Union at Sporting Kansas City
8:30 p.m., The Comcast Network
Riding a modest two-game MLS winning streak, the Union (6-7-4) hit the road for a big test against one of the top teams in the league in Sporting Kansas City (8-4-7) on Thursday night.
Here are five things to know:
1. Depleted but still powerful
The Union are certainly catching Sporting Kansas City at a good time as three of the club’s premier players — Dom Dwyer, Graham Zusi and Matt Besler — are with the U.S. national team for the Gold Cup. On top of that, Roger Espinoza is suspended and leading scorer Gerso Fernandes is questionable with an injury.
Nevertheless, Union head coach Jim Curtin warned that SKC is deep enough to overcome those losses, especially at home, where they own a sparkling 6-0-3 record this year.
“The way they play will be the same,” Curtin said. “They have a true system they believe in. They have a ton of experienced guys in [Ike] Opara, [Benny] Feilhaber, guys who’ve been through MLS games. It’s gonna be a difficult task. You can never take them lightly.”
SKC head coach Peter Vermes is confident in his team’s depth, too.
“One man’s absence is another man’s opportunity,” he told reporters in Kansas City. “For the good majority of games that we’ve had to make changes, guys’ performances have been good.”
2. McCarthy takes the reins
The Union will also be missing some key guys due to the Gold Cup as captain Alejandro Bedoya is with the U.S. national team while star goalkeeper Andre Blake recently joined Jamaica.
Blake is coming off two straight shutouts — his sixth and seventh of the season — and made some big-time saves in those wins over the New England Revolution and D.C. United.
Now, the Union turn to backup John McCarthy, who has played only in the Union’s two U.S. Open Cup games this season, most recently a shootout loss to the New York Red Bulls last week.
“Johnny’s coming off a really good performance vs. Red Bull,” Curtin said. “I think he’s in good form and is gonna do a good job for us in KC.”
After playing in 11 games in his rookie season in 2015, McCarthy has made only one league start since the start of the 2016 campaign — a 3-0 loss to Chicago last year. But his teammates have faith in the Philly native and La Salle alum.
“Dre, like I’ve said before, is to me the best goalie in the league,” Union winger Fafa Picault said. “But we definitely believe in John and what he’s able to do for us. We’ll count on him to make big saves. We’ll be ready and I’m sure he’s ready as well.”
3. Defense leads to offense
While Blake naturally deserves a lot of the credit for the team’s two straight shutouts, the backline has also been especially stingy, particularly the center back pairing of veteran Oguchi Onyewu and rookie Jack Elliott (who’s good to go Thursday after leaving Sunday’s game with a contusion).
“They defend individually really well,” Vermes said. “It’s like a bunch of little pitbulls on the field in the way they won’t give you time and space on the ball.”
Curtin also noted that the hard work on defense has lead to more offensive success with three different players scoring in last week’s win over New England, including attacking midfielders Ilsinho and Roland Alberg.
“It’s great for their confidence,” said Picault, who’s been one of the team’s most dangerous offensive players.
4. Players to watch
Union: C.J. Sapong, who spent the first four years of his MLS career in Kansas City, is back in old stomping grounds. And he could make it a special trip as he’s just one goal away from reaching the double-digit mark in goals for the first time.
Sporting Kansas City: The hosts may be missing a lot but still have a big weapon in center back Ike Opara, who is a dominant defender and dangerous offensively on set pieces. “People might laugh at this comment and I don’t really care,” Curtin said. “I’ve watched every KC game and Ike Opara is playing for me at an MVP-type level.”
5. This and that
• Chris Pontius was a late call-up to join Bedoya on the US national team but will be available for the game in Kansas City before departing.
• Sporting KC is undefeated at home in 17 straight games, with 10 shutouts in that stretch. They’re one of four teams in the league without a home defeat this season.
• SKC has allowed only 13 goals in 19 games, by far the lowest goals-against average in MLS.
• Of the Union’s six victories this season, five have come by shutout.
• In Philly’s last trip to Kansas City, they had one of their worst endings in franchise history, allowing two goals in stoppage time to turn a late 2-1 lead into a 3-2 loss. Just two days later, Curtin decided to bench goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi, who never played another game for the Union.