Sporting KC head back to Philadelphia this weekend for a match with the Union, so I got with Eugene Rupinski from our fellow SB Nation blog, Brotherly Game, to discuss the matchup.
Here are your Three Questions But Really Six
We ask them...
1) The Blue Testament: It has been a complete turnaround from last season's results for the Union. In 4th place in the East with 37 points... they have already matched their point total from last season. What has been the difference? Is Jim Curtin getting the credit?
Eugene Rupinski: Most of the credit for the turnaround has gone to Earnie Stewart, and I think that's a pretty fair assessment. Earnie came in after last season and cleaned house. Players that had bad contracts or weren't very good were let go, and the club was able to replace them with players they had done their homework on. Chris Pontius had injury issues while with D.C. United, however the Union saw the potential there and knew if they could keep him healthy he'd be a great asset for the club. They did their homework going into the MLS SuperDraft, and wound up getting a starting center back in Josh Yaro, a serviceable striker in Fabian Herbers, and an MLS All-Star and Rookie of the Year candidate (it'll be nothing short of a crime if he doesn't win) in right back Keegan Rosenberry. Earnie was known for his sharp eye for talent and shrewd business acumen while in the Eredivise, so it should be no surprise that came with him to the Philadelphia Union.
That being said, I think more credit should be given to Jim Curtin. After all, he's the one that's been putting together the lineups and putting guys in positions to help the team win. Has there been some missteps? Of course. Even the greats make the wrong call here and there, but I think this year especially Jim Curtin has proven he's a capable manager and one who deserves part of the credit for the Union's turnaround.
ER: CJ has really become one of those players that you think of when you think of the Philadelphia Union. He's in a class with the likes of Brian Carroll, Danny Califf, Sebastien Le Toux - guys who played elsewhere but really helped mold the Union into what they are today. CJ's proven that he belongs in that class - he's played hurt, he's played through some personal issues, and has always really seemed to want to let his play on the field do the talking for him. He's the kind of player that we love here in Philadelphia, the hard-working, leave-it-all-on-the-field work ethic really speaks to the people in this area.Could CJ reach another level in his career? I don't see why not. The guy has the work ethic and the physical tools to really propel his career into higher levels. There's been whispers of him being scouted by at least one Portuguese Primeira Division team as well as being mentioned in the United States National Team conversation, so I believe he is capable of furthering his career on a couple of different levels.
ER: Who would replace the departed Vincent Nogueira was a big worry going into the Transfer Window. Nogueira was the linkage between the offense and the defense, and without him the Union struggled to play the kind of soccer they had become accustomed to playing. Bedoya has filled that number 8 role well even in just the short time he's been here (three games so far). Is he worth the money? I think it remains to be seen, but all signs are pointing to "yes". Bedoya brings a legitimacy and a pedigree to the club that we really haven't seen before - USMNT regular who is still figures in Jürgen Klinsmann's plans. He also signals to the Union fans that ownership is willing to spend money when the right player comes along. The narrative for too long was that the Front Office was "cheap" and wouldn't spend money to bring in talent (this is not exclusive to the Union - every other major sports team in Philadelphia is labeled rightly or wrongly as cheap and unwilling to spend top dollar on talent), and this seems to punch a giant hole in that.
Is it enough to propel the Union to win the MLS Cup? I don't know. At the beginning of the season, our hope was that the Union would challenge for a playoff spot - something they haven't done since 2011. Since then they lead the Eastern Conference for a good portion of the season and are still in a very good position to make the playoffs. Any team that makes the playoffs has a shot at winning the MLS Cup. It's a much different beast than the grind of an MLS season, and that's perhaps why we see teams that barely make it in go on to make deep runs. If the Union make the playoffs, they'll have as good a shot as any to hoist silverware.
Brotherly Game Lineup Prediction: Andre Blake; Fabinho, Richie Marquez, Josh Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry; Warren Creavalle, Alejandro Bedoya; Chris Pontius, Tranquillo Barnetta, Ilsinho; CJ Sapong
They ask us...
1) Brotherly Game: The last time our teams met, we watched as Sporting Kansas City took home the 2015 U.S. Open Cup trophy. How does this team differ from the one that we saw then?
Cody Bradley: The difference is a glorious lack of Krisztian Nemeth. The winger positions in PV's 4-3-3 have been a rotating cycle of let downs. Graham Zusi has not put up the numbers of a DP once again, Brad Davis and Justin Mapp have both struggled with fitness and also failed to supply the needed offensive bite, and sophomore Connor Hallisey is apparently never, until the end of time, going to score a goal. Jacob Peterson is the only guy to step up, but he is not going to replace Nemeth, or even come close.
2) BG: Can you speak to Peter Vermes' strategy of seeming to rest his regular starters against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Tuesday in CONCACAF Champions League play?
CB: For me it is tough to even call it resting players. This all came in the midst of a horrible stretch where the team played five matches in 15 days and traveled something like 16,000 miles. On top of all that, there were countless injuries and suspensions. They were in a very odd situation with half the team in one city and the other half elsewhere, then a couple of guys would fly back to KC and others would travel to meet the squad somewhere.
Last weekend, before the CCL match on Tuesday, SKC also played the Caps in MLS. For that match, KC had two guys on suspension and more injuries than I ever learned to count. PV was forced to play anyone he had available in that match. That meant guys like Feilhaber and Zusi would not be available for the midweek match.
But I do think the fact that MLS is valued higher did play a small role. The margins are very thin in MLS right now and a few more poor matches could slide KC out of a playoff spot. Moreover, Vancouver was in the middle of a terrible stretch themselves. I think that PV believed he could start a couple bench players, as well as give a first team opportunity to some Swope Park Rangers, and still earn the result he needed.
Some fans would tell you that KC punted in the CCL, and a brief look at lineups would indicate so, but I don't see it like that by any means.
3) BG: Like most MLS teams, SKC has not fared well on the road this season, winning only two while losing seven and drawing four and conceding 16 goals. What is the reason for the poor defensive showing away fro home?
CB: Away from home, I don't see the issue as defense. They have conceded 30 goals on the season so about half have come in away matches. I blame that poor record on inability to finish chances. Too many times on the road they have put themselves in a position to get the draw or even a win, but they can't put the game away. They create the chances, they get in dangerous spots, hell they even dominate some of these away matches. But they fail to put away too many chances and leave the door open for home teams to sneak in a goal.
But don't get me wrong, there are holes and inexperience in the defense. Mistakes and bad passes have led to several dropped points in both home and away matches.
Injuries, suspensions, etc.
Kevin Ellis is on suspension. Tim Melia, Justin Mapp, Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic are all OUT. Ike Opara is listed as doubtful.
The Blue Testament Lineup Prediction:
Alec Kann, Abdul-Salaam, Besler, Olum, Medranda, Mustivar, Espinoza, Feilhaber, Graham Zusi, Dom Dwyer, Brad Davis