Coming off a turbulent two-wins and three-loss start to the 2023 campaign, the Philadelphia Union were back in action on Saturday night at Subaru Park against Sporting Kansas City as they looked to get back on track after losing their first match at home since the 2021 season and hoping to avoid losing their third straight regular-season match in the same season since 2017.
Union vs SKC delayed ends in frustrating 0-0 draw
SKC, led by the longest-tenured coach in MLS in Peter Vermes, also came into this match with some concern over his team’s form to start the season, having only scored two goals across the first five matches, battling through a laundry list of injuries, and still searching for their first win.
This felt like a game where Union could really find their footing against a struggling opponent at home and kickstart the season many predicted them to have, but the struggles continued and many are left wondering, what’s going on with this Union team?
Many return to Starting XI after International Duty, but key piece missing due to Injury
Ominous clouds moved over Subaru Park around 6:30 pm, right around the same time Union released their lineup for the night and when fans discovered that left-back Kai Wagner would be left out of the squad entirely against SKC after head coach Jim Curtin mentioned he’d have a precautionary MRI on his hamstring in his midweek press conference.
The absence of Wagner meant Matt Real would start in the Left Back role for the first time in 2023, and Nate Harriel in for Olivier Mbaizo on the right side of the backline was the only other change to the starting XI for Union from their “preferred” lineup as everyone away on international duty returned to Philadelphia earlier this week.
Three-time MLS Goalkeeper of the year Andre Blake also returned to the lineup on Saturday, missing the last three weeks with a Grade one adductor strain. Union had a record of one win and two losses while their starting keeper was out with an injury.
Delayed start results in lackluster first half
Remember those ominous clouds I spoke about earlier? Yeah, those weren’t just metaphorical. Torrential rain, a flurry of lightning strikes in the area, and a Tornado warning sent Subaru Park into a “Shelter in Place” before warmups could really even get started. And it was really coming down for a while. But the storm passed rather quickly all things considered, and after a 30-minute wait period to make sure there was no more lightning in the area, teams were let out for warm-ups and fans started filling their seats for a new kick-off time of 8:40 pm, 70 minutes passed its original reservation.
While fans still showed up and seemed ready to go despite the inclement weather and shelter-in-place delay, It was the players on the field who struggled to get themselves going in the first half. Union had a really hard time stringing passes together through the midfield, and every time they did get themselves in a decent position, the final ball just wasn’t there.
There was a noticeable lack of rhythm and flow, which resulted in SKC’s makeshift backline and Goalkeeper Tim Melia, making his first start of 2023, going relatively untested in the first half.
“The first half in particular, the amount of unforced errors where it looks like we’re about to have a good attack and then all of a sudden we almost passed directly to the other team, and it’s very uncharacteristic of us, leads the chances for Kansas City.”Head Coach, Jim Curtin
Union’s most threatening chance of the first half came in the 17th minute from a cross off the left foot of Matt Real which found the head of Ale Bedoya at the back post, but his header back across the box was knocked down and cleared before any real scoring opportunity could present itself for Union to take a 1-0 lead.
Sporting Kansas City had the most promising chance to open the scoring in the first 45 minutes when a cross from Erik Thommy sent a ball into the box from Andre Blake’s right side in the 37th minute. The ball was met by the unmarked head of SKC’s new Colombian Center Back, Danny Rosero between the six-yard box and the penalty spot, but Andre Blake did well to track the cross and make the save on a header that one-bounced in front of him to keep the score locked at 0-0.
The whistle concluding the first half meant Union had achieved not giving up an early goal, something the team is hoping to avoid turning into a trend. But offensively, it just looked stale. Union was out-possessed by a margin of 52% to 48%, had zero chances on net to SKC’s 2 chances, had 0 corners to Sporting’s 7, and completed 69.27% of their passes, in comparison to their opponents 75.55%.
A slightly better second half, with the same disappointing outcome
The second half was better for Union in terms of creating quality scoring chances to grab all 3 points at home. In the 54th minute, Daniel Gazdag touched the ball through several players in the midfield to Julian Carranzan around the center circle of the pitch. Carranza turned and fired a through ball to Michael Uhre between Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi and Danny Rosero, who did well to recover.
Uhre controlled the ball well and was able to turn the retreating defenders out of position with a series of cutbacks, but his attempt on net was blocked away by an onrushing Tim Melia in goal to keep it 0-0. Just 6 minutes later, Union was awarded a free kick just in front of their bench. The ball whipped in by Daniel Gazdag was headed toward the top of the net by Matt Real but was grabbed by the diving gloves of Melia.
Union did much better to limit SKC’s scoring opportunities in the second half, where Sporting’s best chances came from some left-footed attempts from well outside the penalty area which didn’t trouble Andre Blake in the slightest. With the score still 0-0 in the 79th minute, and Union continuously pushing for the breakthrough goal, Daniel Gazdag almost provided just that with a shot off his right foot from way outside the box that provided SKC’s keeper with his biggest test of the night.
The shot looped over the block attempt by defender Robert Castellanos, who may have impeded the sightline of his keeper ever so slightly, but before the ball could find its way into the top corner giving Union a late 1-0 lead, Melia dove to his right and parried the ball past the frame of the goalkeeping his side level with a chance to steal a point on the road.
The final optimistic chance for Union to take get the win and all 3 points at home came in the 85th minute when a cross from Matt Real caused the ball to bounce around the box, which was punched onward by the hand of Melia, where a blocked clearance sent the ball straight up in the air inside the penalty area. The ball came down perfectly for Julian Carranza, who left the ground with his back to goal, snapping a bicycle-kick attempt towards the net, but the shot went just wide, and the score remained deadlocked.
Union did get in some positive positions in the final few minutes but were not able to muster up any real scoring opportunities, ending the match at a 0-0 draw.
Frustration starting to set in for Union
The final whistle and the 0-0 draw at home was accompanied by a quick but telling outring of “Boo’s” around the stadium from the Union faithful. Even with the clean sheet and returning Andre Blake to the lineup, It’s a frustrating result no matter which way you look at it, whether you’re a fan, a player, or part of the coaching staff or front office.
A team that achieved so much last year and returned all of their starting XI currently looks like a shell of the team we saw last season that had so much fluidity, defensive structure, and killer instinct which saw Union miss the supporters’ shield only by a tie-breaker, and lose MLS Cup on penalties.
Now, 6 games into the following MLS regular season, with aspirations of achieving both of those feats that escaped them last season in addition to a few others, Union has just 2 wins, 1 draw, and 3 losses for a total of 7 points in MLS play, which currently has them in 8th place in the Eastern Conference. It’s simply just not reaching the standard that everyone surrounding Union has set for this team, but it’s not for a lack of effort, and Union knows they need to be better.
Head Coach, Jim Curtin
You know, not our best night again, not our sharpest. I think we have a situation where we have a little bit of a lack of confidence in ourselves right now and it becomes contagious.”
Short memories needed for important games upcoming
The union has very little time to sulk on this result and needs to work out the lack of confidence quickly if they want to stay on track with their goals for the 2023 season.
Philadelphia will travel to Ohio next Saturday where they’ll face off against former Union assistant coach, Pat Noonan’s first-place FC Cincinnati which should prove to be another big test to Union early on in the season. But before Union can think about getting back on track in MLS play, they’ve got to push their focus to the Quarter Finals of the CONCACAF Champions League, where they’ll face off against Atlas F.C in the first leg in Chester, PA on Tuesday, April 4th, before heading to Guadalajara for the second leg a week later.
Curtin says they’re not counting out Kai Wagner from being involved on Tuesday just yet, but whether he’s in the squad or not, Union will need to pull together a convincing performance if they want to keep the CCL semi-finals in arms reach before heading down to Mexico for the second leg. Be sure to catch the first leg on Tuesday at Subaru Park at 8 pm EST.
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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union