Sporting Kansas City's sudden run of good form will be tested Wednesday night when the team travels to take on the Philadelphia Union, one of the conference's top teams.
The team heads into the midweek contest following the unfortunate news that midfielder Ryan Smith will not be available the remainder of the season as he tends to family issues. The 24-year-old England native had spent most of the 2011 season on the bench recovering from surgery and most recently nursing an injury. When Smith did see playing time though, he was effective. His ability to beat his defender created some chaos for opposing teams and opened gaps for the forwards to fill. Smith also recorded one goal on three shots on target, stats the team no doubt would have liked to see him replicate as the season progressed.
Even with Smith out of the picture, the midfield doesn't lose much beside an extra sub. With Kei Kamara, Graham Zusi and Luke Sassano playing well of late, it's likely the team won't suffer at all. It helps that the team has had to play without Smith for the majority of the season. There should be little to no real adjustment required.
That's the one bit of good news Sporting KC can take into the Eastern Conference clash Wednesday.
Here's the bad news:
Philadelphia Union are unbeaten at PPL Park this season. In seven games they've won three and tied four. They've also only conceded four goals in those games, showcasing solid defensive pressure throughout.
Philadelphia has scored eight goals in its seven home games. That offensive proficiency doesn't bode well for a Sporting KC side that will be without central defender Aurelien Collin because of yellow card accumulation and defender Roger Espinoza because of Gold Cup duty. Add to that the potential return of Philadelphia's second-leading goal scorer Carlos Ruiz and you have a very intimidating situation.
To have a chance to take three points on the road, Sporting Kansas City will have to control the ball in the midfield much better than it has in recent games. While the long ball to Kamara in the corner is an effective way to drive crosses into the box, it's not the most effective way of creating actual scoring chances. If Sporting KC can win the possession battle, the team should be able to use the speed and size of CJ Sapong to help break down the Union's back line. Bravo is also overdue for a goal, so look for him to get himself in the mix with his feisty style.
The difference in this game may well come down to momentum. Kansas City is unbeaten in its last five games. Philadelphia is coming off a loss on the road to expansion team Vancouver.
Prediction: There will be a goal in this game and I'm going to give it to the team with the most road experience and the best recent form. Sporting Kansas City takes this one and extends its unbeaten streak to six games by a score of 1-0.
Game: Sporting Kansas City at Philadelphia Union
Time: 6:30 p.m.
TV: KCMO (channel 3 for standard def., channel 203 for HD)
Other soccer action
• Sporting KC won't be the only team garnering attention Wednesday evening. The U.S. Men's National Team will also be in action against Panama in the semifinals of the Gold Cup. The national team is coming off its most impressive performance of the tournament, a 2-0 victory against a streaking Jamaica. This game is a rematch of the national squad's 2-1 defeat against Panama in the group stage. If Bob Bradley can't figure out how to motivate the players for this one, his days at the helm should be numbered. The U.S. should be the favorite to advance to the final, which will likely be a meeting with Mexico. This game will be on Fox Soccer Channel and Univision.
• The FIFA U-17 (under 17 years old) World Cup began last week. The U.S. team blasted its first group opponent Czech Republic 3-0 to get things rolling. The team plays Uzbekistan Wednesday at 2:45 p.m. local time. I looked into it and only found the game on ESPN3.com. Knology says it's live on Thursday, which goes against the tournament's official site and ESPN. It's worth a look for any fan of the game. The style is much more wide open and there are plenty of scoring chances (Uzbekistan had 24 shots on goal in its opening round loss).