All the way back in 2009, D.C. United arrived at CommunityAmerica Ballpark to play some team named the "Kansas City Wizards" in the last game of the regular season, and everything was on the line. Thanks to a logjam on the fringe of the playoff race, United would have qualified for the postseason despite a season fraught with injuries, tired legs (14 non-MLS competitive fixtures!), and coaching errors. Jaime Moreno's 67th minute goal dragged United level at 1-1, but seemed to strike as center back Julius James pulled up with an obvious hamstring strain after United had used all three subs.
With no other options, James ended up being shifted up top to essentially stand around and occasionally try to win headers on one leg while United tried to find a way to win with 10 healthy players. However, the drama was not done there: new striker James would win a header, jumping with his only good leg, to head United in front in the 82nd minute. The playoffs were just minutes away.
Unfortunately, the next turns in the tale were awful for the Black-and-Red. A KC shot following a scramble beat Steve Cronin in goal, forcing Fred to do the right thing in blocking the ball with a handball. Fred was sent off, but Cronin couldn't save the ensuing 92nd minute penalty kick (converted by current United assistant Josh Wolff). Then, with essentially the last attack of the season, and down to 9 non-injured players and the one-legged James, United created what looked to be a miracle: A shot was blocked at the top of the box and fell to Rodney Wallace, who thumped a volley goalward. It got through the mob of players from both sides in the box...it got past goalkeeper Kevin Hartman...but it did not get past the post. With that thud ended any hope of United returning to the playoffs.
I bring up this memory of this astounding game because since that night in a converted minor league baseball facility that also housed the - I'm not making this up - Kansas City T-Bones, United's battles with Sporting Kansas City have been one-sided. In fact, it's not even close. It's like Nelson Muntz vs. Milhouse Van Houten (side note metaphor: In that episode, Nelson gets to date Lisa, which is all Milhouse ever wanted. Well, in this rivalry Sporting Park is our Lisa Simpson. Incidentally, that episode also contains the amazing "Nuke The Whales" poster).
Here are the unpleasant details: Since the start of the 2010 season, United has won just one of seven games against Sporting, losing the other six. Despite the odd fact that each of the last five losses in the series have been by just one goal (including no less than four 1-0 games), the games have often felt more lopsided.
But hey, it's not all bad news. Our last win over KC was back in 2010...in May...at home...on the heels of a hellish losing streak. Hey, just like this game! All our problems are solved! Bank on three points, folks!
Or, maybe not. If anything, both teams seem to be drifting ever further apart in terms of good fortune. United just lost Marcelo Saragosa - a player we could probably use in a game like this one - to injury after giving up yet another set piece goal to lose in Dallas. Elsewhere in Texas, KC was ending Houston's 36 game home unbeaten streak and just got double-digit goalscorer Kei Kamara back from his loan to Norwich City of the English Premier League.
Head coach/GM/high priest/general Peter Vermes has enough depth that he's already begun rotating players to preserve his side's legs in a season that will feature CONCACAF Champions League play along with their ambition to win every trophy available to top-flight American soccer clubs. Players like Matt Besler, Chance Myers, and Benny Feilhaber have taken knocks, and KC still got results with Ike Opara, one-time United trialist Mechack Jerome (don't worry, he'd be sitting our bench too), and Peterson Joseph in their places. Up front, Vermes could already rotate CJ Sapong and Jacob Peterson before Kamara returned; now, he has two legitimate trios (Zusi-Bieler-Kamara, and Peterson-Sapong-Saad) to play up front.
Still, it's not all great news for KC. Yellow card accumulation will keep both Aurelien Collin and Oriol Rosell off the field for this match. Collin hasn't missed a second for KC up until this point, while Rosell has started every match and played the full 90 eight times (plus a couple of very late, time-wasting substitutions). While Opara offers KC a lesser version of Collin in central defense, Rosell is completely unique for the Sporks. Sure, they have other defensive midfielders, but his duties at the bottom of their midfield triangle are crucial in their ability to maintain possession. In other words, this might be a good moment to play them.
With those absences in mind, let's look at how KC should line up:
There are a lot of moving parts here to go along with the suspended Collin and Rosell. USMNT defender Matt Besler has missed three straight games with a knee sprain, and Vermes says he's a game-time decision. If Besler can't play, Lawrence Olum is the only other realistic alternative on the KC roster at center back.
That in turn would leave Vermes in need of a new choice to replace Rosell. Paulo Nagamura seems like the best option, though the same tendency to cover tons of ground and get stuck in everywhere that benefits him in his normal role (seen in the image above) is not really so useful for a bottom point.
If Nagamura is needed there, it complicates things significantly. We could see Benny Feilhaber have to take over Nagamura's dirty work role - not the best fit for a moody playmaker - with Graham Zusi playing in the midfield. We could see Vermes bring in Joseph, who can get in the neighborhood of having the right workrate for the job but who also picks up yellow cards at a comical rate, for the job. We could see a debut for rookie 1st round pick (and USA under-20 regular) Mikey Lopez as well. Lopez is probably the most similar to Nagamura, but Vermes has spurned other opportunities to use him.
With Zusi possibly involved in the midfield shuffle, the "will Besler play?" question even has an impact on the front line. Normally, I'd expect Zusi and the resurgent Peterson - he's keeping Sapong on the bench right now - to play the two wide forward roles, with abundant switching of flanks. If Zusi is needed further back, I'd expect Kamara over Sapong. Of course, Vermes could also just start Kamara anyway, because he's a potential All-Star.
Tactically, KC doesn't ask complicated questions, but the simplest problems can be the most difficult to solve. Getting the better of Sporting requires teams to get the little things - first touch, passes where people need them instead of just in their general vicinity, players making themselves available off the ball, etc - right over and over again. Any pro can play one- and two-touch soccer all day long in training, but against the pressure that is the defining quality for KC's approach, it gets a lot harder.
Like everything in this sport, that pressure comes with a weakness. Teams that can connect a couple vertical passes from their back line into the midfield or up front can bypass the Sporks in the center of the field (no matter how hard they run, three guys simply can't clog up those passing lanes).
Houston actually illustrated it several times only to make a mistake when it was time to attack the KC back four, but their idea was correct. If you can bypass the KC midfield on the ground - which requires both good passes and alert attacking players making themselves available - you can force KC into some uncomfortable spots defensively. In particular, things like drawing a midfielder wide and playing through the resulting gap or playing outside-in can get you around the troublesome trio and result in some promising attacks. Not only does that help you score goals (obviously), but it makes the KC fullbacks think twice about their normal tendency to go forward as often as possible.
Another key for United will be managing KC's tendency to make every game feel like they're playing downhill while you're having to do a Sisyphus impression. Remember how I said United is 1W-0D-6L in our last seven against KC? Despite the fact that it always feels like they kicked our ass in all of those losses, the last five games in this series have been one-goal KC wins (1-0 four times, 2-1 once).
Psychologically, it's vital to remember that the scoreboard is what matters, and if you're tied or down by one, you're just one big play away from changing the result. United has had a tendency to get discouraged against the Sporks, and that's how they take our legs out from under us even before they score some late, late goal to actually win it: They beat us before we're actually beaten.
The other side of this plan is about preventing (or at least lessening) the feeling that we're getting slaughtered. Without Rosell and possibly Besler, key players in the Sporting possession game will be replaced by players who are far less calm on the ball. Nagamura, Olum and Opara can both be caught in possession and pressured into rash decisions, and that's to our distinct advantage.
We can make them cough the ball up as often as they're going to do it to us, which a) levels the playing field and b) will be pretty unfamiliar for a KC team that frequently wins the possession battle. It is crucial that everyone in for United presses the ball with vigor and in a coherent fashion; 10 headless chickens won't do us any good, but a team hunting in packs and forcing KC to play through their lesser-skilled players will set us up for the kind of performance we need.
We can further limit KC's easy possession by blocking off their passes from the back four into the midfield. Houston did a good job of this early last weekend, and the Sporks ended up playing a bunch of long balls. Now, we're not as good at winning those first headers as the Dynamo are, but that's not so important. If we get KC to start playing long balls, we need to be focused on winning the second ball that results from the initial header. That's not going to be easy given how fit and hard-working the entire KC squad is, but it's a must.
On the attack, United should be able to create some chances. Myers and Sinovic will charge forward, leaving gaps for our wingers. De Ro should be able to outwit Nagamura or Olum finding space between the lines. An Opara-Besler center back pairing will still be quite good, but the loss of Rosell should leave things more disorganized in front of them than they're used to. It's a great chance for United to force them into more 1v1 defending than they normally have to do, but it will require our attackers to embrace that challenge rather than shirk it as they often have. Passive players who want to hide from the ball or avoid taking people on are useless for us in a game like this.
Of course, I'd be remiss to leave out a crucial factor for any team playing the Sporks: Set pieces. They're fantastic at them, and while the loss of Collin and Rosell deprives them of some targets, the fact is that Opara is the same size as Collin and has a prodigious leap, while Olum is actually a bigger guy than Rosell. That's not even getting into the potential of Kamara being out there. Hell, even if KC had average size, they still have the ace delivery of Zusi; service of that quality means size and strength isn't everything.
Teams have been killing United on set pieces this season because they're quicker to react, quicker to judge where the ball is going, and quicker to switch into the desperate, "that's my damn ball!" mindset that often determines who wins and loses in these situations. There's no real tactical solution here beyond keeping James Riley - culpable on three set piece goals despite only appearing in five games - off the field. Mentally, the entire United squad just needs to be more aggressive, more determined, more focused, and more quick. Each and every player has to take on that responsibility, or eventually Zusi will find a loose runner (note that the hardly physically intimidating Myers has two goals already this season).
Even without two key players, this is a huge test for United. KC's style of play exposes teams that are not getting their basics right, which is something we've been guilty of. Their set piece quality is as good as anyone in MLS, while we've been easily the worst in the league at stopping teams in the same category. United made progress against FC Dallas, but this will require another, bigger step forward. If United can handle the pressure (physical and psychological) and hit the Sporks in transition, this doesn't have to be yet another loss.
Sporting has had our number for ages. It's about damn time something came up Milhouse.