, figuring out the best way to balance the lineups between the two competitions is a tougher proposition.
Given the strong starts to the season from several bench players, I think it’s likely Philadelphia stick with the same rotation policy, particularly this week. The team needs a win in the league to turn things around and generate some semblance of momentum heading into the first leg against Atlas. The first leg is also at home, so with no travel involved there is more wiggle room for either starting players in both games or trusting backups to perform in front of the home crowd. A lot may depend on the aforementioned fatigue for players who already traveled a long distance to and from their national teams.
I see the Union rolling out their typical starting lineup, and (say it with me now) getting off to a slow start in the first half (as I keep saying, they have yet to prove me wrong). A first-half goal from Dániel Sallói gives SKC the lead before second-half goals from Julián Carranza and Daníel Gazdag (late, late on) give Philly an exciting 2-1 that energizes the players and fans alike.
For more on the upcoming Philadelphia Union match against Sporting Kansas City, Justin Friedberg has everything you need with the Union Matchday 6 Preview
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