The Philadelphia Union are moving on to the semifinals of the MLS is Back Tournament, and Sporting KC are going home.
The DOOP squad were good value for their 3-1 win, though it hinged on their 15-minute stretch of utter dominance in the middle of the first half, in which they scored all three of their goals and Kansas City flailed.
Here are a few observations from the first of three MLS is Back Quarterfinal matchnights.
A game of moments
Soccer’s a funny game in the sense that good teams don’t necessarily have to win an entire game to end up victorious at full time. Especially in a knockout match between two quality sides like Thursday night’s, both sides will have their periods of superiority as the run of play ebbs and flows. What’s often decisive is how cutthroat teams are – how efficiently they maximize the time in which they’re in the ascendancy and manage the rest of the 90 minutes.
Philly have become extremely effective in this regard. As a starting point they are reliable about imposing themselves in physical terms and keep things organized defensively, but what’s taking them to the next level is their ability to smell blood and take full advantage.
Why Jim Curtin deserves credit for Union success
As SKC manager Peter Vermes admitted – amid great frustration – in his postgame remarks, the Union were more committed out of the gates, took the lead via a pretty team goal finished by Jamiro Monteiro and then went for the jugular. Snapping ruthlessly into transition, they turned a Sporting attacking set-piece into a breakaway to double their lead, then tripled it by getting out on the run after a Sporting corner kick. KC rallied, edged the second half and nearly made it interesting down the stretch, but the damage was long since done.
“Our commitment to get out on the break and run is there,” said coach Jim Curtin. “It would be great to see from that nice blimp view that ESPN has, just to see the commitment from guys – off of two of their corners, that was some of our most dangerous attacks, off of going 120 yards from their corner kick to our goal … that's ingrained in the players.”
Here you go, coach:
Sporting can’t afford to be un-Sporting
To use an old analogy, Philly’s floor is high right now – they’re consistent and capable of winning on off days (we’re still finding out just how high their ceiling might be). Meanwhile, Kansas City’s floor looks lower than it has been in the best past years of the Vermes era. When they struggle, they struggle mightily and are capable of losing to many of their MLS peers.
Intensity, hunger, physicality, work rate – these are the foundational elements for SKC and when they go missing, disaster is never far away. We saw this last season, when they looked Barcelona-esque at their best moments but were woefully slow and error-prone at their worst. Against the Union they didn’t check those boxes in the first half and got viciously punished, to their coach’s deep displeasure.
“I can't sit through 90 minutes of the kind of game that we had today, even though I thought in the second half we tried to come back,” said Vermes. “But it's easy when you're down 2-0, 3-0, it's easy to now all of a sudden start to fight [when] the other team takes the foot off the gas pedal. The psychological change in your mind is an easy one. It's what do you do when it's 0-0 and how do you play? And when it was 0-0, we fell very, very short of our quality.”
Sporting simply have got to be difficult to play against if they are to be contenders. For Thursday’s first 40 minutes, they weren’t.
What it means when you play your kids
“Play your kids” has been part of the wider MLS conversation for several years now. Spotting, grooming, using and eventually selling on talent has now become a legitimate league priority. But the process is both art and science and there’s twists and turns and bumps along the way.
Thursday’s combatants are two of the league’s leaders in this sector, with strong scouting networks and ambitious academies. You probably noticed that Homegrowns Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie and Gianluca Busio were major talking points ahead of this one, with multiple reports of big European clubs eyeing them closely.
Philly’s young’uns shined, while Busio didn’t have his best night, particularly on the Union’s second goal, where he drifted toward the ball from a last-man position and a jailbreak counterattack unfolded in the space he left behind:
It was a costly mistake. Busio’s teammates made plenty of them, too, and he’ll learn from it. Young players need to experience the highs and lows in match play in order to grow, even though there are inherent risks to giving them those opportunities. The next big task for coaches and clubs: maximizing the value of top prospects by showcasing them in the best possible ways and then selling them at the right moment.
Frankly, this last part has been a real challenge to date. Sporting notably had the frustrating case of Erik Palmer-Brown, a real talent who ended up going to Europe on a free transfer to Manchester City, and now Vermes & Co. have to find the right balance with Busio. Does he need more seasoning in MLS action, or is he plateauing and in need of a move? The next year or so of his career will be very interesting to watch.
Brenden Aaronson’s MLS days are numbered
Most of what I just wrote about Busio also applies to Aaronson, though the Union’s No. 22 seems to have hit a steeper upward trajectory at this point. He’s more than just a dependable starter for his team. He’s not just an impact attacker. He’s capable of changing games on a dime both on and off the ball, he puts in the dirty work and he’s eager to help push his team into the MLS elite.
He looks ready for Europe to me, and Philly sporting director Ernst Tanner will be getting plenty of phone calls from counterparts across the pond.
“I thought he was dominant, he was active. His movement off the ball to find space was really good," said Curtin of Aaronson. "The ball he plays on the third goal is a top ball in any league – in the leagues in Europe that's a pass that not many people see. His confidence is very high right now.
“There were a lot of eyes on tonight's game with all the other leagues being pretty much finished up right now, and a good showcase for our young players. Brenden, when some players tend to shrink in big occasions, he tends to raise his level and then raise his game. So I don't know how long I'll get to coach him for, how much longer, but I'm going to enjoy every day. He's going to continue to push and try to get better.”