Under Peter Vermes, Sporting Kansas City has been arguably the most consistent team in MLS in terms of style of play. They roll out a 433 every week, and the hallmark of their game is an emphasis on withering pressure high up the field to force turnovers. When in possession, KC's preference is to get the ball forward quickly on the ground, or to switch the point of attack. They don't play long ball as their first option, but they usually employ several physical forwards in part to open this up as an option. The fullbacks come forward. The midfielders tend to take up zones rather than rove everywhere, but their roles can be more or less narrowed down to the passer, the anchor, and the runner. Everyone on the field has the green light to shoot on sight.
D.C. United can probably expect this normal version of KC on Friday night at Sporting Park, but very recently Vermes appears to have finally figured out that his team isn't so good at Plan A that a Plan B is unnecessary. In their last two games - a 1-0 win in Columbus on October 5th, and a 0-0 draw in Houston just four days later - the Sporks have shown a willingness to play a far more conservative brand of soccer. The emphasis on pressuring the ball and playing mean is still in place, but the high line and the overlapping fullbacks were more or less gone.
Instead, the former Wizards appeared to be trying on a more cynical look with the playoffs looming. Given that their last two seasons have ended at the hands of a more street-smart Houston Dynamo (a pain we know all too well...damn you Andre Hainault!), it's probably the smart move. Sure, it will likely result in some playoff games that are much more tense than thrilling, but Sporting wants to win trophies more than it wants to be MLS's noble loser.
I bring this up because for once it's actually a bit difficult to predict which KC we'll see. On one hand, Vermes had reasons beyond simply using the games against the Crew and Dynamo as a playoff dress rehearsal. Graham Zusi and Matt Besler were with the US national team for the game against Houston, while midfield anchor Oriol Rosell was suspended against the Crew. Those are vital players for KC, and since they're a) in the Supporters Shield hunt and b) were facing two road games in four days, a more pragmatic approach was understandable.
On the other hand, this is a home game for the Sporks, and United is not as good as Columbus or Houston. A trip to face a still-technically-alive Columbus or the always tricky Dynamo is a lot different than a home game against a short-handed United side that has zero road wins in league play in 2013. Being more cautious in these other games made sense; doing so at home against a beatable opponent doesn't, unless Vermes really thinks this will be another chance to work out the kinks in a style of play Sporting isn't used to.
Plus, there's that whole thing about how KC has the league's lowest goals against - just 29 in 32 games - while United is MLS's lowest-scoring team. And how the Sporks have only conceded two goals over the last six meetings between these sides. And how United hasn't beaten KC since a 2-1 win back on May 5th, 2010. Gulp.
I don't know of a "Being John Malkovich" sort of portal that would allow me to take control of Vermes - I'd give myself away by not complaining vigorously because an opposing player came within five yards of someone in KC blue - but I'm going to guess that KC's Plan A will be what United sees from the start. If KC truly wants to practice for the playoffs right now, they should treat this home game as a "must win by two or more goals" scenario and play their normal game.
Clearing that up only alleviates part of the problem, though. Tomorrow's game kicks off a sequence that will see KC play three games in eight days, all of them having an impact on their pursuit of trophies. Anything less than a win against United will put the Sporks in a very weak position to take the Supporters Shield, while next Wednesday's CCL match against CD Olimpia is one that requires at least a draw for Sporting to advance to the knockout stages (due to their failure to turn dominance into three points in their last CCL match, a 1-1 draw with Nicaragua's Real Esteli). They'll follow the Olimpia match up just three days later with a trip to lovely Chester, PA to take on a Philadelphia Union side that is currently in 6th place in the Eastern Conference.
On Filibuster this week, The Daily Wiz editor Ben Gartland said he expects KC to field strong sides in both games rather than field a reserve team in one match and his best players in the other. However, given the suspension of Aurelien Collin - the second time this season he'll miss out against United for that reason - and the fact that Zusi played the full 90 (you're welcome Mexico!) in Panama on Tuesday night, it seems likely that at least some big names will sit out against the Black-and-Red:
Vermes did confirm that Besler will return to the eleven after Jurgen Klinsmann agreed not to field him at Estadio Rommel Fernandez out of recognition that Collin's suspension left KC in need of center backs. Collin's replacement will be Ike Opara, who has quietly racked up 14 starts in 2013 due to Besler's USMNT duties, Collin's suspensions, and a clogged fixture list.
He also has three goals, and is in all honesty a huge threat to score this game's winner on a header from a set piece. We don't have a player with his combination of height, quickness, and pure leaping ability to mark Opara, so the key will be to block his runs or bump into him before he can really get into his jump. Throw in the likely presence of CJ Sapong, and it's a huge mismatch that United can only solve by going above and beyond our normal quality of marking in the box.
The question marks mostly pertain to Zusi and whether Vermes wants to push him through a third game (or five halves, anyway) in seven days. That seems like a needless risk given the presence of Benny Feilhaber, but Zusi could play in that attacking midfield role or on either flank as a nominal forward. At left-center midfield, Peterson Joseph is a probable starter due to the fact that Paulo Nagamura is listed as out on the latest MLS
list of guys that may or may not be injured injury report. If Nagamura is actually able to play, he could come in and give KC a boost in soccer IQ over Joseph, who tends to be rash with and without the ball.
Up top, assuming Zusi won't start only partially clears up the front three. Sapong has fought his way out of the dog house, seizing the chance that opened up when Kei Kamara was sold to Middlesbrough. Sapong is pretty similar to Kamara when played wide right in that he's fast, powerful, and loves to make hard runs into the middle. Inside the 18 at least, Sapong basically plays like a second central striker, with the width in those situations coming from Feilhaber/Zusi and right back Chance Myers.
If Sapong is left out for some reason (or played on the left, or even down the middle), Jacob Peterson would be the likely stand-in. Peterson is more of a true wide forward than Sapong, and his tendency is to play low crosses as soon as he possibly can after touching the ball around the opposing fullback. He's nothing special as a player, but he keeps things simple, works hard, and knows that his job is to help the other guys more than it is to be the focal point of attacks.
Soony Saad is the probable left forward, and will likely be the most clever of the front three. The Michigan-born Lebanon international is very elusive off the ball, but is also more than capable at using his dribbling ability to open up shooting opportunities. Saad is the best pure finisher KC is likely to field (Claudio Bieler is questionable with a groin strain, and to be blunt the Sporks don't need him to win this one), so giving him looks at goal will be asking for trouble.
Down the middle, USL-Pro terror Dwyer has been starting since Bieler picked up his injury. He's not a typical center forward in terms of size, but Dwyer is a ferocious competitor who never stops looking for channels to run and gaps to exploit. Assuming Perry Kitchen is at center back again, look for he and Dwyer to go at it tooth and nail for 90 minutes. Vermes could also go with Teal Bunbury, but of late he's been regularly getting just 10-20 minutes at a time.
One positive for United is that KC's 433 formation and the fact that their wide forwards are still central forwards at heart means that we can likely replicate the narrow gameplan that has worked so well against teams like Real Salt Lake. KC's width will come primarily from the fullbacks, and this DC side has proven they can make life difficult for teams that don't employ true wingers.
It won't be pretty, obviously, but another narrow 442 would be hard to argue with in terms of giving the Black-and-Red a shot at picking up a rare result in KC. The crowd at Sporting Park often takes on the impatient, entitled attitude that Vermes projects from the sidelines; when teams frustrate the Sporks, the crowd tends to get nervous very quickly. Despite all the talk about Sporting Park being such a difficult venue, KC has only won half of their league games there this season (8W-3D-5L). If Real Esteli can go there and avoid defeat, so can United.
A big factor in slowing KC down is to cause trouble for Rosell and Feilhaber in the midfield. Rosell is relied upon to connect lots of simple passes to keep the ball moving for KC. The object with a player like that is always to pressure him and cut off his passing options to force him into playing the ball back to the defense. Opara is not exactly comfortable on the ball, and both Myers and Sinovic look more comfortable pushing up and being aggressive than they do when forced to stay patient and get the easy, repetitive stuff right over and over. There are turnovers to be had against this back four, and the way to make that happen is to make sure Rosell is passing them the ball frequently rather than pushing it forward.
Feilhaber is a different animal. Obviously a player with his skill level needs to be pressured, but there's also a mental component to his game that requires attention. Generally speaking, Feilhaber plays well when relaxed and comfortable, but tends to disappear once he gets angry or frustrated with how things are going. United needs to make his evening an unpleasant one. I'm not condoning soccer's black arts, but some tackles that fall into a gray area could throw Feilhaber off his game, sparing our back four from the sort of penetrating through balls that KC will need to disrupt our attempts to compress this game.
Going forward, there is at least some reason to believe United can create enough chances to avoid a shut out. Myers and Sinovic will come forward regularly, which means there will be space on the wings for counterattacks. Most likely, United will need our forward(s) to drift into those spots for the initial ball, which will mean some hard running for the rest of the midfield in order for there to be enough numbers in the box for the attack to actually bear fruit.
When we do string together some possession, United's wide midfielders will need to provide enough of a threat to help keep the fullbacks honest. This will help us out at the back by hampering the Sporks in terms of width, but it will also sow a bit of doubt along the back four. Opara's no slouch, but without Collin flying around there will already be a touch of uncertainty for KC defensively. By making the fullbacks defend regularly, we can increase the problem.
All that said, this will be a very difficult game. KC is motivated and has had our number for years now. The frequent 1-0 and 2-1 scorelines have invariably been flattering for United, with Ben Olsen's men spending most of these fixtures scrambling to defend and basically spending the full 90 minutes hanging on by a thread.
That can't be the case if United is ever going to break KC's control of this match-up. United can compress play and keep things tight fairly well, but you don't win too many games like that. If the Sporks are allowed to dictate the terms, this game will likely be another 1-0 Sporting win that probably should have been worse. United needs to match KC in forcing turnovers, which in turn will help prevent the game from mostly being played in our half. KC's style of play is built on territorial dominance; the more they have to play in the middle third or in their own end of the field, the less comfortable they are.