The champs stalled at home

As a consumer of Premier League soccer for years, and having just covered the World Cup, I’m still somewhat of a newcomer to Major League Soccer. In preparing for the new material, I made a couple conscious adjustments from what I was used to as a viewer: anticipating a slower paced game, and recognizing that Graham Zusi could be the best player on a pitch.

Yet if there’s one thing I knew ahead of the Philadelphia Union’s trip to Sporting Park in Kansas City, it was that the champions would be waiting.

The eventual 1-1 draw the teams ended with came as a surprise, as Sporting KC held a distinct advantage throughout the first half that even I could recognize; the passing was quick, and the home side was able to attack from multiple angles without trouble. 4-3-3 formations often make it difficult for teams to hold possession without overeagerness, yet Benny Feilhaber and Zusi had little trouble slowing the pace and connecting the dots in the attack.

The home team’s patient and ball-dominating approach forced Philly into sitting back and using the counter to generate attacks.

Matt Besler

Sporting Kansas City’s defense missed the presence of U.S. international Matt Besler

After the first half ended goalless, I naïvely elected KC as clearly the better team: they gave up very little possession, moved the ball around calmly, and had one of the most internationally renowned players in the league (Zusi). And as the second half started, my expectations were met, as a busted play from Union left back Raymon Gaddis allowed Dominic Dwyer to find the perfectly angled run of Zusi as the bearded Yank turned his shot into the bottom corner.

The contest nearly seemed decided when, just after the restart, Zusi again found an opening in the Philly box before unleashing a shot just inches wide of the post. The Union defense looked miserably unorganized. Maurice Edu, a natural midfielder, seemed somewhat frustrated by the confining nature of playing center back, and the actual Union midfielders made little effort to clog the holes in the field in front of Sporting KC’s attack.

However, I had underestimated two things: the absence of Matt Besler for Kansas City and the restless attack of Philadelphia. As we saw in the World Cup, Besler’s a smart and hardworking defender, even by international standards, and the pairing in his place of Aurelien Collin and Kevin Ellis looked a little slow and incompatible during a couple of the Union’s counterattacks. Philly leads the Eastern Conference in goals scored, which didn’t shock me after witnessing the skill brought to the field by Conor Casey and Danny Cruz. Casey is like a brick wall up front that, once you lob a pass towards it, immediately deflects the ball right to a teammate. Cruz didn’t have as much of an impact on the game, but helped create a couple bright chances when the Union desperately need them.

Showing just how much I know about the MLS, those two players were promptly substituted after Zusi’s goal. Manager Jim Curtin’s moves proved to be genius, however, as the KC defense couldn’t keep track of sub Brian Brown, who equalized off of a perfect cross from the redeemed Gaddis.

Kansas City’s defense was certainly troubled, and the team’s inability to hold possession in the second half raises concern.

Now, it’d be easy for me to say, “Hey, these are the reigning champs and they can’t beat a clearly inferior seventh placed team on their own turf? This exemplifies just how bad the MLS is.” And during the game there were times when I thought that. But is it really that surprising when Sunderland ties Manchester United? Or when Swansea City knocks off Chelsea?

Instead of rolling my eyes towards the MLS experience, I’m realizing that this league has soccer the way it’s meant to be: competitive and surprising.