Sporting Kansas City can move into a tie for first place in the MLS Eastern Conference with a win against a struggling Philadelphia Union side.Sporting Kansas City and the Philadelphia Union have been heading in very different directions in recent weeks, but both clubs have their sights set squarely on the same goal: Finishing the season strongly and setting up a chance to extend the 2013 season further than either team went last year.
Sporting KC looks more like a team poised for a strong postseason run, having won three straight matches to stay within striking distance of the Eastern Conference-leading New York Red Bulls.
The Union look more like a sputtering ship running out of fuel at the worst possible time, winless in five straight and in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for a second straight season.
Sporting KC's recent run has been aided by the resurgence of forward C.J. Sapong, as well as the play of a defense that has allowed just four goals in the past six matches. Graham Zusi will spearhead a Sporting KC attack that has scored multiple goals in all three recent victories.
For the Union, the keys will be solidifying a struggling attack that has failed to score multiple goals in any of its past five matches. Jack McInerney's well-document scoring slump continues, with the young striker having failed to score in 12 straight matches. It is a drought that has led coach John Hackworth to bench McInerney in two of the team's past four matches in hopes of helping him snap out of it, and help the team snap out of its current funk.
"We have been in this business long enough to know that these kind of runs of form happen in an MLS season," Hackworth said of the team's recent slump. "Having a five-game winless streak is nothing compared to some of the winless streaks I have had in the past as a coach. It is how you rebound from them that matters. I remember one streak where we were able to rebound and reel off 12 consecutive wins.
"I'm not saying we are going to get to that level, but we are still in a good positiion."
Hackworth could go with a Conor Casey-Sebastien Le Toux strike tandem for the second straight match, but that tandem failed to generate a goal two weeks ago in a 1-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo. With the team coming off a bye, the Union should enter rested and ready to mount a serious challenge.
That still might not be enough against a Sporting KC side starting to hit its stride. KC won't be at full-strength, though. Not with regular starters Claudio Bieler and Uri Rosell still dealing with injury issues. Bieler's recent absence has opened the door for Sapong to step in and impress, as well as fellow forward Dom Dwyer.
Sporting KC trails the Red Bulls by three points in the race for first place in the East, but Peter Vermes' side is well-positioned to take over the top spot. Especially with New York set to face the Seattle Sounders on Sunday without Thierry Henry and Jamison Olave, and especially given the fact that four of Sporting KC's remaining regular season matches are against teams currently not in playoff positioning.
Two of those matches are against the Union, though, and Philadelphia will likely need a win in one of those meetings to have any chance of making the playoffs.