Last season, Sporting Kansas City struggled in the opening stages of the season due to playing their first 10 games on the road while Livestrong Sporting Park was under construction. They also had trouble coming together as a group due to a new-look team playing an unusual style, as well as reliance on a mix of young players and guys from abroad who needed time to adjust to MLS. After winning their season opener, the Sporks lost 6 of their next 7 games (conceding 16 goals over that stretch to boot).
It's safe to say that Peter Vermes and co. figured things out. Sporting didn't lose once in the following 14 games, and only lost 3 more games after May 28th. Young players like Graham Zusi, Chance Myers, and Matt Besler had breakout seasons, CJ Sapong won Rookie of the Year, and veterans Aurelien Collin and Julio Cesar found their footing while off the field, Sporting's re-branding effort worked out spectacularly. A once overlooked club with tiny attendances in a cavernous football stadium now had enthusiastic crowds, a dynamite marketing department, and in general were relevant for the first time in years.
Sporting made things work on the field with an approach that emphasizes hard work, speed, strength, and a relentless "straight ahead" mentality. KC will never be the prettiest team to watch, but they are as committed to attacking play as any team in MLS. Their games can often look chaotic, but more often than not it's the constant, frenetic action that causes opposing sides real problems.
None of that has changed. Sporting's starting eleven will likely contain just one new face when compared to last year's successful group. That means all of those young players should continue their growth while playing in the same comfortable system, and KC will also benefit from not having to spend the first 3 months of 2012 on the road.
In other words: This is a tough way for D.C. United to open the season.
We start, as always, with a look at how the Sporks are expected to line up Saturday night:
Let's start with the questionable spots. Up top, Teal Bunbury and Sapong have a running battle to be the target man. Bunbury is more skillful on the ball and possesses a bit more pace (not to mention more refined off-the-ball movement). However, he can also be quite inconsistent, and coped with a toe sprain in the preseason. Sapong is the stronger and more reliable option, but this could also be the year Bunbury takes his game to the next level. In either case, our back four will have their hands full while Vermes will also have a dynamite option to sub in if things aren't going Sporting's way.
Both Zusi and Julio Cesar were limited in practice as recently as Tuesday, and offseason addition Paulo Nagamura - who can play any position in their midfield three - was barely able to do more than jog on the side. Of that group, Julio Cesar seemed closest to 100%, as he participated in all drills but wore a "no contact" bib.
If Zusi can't go, KC will be a distinctly less dangerous team going forward. Zusi is the chief source of class with the ball for Sporting, who otherwise have no change of pace away from their super-direct approach. Being a one-note team is never a good situation, and potential replacements Luke Sassano and Michael Thomas can't help in that department. One intriguing note was that Vermes also mentioned Konrad Warzycha - son of Columbus Crew head coach Robert Warzycha - as an option if Zusi isn't ready for the opener. I still expect Zusi to play, but if he's out, Warzycha would be the closest replacement in terms of style.
Since we're talking midfield, we should discuss how KC's works. The more traditional 433 approach can be seen in Toronto, where TFC plays a true attacking midfielder ahead of two holding midfielders who patrol the left-center and right-center channels. More recently, however, you're more likely to see that alignment reversed, where a "bottom point" (read: anchor midfielder) plays underneath two box-to-box central midfielders.
KC blends these two styles. Zusi and Roger Espinoza do play ahead of Julio Cesar, as the more modern 433 requires. However, Zusi pushes high up into the attack on a regular basis, while Espinoza has some freedom to roam both when KC attacks (as a support option) and defends (as a roving destroyer). This hybrid of styles lends a whirling dervish sort of look to Sporting in the midfield, and that frenetic energy and constant movement defines their style all over the field.
How do we deal with that? On offense, we will need consistently quick ball movement from everyone in the midfield. That's not just about quick thinking from the guy on the ball, either. Players without the ball must make themselves available early enough that our central players aren't on the ball for more than two touches. If we can play keep-away effectively by moving the ball inside and out, we will eventually get the better of Sporting. Julio Cesar is not very fast and has questionable stamina, while Espinoza's lack of positional discipline can be exposed.
Defensively, the main issue is tracking University of Maryland product Zusi, who now has 2 caps and a goal with the US national team. Zusi brings the whole package for an attacking midfielder: His movement is smart, he stays active and engaged (as opposed to drifting out of the game as some talented players do), he's a quality passer, and his long-range shooting is as good as anyone in MLS. Perry Kitchen will need to be particularly aware of Zusi as a threat from distance, and in general can't lose track of Zusi for a second. If Kitchen takes care of Zusi, United will have a very good chance of bagging three points.
Going forward, KC will offer two different looks depending on which wing they're coming up. Kei Kamara is an awkward match up for any left back in MLS. He's 6'4", but is more coordinated than lanky, tall attackers tend to be; his balance allows him to better deal with the disadvantage he's at in terms of center of gravity (something I, at 5'9", have spent my life using against taller opponents). He's also fast and has good skill on the ball. That means he can try to go wide and get to the endline before cutting inside, or he can cut in early and look to go for goal. Containing Kamara and making him play as a winger rather than as a forward can reduce his impact on the game. Daniel Woolard is also going to have to be extra attentive for Kamara's runs from wide into a central spot; that's where he scored most of his 10 goals in 2011.
On the left, Omar Bravo's departure was dealt with by the acquisition of Bobby Convey, who was chased out of town by a San Jose Earthquakes side that seemed built to thrive on his skill set as a winger. If Vermes can get him to drop the ego, KC will benefit tremendously. Convey is one of the best crossers in MLS, and unlike fellow left midfielder Brad Davis, he has above-average speed.
Frankly, and despite my personal disdain for Convey's primadonna act, he is the bigger worry. With Bunbury or Sapong partnered by Kamara, United will have huge problems if Convey is allowed to fire in crosses without being under intense pressure. That means DC players near Convey will have to anticipate well enough that they're within arm's reach before Convey has even taken a look at targets in the box. Robbie Russell is going to have to be very good on his DC debut, and he's going to need help from Andy Najar.
One other note: DC is going to have to go through this game without giving away freekicks. Zusi is a threat from anywhere (no, seriously, anywhere), there is size, strength, and aggression throughout their roster, and now they have Convey to offer service into the box as well. If United is having to foul to stop KC's attacks, then it's going to be very difficult to get a win. That means thinking just a tiny bit faster than KC's attackers throughout the game, and also being a bit more patient in defending. Shepherding someone into a double team might not make any highlight reel, but if you see a lot of boring but successful defending from the Black-and-Red, we'll be on the right path.
Speaking of fouling, United should have some success if we keep the ball moving quickly enough. Collin may be awesome, but he fouls way too often. Between the freekicks we'll get and the card(s) he may pick up, it's something we need to pick on. Seth Sinovic is similar (if less physically intimidating), so look for Najar to get on the ball early and often. The movement from Dwayne De Rosario and Hamdi Salihi will probably be able to draw both Collin and Besler out of position, as their default setting is to step up aggressively whenever possible. A quick layoff before they arrive could see Branko Boskovic putting us in behind with a through ball into the gap opened up.
On the left, Chris Pontius (or Danny Cruz, if Ben Olsen decides Party Boy isn't ready for 90 minutes yet) will need to monitor marauding right back Chance Myers. We need to keep an eye on Myers defensively, but on offense we can take advantage of his overlapping runs by attacking that space with an early ball over the top. Emiliano Dudar's passing range could be huge in that department. KC can become a scattered mess when caught off-guard, so don't be surprised if United follows a Myers run forward with an immediate thrust up the left wing.
Overall, this is a very difficult opening match. It's not because KC is unbeatable - at the very least, we should score some goals if we simply keep the ball moving in midfield - but because their aggressive style is difficult to deal with when you're still trying to come together as a cohesive team. We'll probably be using three new starters and a fourth in a position he didn't play much in 2011, and Sporting's high pressure will probably expose that at times.
If, however, United can control the tempo of the game and keep it from becoming a track meet, KC will eventually start turning the ball over and leave openings at the back. The team that controls the speed of play - United will want a slower game with more possession, Sporting will want a recklessly end-to-end affair - will most likely win this game.