DC United's two-game road trip ends in the ballin'-est MLS stadium of all time, where they will take on
the Kansas City Wizards Sporting Kansas City. The Sporks have recovered from an awful start to the season with a spell that has seen them lose just once in 16 games. While there are plenty of draws in there, it's clear that this is not going to be an easy win for our road-warrior United.
Peter Vermes probably needed to get his team into this kind of form to keep his job, too. No owners invest $200 million into a new stadium in what is historically MLS's worst market and then don't care about results. Like us after the Dwayne De Rosario and Brandon McDonald trades, it's playoffs or bust for KC. That makes this a huge game; a win for either side will push them above the Philadelphia Union and into one of the Eastern Conference's automatic playoff spots.
Read on for the gritty details of what KC does well and what they struggle with:
Kansas City's formation has variously been called a 433 and a 4231. There's little difference between the two; if KC is in a 433, their wide attackers will be higher up; if it's a 4231, those players will be slightly further back, more even with the attacking midfielder. Sporting plays the same attacking, high-pressure style either way. Whatever you want to call it, here's how it will look:
The big question in the back is on the right, where Chance Myers has had some minor injury issues. He is apparently fully fit, though Vermes may opt to use Michael Harrington as part of a strategy to keep his side fresh (they also played mid-week). Both Myers and Harrington are better known for their ability to get forward than their actual defending. Myers has issues with positioning, while Harrington's problems are more likely to be making a glaring individual error. Going forward, Myers is the bigger threat due to his outstanding speed and his energy, while Harrington is probably the better crosser.
In the midfield, new Designated Player Jeferson is doubtful with a quadriceps strain, so Maryland product Graham Zusi will probably be the attacking midfielder in front of Roger Espinoza and Birahim Diop. Vermes did use Milos Stojcev instead of Diop (who is coming off a groin strain) in their 3-1 win over the Portland Timbers, but that was probably more about not forcing Diop to play 180 minutes fresh off an injury than anything else.
Espinoza and Diop both work tremendously hard and are quality athletes, but have some real issues in other departments. Espinoza's problem is discipline, both in terms of his positioning and his temperament. The Honduran international will cover as much ground as anyone in MLS, but a lot of that is to compensate for his below-par soccer IQ. He also tends to lunge into tackles and expose his studs; a strict referee will be a real problem for him. Diop is less aggressive than Espinoza, but is physically stronger. His biggest problem is that he's just not very good with the ball. If United can force KC to play through him rather than Espinoza or Zusi, Sporting will end up with a lot of low percentage, hopeful long balls than coherent passing.
The Sporks are at their best going forward. Omar Bravo will return to the line up after suspension (somehow, he only got 1 game for the combination of a vicious two-footed lunge on Pat Noonan, his angry protests following the red card, and then a disgusting moment of play-acting in an attempt to trick the referee into thinking Noonan had headbutted him) and provide energy and craftiness from the left. On the right, Kei Kamara is a real handful due to his combination of speed and height; he is an especially troublesome target on set pieces and long throw-ins. The central striker will be either rookie CJ Sapong or Teal Bunbury. Both of them are quite similar, but Sapong has taken most of the starts this season because Bunbury's focus and confidence seem to be off this season. Like Kamara, speed and size are the big things to worry about from Sapong.
DC will need to be the team that sets the pace of this game. KC will want a track meet, so our ability to keep possession is a big priority. The disjointed play we saw against Chicago or the long-ball approach we used in the first half against Vancouver will cause us endless trouble. This is a game we need to win with our heads and our technique, not our legs and our lungs. Obviously matching Sporting's work rate is vital, but that only serves as a platform from which to go towards a win; it can't be all we have to offer.
Like our last couple opponents, the Sporks are weakest in the back. Their best defender, Aurelien Collin, is out with a severe back injury, and the rest of the group is nothing special. We've been over right back, and Seth Sinovic on the opposite flank is a merely adequate defender (there's a reason he was let go by the New England Revolution). In central defense, Julio Cesar is smooth with the ball but isn't the best athlete and can lose focus, which is a terrible problem for a center back. Matt Besler made the All Star team, but that was more because a mobile phone app-maker stuffed the ballot box. Besler is not a bad defender by any means, but he's not a standout either.
The back four isn't the only problem. KC's midfield is not a particularly clever group, despite their never-stop-running approach. This is a great game for De Rosario and Josh Wolff, who both do very well playing in the gap between defense and midfield. Espinoza and Diop can and should be fooled repeatedly, and we should also create some good free kick opportunities. Sporting tends to commit lots of fouls, so this may be a game for De Ro to break out a trademark upper-corner blast.
Defensively, United will need to be very tuned-in for the full 90 minutes. Kansas City will not stop pushing forward at any point, and if they're behind, they're more likely to play with four strikers than anyone in MLS. Their direct approach means seeing plays a moment early will be huge. Reactive defending will leave us chasing one of the fastest forward groups in the league, but sound anticipation should allow United to shut Sporting down. The Sporks live and die by the frantic nature of their play; the problems themselves are usually not that hard to solve, but KC just creates so many of them that eventually teams make mistakes.
DC will also need to be aware of Zusi's ability to shoot from long range, as well as his finely-honed sense of arriving late in the box. Clyde Simms will need to be very focused in this regard, because Zusi is really thriving in the Sporting midfield. He's less of a playmaker and more of an attacking midfielder; that means he's more of a threat to score goals than to set them up. Still, he's the KC midfield's best passer, so making him look sideways or backward will be a positive step.
The bottom line is that the way this game is played will determine the victor. If the game is hectic and fast, Kansas City will probably create plenty of scoring chances while over-running our midfield. If, however, United can slow the game down and force the Sporks into more of a chess match, our superior technical ability and soccer smarts will likely see us take three points. This isn't a "sweep the leg" game, because Sporting is a lot better than Chicago, Vancouver, and Toronto FC. Actually, if we're sticking with a Karate Kid metaphor, this is a game where we should be more like Miyagi, who was patient and wise.