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Eastern Conference Championship

Match Preview: Philadelphia Union vs. Sporting Kansas City

PHILADELPHIA UNION vs SPORTING KANSAS CITY
PPL PARK, Chester, Pa.
March 2, 2013 (WEEK 1, MLS Game #1)
4 p.m. ET (WPVI-6abc; KCWE-29)

The 18th season of Major League Soccer kicks off in earnest at PPL Park when Philadelphia Union play host to Sporting Kansas City in an Eastern Conference clash. Union are aiming for a return to the MLS Cup Playoffs after falling short last year, as the club begins its fourth year of existence. Sporting are coming off a season where they posted the best regular season record in the East, only to be dumped out of the playoffs by eventual conference champion Houston at the first hurdle.

REFEREE: Mark Geiger. SAR (bench): Adam Wienckowski; JAR (opposite): Greg Barkey; 4th: Ted Unkel
MLS Career: 104 games; FC/gm: 26.5; Y/gm: 3.7; R: 26; pens: 36

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DISABLED LIST: KC: Teal Bunbury; Jacob Peterson
SUSPENDED: none
INTERNATIONAL ABSENCES: KC: Mikey Lopez (U.S. U-20)

HEAD-TO-HEAD
ALL-TIME (6 meetings): Sporting 2 wins, 6 goals … Union 1 win, 7 goals … Ties 3
AT PPL PARK (21 meetings): Union 1 win, 5 goals … Sporting 0 wins, 1 goal … Ties 2
RETURN MATCHES: 9/27: Sporting Kansas City vs. Philadelphia Union, 7 p.m. CT (NBCSN); 10/26: Philadelphia Union vs. Sporting Kansas City, 3 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

LAST YEAR (MLS):
6/23: PHI 4, KC 0 (McInerney (0:59, 42; Pajoy 81; Hoppenot 87)
10/24: KC 2, PHI 1 (Peterson 40; Sapong 82 – Hoppenot 53)
•    Home form has held out in three-year history of the series. At PPL Park, Union won last year’s meeting, after a pair of draws against Sporting the previous two seasons.
•    Sporting have won two of the three meetings all-time between the teams in Kansas City, including a 2-1 win last year.
•    The teams also met in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup a year ago, KC taking a 2-0 win at Sporting Park on their way to the U.S. championship (Peterson 65; Zusi 93+)
•    Coaches record: John Hackworth vs. KC: P2 W1 L1 D0 … Peter Vermes vs. PHI: P6 W2 L1 D3

PHILADELPHIA UNION
Philadelphia Union kick off their fourth season aiming to return to the MLS Cup Playoffs for the second time in club history, an achievement they pulled in just their sophomore year in 2010. John Hackworth begins his first full season in charge of the club, having taken over the head coaching reins a third of the way through last season.

WATCH: The Scouting Report on the Philadelphia Union

TEAM NEWS
•    Philadelphia Union ended their preseason with a 2-0 loss to D.C. United on Saturday in the final match of the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic in Orlando. Dwayne De Rosario put United ahead in the 39th minute from the penalty spot, and Lionard Pajoy doubled the lead at the three-quarter mark of the match.
•    Here’s the Union team: Zac MacMath, Raymon Gaddis (Keon Daniel 83’), Jeff Parke, Bakary Soumare, Sheanon Williams, Brian Carroll, Amobi Okugo (Michael Lahoud 77’), Michael Farfan (Roger Torres 82’), Danny Cruz (Conor Casey 65’), Sebastien Le Toux, Jack McInerney (Antoine Hoppenot 65’).
•    In the Disney tournament, Union also lost 4-0 to the Columbus Crew, but defeated Toronto FC 3-0. They also played to a 1-1 draw with USL PRO side Orlando City SC.
•    With Sebastien Le Toux having returned to the club in the offseason in a trade with the New York Red Bulls, Hackworth is looking for the right combination in putting all of his attacking options on the field at one time.
•    “I’m an offensive player, so usually when you see an offensive player, you are free,” Le Toux said. “Some people just leave themselves on one side because they like it, but it’s not what I like. I like to kind of be free, and when you’re in a different position or spread out, you can start in a wide position but as play goes, you can move. It depends on where the action goes, how I fit with the guys depending on the movement. …  I like that the staff here allows me to be free and to do what I do best. I make all the runs, but it’s just as important to do it within the structure of the game plan.”
•    Union also signed long-time Colorado Rapids striker Conor Casey through the re-entry draft.
•    “Both me and [Sebastien Le Toux], and him and [Jack McInerney] have had a lot of time together in preseason and we are starting to build those relationships,” Casey said. “So you know the more time we play together the better. They both are very good finishers and have speed…it’s rare that you are going to see two big guys playing together up top, so obviously I’ll be paired with both at some point and I think it’s a good option.”
•    With Carlos Mendes having returned to Colombian side Independiente Santa Fe on loan, local product Jeff Parke has looked to have captured a place in central defense. Parke will be partnered by Bakary Soumare, who featured very little in 2012 after suffering a slate of injuries.
•    "Carlos left, and we have the addition of Jeff, who's a really good player," Soumare said. "We have Amobi who can play there. There's going to be competition. It's not like just because Carlos left that the spot is wide open and I'm going to step in. We have to earn the spots, every single one of us. That's how I look at it.”

OFFSEASON TRANSACTIONS

IN: FW Sébastien Le Toux (12/6/12 - trade from New York); DF Jeff Parke (12/7/12 - trade from Seattle); FW Conor Casey (12/14/12 - Re-Entry Draft Stage 2); FW Aaron Wheeler (1/19/13 - transfer from KooTeePee); DF Damani Richards (1/19/13 - free); MF Alex Mendoza (1/24/13 - free)

OUT: MF Gabriel Gomez (11/19/12 - option declined); DF Porfirio Lopez (11/19/12 - option declined); FW Krystian Witkowski (11/19/12 - option declined); GK Chase Harrison (12/3/12 - option declined); MF Zach Pfeffer (12/4/12 - loaned to Hoffenheim); FW Josué Martínez (12/6/12 - traded to New York); DF Damani Richards (2/20/13 - waived); MF Alex Mendoza (2/20/13 - waived)

SPORTING KANSAS CITY
The regular season winners of the Eastern Conference and holders of the league’s second-best record, Sporting Kansas City again saw their MLS Cup bid come to an end at the hands of the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Peter Vermes begins his fourth full season as head coach, with 31 wins over the last two seasons.

WATCH: The Scouting Report on Sporting Kansas City

TEAM NEWS
•    Sporting Kansas City concluded their 2013 preseason schedule on Saturday with a 1-0 victory against Toronto FC in the 2013 Walt Disney Pro Soccer Classic at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Kissimmee, Fla. Claudio Bieler struck for the game’s only goal in the 23rd minute.
•    Here’s the Sporting team: Jimmy Nielsen; Chance Myers (Mechack Jerome 58), Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, Josh Gardner; Benny Feilhaber (Christian Duke 80), Oriol Rosell, Paulo Nagamura (Peterson Joseph 67); Graham Zusi (Soony Saad 7), Claudio Bieler (Dom Dwyer 75), C.J. Sapong
•    Sporting concluded their preseason with a 4-2-3 record.
•    The Disney Classic gave Vermes a chance to integrate newly acquired Benny Feilhaber more completely into the club scheme. After he was acquired from the New England Revolution, Feilhaber was called into the U.S. national team camp in January.
•    “He's been playing in the league,” Vermes said. “He already knows that there's a physical level of play in this league, so he has a much better level of familiarity with that aspect of it. The adaptation from the league point of view is much easier. Now it's just from the expectation point of view, how he understands his role. But his progress has been good here, in the short amount of time that he's been with us.”
•    Feilhaber was picked up in part to replace Honduras international Roger Espinoza, who departed for England's Wigan Athletic.
•    Sporting also have had a familiar face return to the fold, with Claudio Bieler back with the club after he was picked up from LDU Quito in Ecuador.
•    “We have a system that a lot of new players come in and got to learn but I think Benny and Claudio have done a really good job in the past couple weeks of implementing their game and helping our system become productive,” said fullback Chance Myers.
•    With the core of the Sporting side intact from last season, the other goal for Vermes has been to integrate MLS Best XI performer Graham Zusi along with the new midfield options.
•    “Zusi could play all five positions, and I'm talking about the three up top and the two attacking midfielders. Benny could play four of them.  He could play wide or he could play the two underneath. So that interchange between them, I don't know, maybe sometimes they will end up being two attacking mids together. There are just a lot of different combinations we can do,” Vermes said. “But, I like Zusi out wide at times because I think he gives us another player on the offensive line that can hold the ball and create from there. I like that part of it. And then Claudio gives us a lot of that, we haven't had it in the past, someone that we can play through. He's very good on the one-twos around the top of the box.”

OFFSEASON TRANSACTIONS

IN: DF Josh Gardner (12/5/12 - trade from Montreal); MF Benny Feilhaber (12/11/12 - trade from New England); DF Ike Opara (12/12/12 - trade from San Jose); DF Yann Songo'o (12/13/12); FW Claudio Bieler (12/18/12 - transfer from LDU Quito); MF Mikey Lopez (1/17/13 - SuperDraft)

OUT: MF Júlio César (11/19/12 - option declined); DF Cyprian Hedrick (11/19/12 - option declined); DF Neven Markovic (11/19/12 - option declined); DF Konrad Warzycha (11/19/12 - option declined); DF Michael Harrington (12/3/12 - traded to Portland); DF Korede Aiyegbusi (12/3/12 - option declined); MF Luke Sassano (12/3/12 - option declined); MF Roger Espinoza (1/4/12 - transfer to Wigan Athletic)