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Sebastien Le Toux's 17th minute goal was a surprise, and the Union rode that quick start to 40 minutes of dominating play. Then it all fell apart.
A ball over the top of the defense onto the right foot of an onrushing Sebastien Le Toux inside of an opposing six-yard box. One simple touch and then flick of the foot for the ball to go into the back of the net.
While not quite as easy as when Le Toux did it against the Houston Dynamo in 2011, it was highly reminiscent of the Frenchman who put 25 goals past goalkeepers between 2010 and 2011 for the Philadelphia Union. Hustle and determination combined with a deft finishing touch powered the Union into the playoffs in Le Toux's final year of his first stint in Philadelphia.
His second stint started off with that goal, but not the kind of result he may have remembered from just two years ago.
The Union slumped after 40 minutes of play that put Sporting Kansas City on their heels and forced the visiting defense into disarray. One of the league's best center defensive pairs in Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin was figuratively gasping for air as the Union were able to comfortably counter a potent Kansas City attack.
A high press, along with the aforementioned counter, provided the Union with a surprisingly potent opening 40 minutes. Then disaster struck in the form of a momentum killing goal by Graham Zusi.
The American national teamer was left unmarked after Zac MacMath was unable to hold onto a shot put right at him by Benny Feilhaber and Zusi easily slotted the ball home on a blasted shot past the hapless goalkeeper. It wouldn't be the last time that MacMath was left down by his defenders on a play in the box, nor the last spillage of a rebound by him.
Heading into half time, head coach John Hackworth was still not yet discouraged. He told reporters after the game that the team felt that they had controlled the flow of play well and were feeling good about their chances to take three points from the game.
"At halftime, I don't think anyone in our locker room would have said we would give up two goals in the second half and not have gotten at least one or two," Hackworth said (quote taken from Dave Zeitlin's piece for MLSsoccer.com). "We took our foot off the gas for sure in the last second bit of the second half."
The let up began well before Hackworth's stated time, however.
Philadelphia let up a goal to Oriol "Uri" Rosell only 16 minutes into the second half, rather predictably off of a set piece. The former Barcelona B defender, who has done well to transition into one of the brightest prospects in MLS, cunningly lost his marker, Raymon Gaddis, as Zusi ran up to take the free kick.
Gaddis was left flat footed - an impressive feat considering his immense speed, acceleration and agility - and Uri walked into the middle of the box without a problem. Zusi's delivery was perfect as Uri's head met the ball and beat MacMath, who failed to react as quickly as needed for the season.
Up 2-1, Kansas City began to fight back against the Union's counter and high pressure with its own high pressure, something that Sporting has been known for under head coach Peter Vermes. It took about 65 minutes, but Kansas City's talent advantage finally burst out to put the club over the Union.
The Union's 4-2-3-1 (MacMath; r-l Sheanon Williams, Amobi Okugo, Jeff Parke, Gaddis; Michael Lahoud, Brian Carroll; Gabriel Farfan, Keon Daniel, Michael Farfan; Le Toux) did wonderfully while Sporting's somewhat new look 4-3-3 found chemistry on the road, but it ended up being the downfall for Philadelphia as Hackworth failed to make tactical changes to combat Vermes' own strategy switches.
A final defensive lapse gave Kansas City their third goal, when Zusi crossed to the other side of the box to Chance Myers, who sent it to the feet of Claudio Bieler. The Argentine striker hit it across his body to the far post, leaving MacMath with no chance at saving the shot.
Once again, the Union left the shooter open in the box to take the attempt without pressure.
As the time ticked away, fans left in droves in the stadium. The Union's hopes for a tie or a win went with them.