We always talk about how defense wins championships in Major League Soccer. The old adage rings very true but for Sporting Kansas City and the Philadelphia Union the defense holds the key in whether or not one of these clubs wins the Eastern Conference crown this season.
Without a doubt in my mind the winner of this match tomorrow will likely be the Eastern Conference regular season champion. A decent honor, given how hotly contested the conference is this season with as many as six teams still in contention for the title.
These two clubs could easily be wide open in the offensive end with guys like Freddy Adu, Roger Torres, Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga running at the Sporting defense. The same goes on the flip side with rookie CJ Sapong, Teal Bunbury, Omar Bravo and Kei Kamara doing the same at the Union defense. But for both of these clubs it comes down to defense tomorrow night.
The speed of these two clubs on the wings will be entertaining to watch. The club that takes the most advantage on the wings in this one will likely see three points.
For the Union, they need to take the FC Dallas approach to this game on the wings. We know Adu and Le Toux can and will pass all over this Sporting team if they are allowed the space. Should the work the ball wide and open up play in that direction they could find themselves able to play plenty of balls into the box for Mwanga or someone else to run onto. Dallas used this approach late in the game in their 3-2 win a few weeks back in Kansas City. Playing the ball wide opens up the attack and forces players like Matt Besler or Aurelien Collin to mark up in the box. As long as the Union are sending in players they could cause plenty of issues for the Sporting defense.
On the flip side, should the Union get wide but not convert it could open up the attack in the same manner for Kansas City. Say Gabriel Farfan or Michael Farfan are going forward into the attack but fail to get back on defense quickly enough, the Sporting attack will have to use their speed to their advantage. Remember the last time these two faced one another the Union had Jordan Harvey in the defense to contain the speed on the flanks from Sporting. Well, Harvey is gone now and I'm fairly certain Sapong and Bunbury can run all over the wings of this Union defense.
Zusi To Play Vital Role
If you are looking for a dark-horse MVP candidate this season, look no further than to Sporting midfielder Graham Zusi. The last time these two clubs squared off back in June, Zusi was not apart of the action. The Union had a big night on offense but never broke through in the 0-0 draw. Expect his play to be a pivotal role for Sporting tomorrow night in the attack and helping keep the pressure off the defense.
The big thing about Zusi's role with Sporting over the last couple months is his distribution in the attack. The Union will need to have him on lock down in this game to keep Bunbury, Bravo, Kamara or Sapong at bay.
The MacMath Factor
While the defense in front of rookie keeper Zac MacMath is huge, it will be the play of this rookie that will likely decide the outcome. We've seen him give up plenty of goals since his debut a few weeks ago but last week he finally settled into the starting role nicely. As long as Danny Califf and Carlos Valdes keep the speed and the craftiness of the Sporting attack away from his net, MacMath will have to be on his A-game in this one.
The rookie keeper is coming off back-to-back shutouts as well, so confidence is growing in the young star. Sporting will want to pressure the living daylights out of this kid to see what he is really made of here.