Sporting Kansas City is still in search of their first win of the 2023 season, and Peter Vermes’ squad is on the road to take on the defending Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia Union this Saturday night.
I spoke with Joe Lister of Philadelphia Soccer Now to get a better idea of what Sporting KC fans can expect and what the Union’s game plan might be as they look to course correct their slow start to 2023 as well.
Check out the answers below!
We Ask Them
Jimmy Mack (JM): The Philadelphia Union made it to the MLS Cup Final last year but find themselves sitting in 8th place in the Eastern Conference right now. What has been the biggest reason for Philadelphia’s slow start?
Joe Lister (JL): Oh, this is a good one. I can’t remember who off the top of my head, but someone said that Philly is trying to win last year’s MLS Cup instead of this years. That’s a really good analysis.
The other analysis (though it doesn’t exactly line up), is that the combination of Champions League play and MLS action has been too much for the team. However, the Union has been able to rotate well, and frankly, that loss against Orlando City SC last week was far enough removed from CCL that a win should have been the expectation. Of course, Philly was missing a ton of guys to the international break, but so was Orlando.
It’s really hard to diagnose this group right now. The best answer is that their mojo is off. It will take some time to get it back, but for the large part, this team should rebound.
JM: There will be plenty of questions about Sporting KC’s back line after last week’s performance against the Seattle Sounders and missing players due to injuries and red card suspensions. Who are the key attacking players on the Union that SKC fans should be on the lookout for?
JL: The Union’s top three is comprised of Daniel Gazdag at the No. 10 and Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre at the No. 9s. However, it’s worth noting that the Union faces Atlas on April 4, so these guys might see some rotation. All three players have had their individual moments (they’ve each notched a brace this season), but the Union is still waiting on them to click as a whole.
Right now, Mikael Uhre seems to be in the best position to contribute, but Curtin might want that against Atlas. Uhre’s game is often defined by just running past defenders and scoring, but he can work around the box too.
Julian Carranza will be coming off of a red card suspension, so he may be ready to score some goals. Carranza is a little more comfortable in tight situations and can be a little more technical, but his trigger isn’t always the quickest. Still, he’s a good goal scorer — and one of the better ones MLS.
Finally, Daniel Gazdag. He’s an interesting case, his goals this season have only come off of PKs. His distribution thus far into the campaign is leaving something to be desired, but he can command the attacking third and really contribute in the box.
JM: Before last week’s loss the Union had a 24-game home unbeaten streak. Do you expect the team to feed off of the frustration of that streak ending against SKC, and if so, what sort of performance do you expect to see from the Union?
JL: I don’t know what the Union will look like on Saturday. This team last year would have killed SKC 7-0, even without the loss at home. This group just doesn’t quite seem to be there. I think that the Union will want to protect their home turf, especially after last week’s loss, but the mojo is so weird right now that the group is still searching for identity. It’s worth noting that this year’s starting XI is the same as last year’s, so this is extra weird that the group is this mentally off.
JM: What is your expected lineup for the Union against Sporting KC?
JL: I’d expect some rotation for the Atlas match, either in terms of early subs or lineup changes, but here’s my best guess.
Blake; Wagner, Glesnes, Elliott, Harriell; Martinez; Flach, Perea; Gazdag; Carranza, Uhre
They Ask Us
Joe Lister (JL): After a rough year in the 2022 season, Kansas City hasn’t gotten off to the hottest start. What’s gone wrong for the club thus far?
Jimmy Mack (JM): The biggest problem for Sporting Kansas City in 2022 through five games has simply been an inability to score goals. It’s not for lack of trying, either, as SKC is tied for first in the league in shots at 76 with none other than the Philadelphia Union. In fact, Sporting actually has more shots on target than the Union do (32 vs. 25); however, the Union have managed to score eight goals through their first five games to SKC’s paltry two goals.
Part of the issues with the attack certainly can be blamed on injuries. Kansas City started the season missing designated players Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda, as well as captain and former DP Johnny Russell.
That left 2022 midseason acquisitions Willy Agada and Erik Thommy as the main attacking threats to start the season. While those two reinvigorated the club in the back half of last year, they have not quite found that form to date this season. Erik Thommy alone has taken 20 of SKC’s 76 shots, accounting for 11 of the 32 on target, but he has yet to find the back of the net. Willy Agada only scored his first goal last week against Seattle. Both players missed crucial penalty kick attempts against FC Dallas the week before.
In short, the attack simply has not been good enough. Two goals through five games is unacceptable. The good news is Johnny Russell made his return last week, and Alan Pulido should make an appearance against the Union. Gadi Kinda has returned to full training and should be available within the coming weeks. Sporting KC desperately need to figure out their attacking woes if they have any hope of avoiding a repeat of 2022.
JL: On a more positive note, what’s gone right for the club?
JM: Before last week’s game against Seattle the defense had largely been a bright spot for the club. There were numerous question marks going into the season about the back line with an aging Graham Zusi at right back and question marks as to who would start at CB next to Andreu Fontas. Kortne Ford appeared to be in line for that role before rupturing his Achilles in the preseason. U-22 player Robert Voloder has performed admirably filling in as the starting CB, and there was promise at the LB spot from new German signing Tim Leibold.
John Pulskamp has also been a pleasant surprise so far, continuing his good form from the end of last year when he filled in for an injured Tim Melia at goalkeeper. The 21-year-old California native remained the starting keeper to begin 2023 and has made numerous impressive saves that have kept Sporting competitive in multiple matches this season. Melia is now back from injury and available for selection, but it seems Pulskamp has taken hold of the job and doesn’t appear to be relinquishing it any time soon.
JL: Last matchday against Seattle, Sporting allowed four goals against, all from Jordan Morris. What happened there?
JM: The better question may be what didn’t happen there? After a near perfect start for Sporting KC when Willy Agada opened his 2023 account with a fifth minute goal, SKC simply fell apart. Lackluster defensive positioning couldn’t prevent Seattle from getting wide open crosses into the box, and Jordan Morris found miles of space multiple times right in front of the net.
Though the game was tied 1-1 at the half, Ben Sweat had arguably his worst ten minute period of his career from the 53rd to 63rd minutes of the game. Sweat earned a yellow card that Peter Vermes admitted could have been a red, then his improper defensive positioning kept Jordan Morris onside to give Seattle the go-ahead goal. He finished the game in the 63rd minute when a reckless challenge in the midfield earned him a second yellow, leaving Sporting down a man. Morris took advantage of the red card, continuing to feast on the wide open spaces in the box, and the rest, as they say, is history.
JL: Will SKC be missing anyone against Philly? What are your lineup and score predictions?
JM: This will be a fascinating game for Sporting in terms of the lineup. Though Alan Pulido and Johnny Russell are officially off the injury report for the first time in 2023, Sporting are now in a situation where they have literally no left backs on the senior roster available. Tim Leibold and U-22 LB Logan Ndenbe are both OUT with hamstring injuries, and Ben Sweat is unavailable due to his red card suspension. Backup RB Kayden Pierre, who has made an appearance at LB this season, is also out with a hamstring injury.
Who does that leave to play LB? It could be midfielder Cam Duke who has seen time there before. It also could be that the athletic left-footed CB Robert Voloder slides over to LB and the newly acquired Colombian CB Dany Rosero, who just arrived in Kansas City this week, slots into CB next to Fontas.
If Vermes wants to get really crazy, he could use a back three of Fontas, Voloder, and Rosero with Zusi and Duke playing as wingbacks. However, it’s more likely we’ll see either Duke or Voloder simply play LB in Vermes’ typical 4-3-3 formation.
In the midfield, new acquisition Nemanja Radoja is listed as questionable. If he’s unable to go, the midfield will likely be made up of Erik Thommy, Remi Walter, and either Roger Espinoza or Felipe Hernandez. The front line will certainly consist of Daniel Salloi at LW and Willy Agada at striker, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Johnny Russell make his first start of the year at RW given the need for Sporting to earn a result of some sort.
Score predictions? It’s nearly impossible to say with this Sporting team. They continue to get numerous shots off, though very few have been quality. The team desperately needs a creative attacking option outside of Thommy. If Johnny Russell can be even close to his form from previous years, he will be a much-needed reinforcement for SKC’s attack. If the team can manage to score more than one goal, it will be a win. Defensively, holding the Union to under two goals would be huge. If they can, I’ll go on a limb and say there’s a decent chance Kansas City comes out of Philly with at least a draw. If the Union score two or more goals, it’s going to be hard for Sporting to come away with a point.