If you're like me, you've been looking forward to this match for a while. Sporting Kansas City has been the best team in the East according to most pundits, and is the only team to come to RFK Stadium and beat D.C. United. This isn't just a big game in terms of the standings, where a win for United would leave just two points between first place and fourth, while a loss could see the Black-and-Red fall to fifth if the Chicago Fire win as well. A win tonight would mean that United's claim to greatness in the Eastern Conference is legitimate.
Despite the high stakes, both teams come into the game with issues. The Friday injury report was something of an ambush for United fans, as Dwayne De Rosario, Maicon Santos, and Hamdi Salihi are all "out" or "doubtful" more or less out of the blue (De Ro's shoulder injury was known, but he had practiced all week).
That's a lot of firepower on the bench: 17 goals and 12 assists, not to mention the less quantifiable qualities they bring to the table. Against a Sporks team that - regardless of attacking intent - is built on their defensive record, these are not the players to be missing.
Sporting will be in a similar boat, as a series of injuries in the last couple of weeks has left them scrambling after months of only having to decide between Teal Bunbury or CJ Sapong at center forward. There are plenty of question marks on a team that hasn't really had to face them this season.
Just as noteworthy is the fact that their US Open Cup final victory required overtime and penalty kicks on Wednesday night, and also came after a weather delay before kickoff. We may think of a Wednesday-Saturday schedule as allowing for three days of rest between games, but KC wasn't holding their trophy until the wee hours of Thursday for those of us living in EST (note: Your timezone is wrong if you live elsewhere).
This is life in MLS, though. If you want to win your conference, you're going to have to play big games with short rosters, or on nowhere near enough rest. There are plenty of excuses available for both teams, but tonight's winner will be the team that isn't interested in why today was a tough day to play.
KC's 433 won't change, but the personnel probably will as Peter Vermes deals with fresh injuries and the need to cycle his team to deal with a packed schedule:
The newest injury for Vermes to cope with is to left back Seth Sinovic, who sprained an ankle Wednesday night. He's officially "questionable," but more than likely can be counted out for this one. His replacement, however, will be determined by whether Chance Myers - freshly recovered from his own injury - is given a rest or not. If Myers plays, Harrington will be at left back. If Myers sits out, Harrington will be on the right and newcomer Neven Markovic will slot in on the left.
At center back, Aurelien Collin is off the injury list after fracturing his face in the All-Star game, but was suspended for the Open Cup final. The fact that his stand-in, Lawrence Olum, is now on the injury list with a groin strain only boosts the likelihood that the Frenchman who cannot disrespect cats is probably back for tonight's game.
In the midfield, everyone's a question mark solely due to minutes played. Roger Espinoza earned raves for his even-more-energetic-than-normal performances at the Olympics, flew back, and was immediately thrown into a critical game having to play 120 minutes. Julio Cesar and Graham Zusi also played all 120 minutes as well, though Zusi was playing a wide forward role due to the lengthy injury list the Sporks are dealing with.
I expect all three to start, but there are plenty of candidates to step in if Vermes wants fresher legs. Paulo Nagamura - who played in the midfield with Zusi further forward - went 120 minutes despite opening a big gash on his cheek in the 6th minute. That injury won't keep him out of this game. Peterson Joseph could also be called upon as the attacking midfielder, though he's "questionable" with a hamstring strain. Michael Thomas could also come in at either of the holding spots.
Up front, the confusion continues. Bunbury and Sapong split the minutes in the target role, but Bunbury had the larger share (89 to 31). However, Vermes might not be able to rest Bunbury due to injuries and heavy legs at the wide spots. With Bobby Convey technically "questionable" but in street clothes with a trophy on the line Wednesday, it would appear that there's at least a chance Sapong could play wide left (a spot he's played before). Soony Saad has also played out there and is fresh, so I give him the slightest edge.
Normally when United faces a team that is coming off of a mid-week game or has a bunch of injuries, I call for a high-tempo game based on starting fast and tiring the opponent out. I'm not sure that's the right plan for this game. KC plays the same way at all times, using high pressure and hustling their opponents into mistakes.
It's hard to pull that off for 90 minutes when you're in the physical state they're in, though, and I think United should approach this one a bit like a bullfighter. Sporting will play the opening 15-30 minutes at their normal pace, and during that spell United will need to keep the ball moving and above all stay patient. If United can force KC to chase the ball around the field, they will run themselves into the ground a bit, and tired teams make mistakes.
That means Branko Boskovic and Perry Kitchen are going to have to be top-notch, and every United player will have to make smart runs off the ball to help break the KC pressure. That also means we need to have far fewer long balls than we did in the season opener; one of the benefits of playing as KC does is that MLS teams don't play that style well, and Sporting's back four has the athletic advantage to make up for the times it is done right.
Defensively, the big key is to keep the Sporks playing outside of the box. Sporting virtually always out-shoots their opponents, but it's often meaningless because they lack patience. If Bill Hamid is seeing a bunch of shots from 30+ yards out, United is doing things right. If instead we're seeing lots of crosses and plenty of Kei Kamara being near the ball inside our box, we're in trouble.
That means forcing the KC midfield to play sideways and backwards. If United can compress the midfield - in this case, the bigger concern is our wide men making the field narrow than it is compressing vertically - Zusi and Espinoza won't have the time to play dangerous passes forward, and if there's a knock on KC it's that they don't have the team-wide skill to turn their pressure into more dangerous chances.
There's also the threat of set pieces. The Sporks are already among MLS's best in that department, but the fact that they're tired will make those chances even more important for them. Creating in the run of play will be a bit tougher for KC, so if United can give away few set pieces and keep their marking assignments straight, the chances of keeping a clean sheet improve dramatically.
On offense, United is going to need to be sharp when the chances come. KC's pressure, paired with MLS's most athletic back four, means that they don't concede many opportunities. A patient DC team will have more success than if we get into a frenetic sort of game, but in either case there won't be a ton of chances. Misses like the ones we saw in the games against Columbus will loom large tonight.
Tonight is a game that United will have to win with intelligence and technique, because KC is more well-versed in how to win games with effort and willpower. It's not that they work harder or want it more; it's that their approach makes those qualities more important. Much like the last two matches against Columbus, this one is going to be about dictating the terms of the game. If United can rein in the tempo and keep the ball moving, things are going well.
If the game becomes a track meet, however, United will need to prepare for a siege and simply hope to have enough left in the tank to get goals late, when KC will inevitably tire out (thanks, schedule maker!).