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Matchday 13: Three Is a Magic Number

Jun 23, 2012, 4:53 PM EDT

Philadelphia Union host Sporting Kansas City in a Major League Soccer Eastern Conference matchup.
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The Union, winless in league play since a 1-0 road win against Chivas USA on April 21st, host Sporting Kansas City this evening at PPL Park (7PM, The Comcast Network). The U need three points in the worst way. As Matt P. pointed out last week, despite falling at home to D.C. United in their last match, the Union were a much more confident team than they had been.

Interim coach John Hackworth trotted out a 4-3-3 which carried the game for long stretches against United. Gone were the hopeful long balls into space. Gone was the maddening frequency with which the Union bypassed the midfield. Granted, the lone goal they conceded was on a set piece – a bugaboo they’ve struggled with for far too long now – but overall the performance was much crisper and better organized than we’d seen in quite some time.

Yes, it was a loss. Yes, they still sit in ninth place in the ten team MLS Eastern Conference. But, and this is a big but, they played really well. Finishing in the final third is still a major issue. Perhaps Lionard Pajoy, who missed the D.C. game while serving a suspension, will thrive in Hackworth’s system.

For me, the most positive development from last week was Hackworth’s decision to pair Amobi Okugo alongside Carlos Valdes in the middle of the Union back line. Okugo brings a deft passing touch out of the back. Having played so much as a holding midfielder he is sound defensively, is aggressive going into challenges, and perhaps most importantly is composed on the ball. His skill on the ball, paired with Valdes’ rugged play, is a nice combination.

Another positive was the manner in which Hackworth used his bench. With the game level at 0-0 with just under 30 minutes left he introduced rookie Antoine Hoppenot into the game. Hoppenot was a revelation. He played with incredible confidence – never hesitating to take someone on 1 v. 1. He consistently ran at people and drove to the end line.

Similarly, after going down a goal Hackworth inserted the recently acquired Jorge Perlaza into the game. Perlaza’s greatest attribute is his pace. Bringing him in late in the game, after the United back line had expended so much energy chasing the Union around, was great to see. Hackworth actually played to Perlaza’s strength – letting him try to stretch the United defense. It sounds elementary, but too often Peter Nowak’s substitutions left you scratching your head.

The challenge this evening is just as difficult as it was against first place D.C. Sporting K.C. comes to town in second place in the conference. Should he choose, SKC head coach Peter Vermes has the ability to send out one of the most offensively talented lineups in the league. Kei Kamara, C.J. Sapong, Graham Zusi, Teal Bunbury and Soony Saad (who I fell in love with when he played at Michigan) are all incredibly gifted in the final third.

In the run up to the game Hackworth has talked about just how devastating SKC is in transition. With that in mind the Union will need to be incredibly organized and disciplined in getting back and behind the ball. That task will be more difficult without the services of Sheanon Williams, who is out with a toe sprain.

Perhaps the Union will benefit from the fact that SKC played midweek – traveling out to Seattle where they played to a 1-1 draw against the Sounders. Maybe the short turnaround and the cross-country flight will leave SKC a little heavy-legged. The Union can obviously use all the help they can get.

Granted, SKC is a terrific team. However, considering the totality of the circumstances (the way the Union performed last week, the short turnaround and cross-country flight for SKC and an inspired home crowd) I think the Union have a realistic shot to end this winless streak.

Union win it 2-1.

Photo Credit: Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE