CHESTER, Pa. – Toward the end of the 2013 season, the Philadelphia Union traveled to Kansas City and upset the eventual MLS Cup champions in a game few expected them to win.
Tonight, when the Union return to Sporting Park to face Sporting Kansas City (8:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE), they hope to accomplish the same thing by playing the gritty brand of soccer that defined last season’s team.
“We grinded out results last year,” Union manager John Hackworth said. “That hasn’t been what we’ve asked these guys to do [this year], probably to a fault. We’ve asked them to pressure teams, we’ve asked them to outplay teams all over the field, move the ball, keep it on the ground, get our short passing game going.
"So it’s a little different team, is what I’m trying to get at. And I think we’re going to have to steal a little bit of what we did last year and infuse that in this year’s team in order to try to rectify the situation.”
The situation Hackworth is referring to is the Union’s club-record nine-game winless streak, which has cast a dark shadow over the first two-and-a-half months of the season. Perhaps the most frustrating part for the manager is that he believes this year’s team is more talented than the one that barely missed out on last year's playoffs.
But just like last year, when they picked up an improbable 1-0 win over SKC on Sept. 27, they will walk into Sporting Park as decided underdogs.
“Last year, nobody gave us a prayer,” Union winger Danny Cruz said. “We went down there, played very good, scored a goal and we stuck together. I think this year it’s going to be tough. It’s been a rough year, but the reality is we have to get a result.”
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Cruz admitted the timing of the match is not ideal, considering the Union have to play the defending champions on the road four days after a loss to D.C. United and three days before returning home to face the red-hot New England Revolution (Saturday, 7 pm ET, MLS LIVE).
But every team has to deal with three-game weeks at some point during the season, and the Union are embracing the chance to end their winless streak against a team that currently sits tied for first in the Eastern Conference and has tied for the league lead with four home shutouts.
“It’s a good opportunity, because you’re playing the best team in the league right now at their home,” Hackworth said. “The pressure comes off of us in that regard, because nobody truly expects us to get a result in Kansas City.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.