D.C. United travels to Kansas City to take on Sporting Kansas City in a showdown of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. To preview the game, we talked to Ben Gartland of The Blue Testament to get the lowdown on all things Sporting.
Questions for The Blue Testament
B&RU: Unlike DC United, Sporting Kansas City used many of their starters in their first CCL game. How important is that tournament to the team and to the fans?
TBT: The tournament is important to both the fans and the team but one of the primary reasons Sporting used so many starters in that match was because of necessity. Sporting has been ravaged this year with injuries and transfers, leaving a much thinner bench than they had at the beginning of the season. They used both of their backup center backs in other positions, forcing Besler and Collin to start at center back. With Jacob Peterson hurt, Seth Sinovic had to play left back and Toni Dovale had to start on the wing, which put Graham Zusi in the midfield. Now, they theoretically could have gone with a much weaker lineup and essentially thrown this game but they want to avoid a potential rehash of 2014 where they played Cruz Azul in the quarterfinals instead of a weaker group winner. It was either play a bunch of starters or go with a very, very weak lineup.
B&RU: Dom Dwyer is the poster child for the MLS-USL PRO relationship right now, keeping names like Claudio Bieler and CJ Sapong on the bench and being among the league leaders in goals. How did that time in USL PRO improve him, and what makes him so good?
TBT: What makes him so good is his tenacity in pressuring defenders. He's always up front trying to force a defender to give the ball up on a mistake or he's waiting to get behind defenders on a through ball. His time in Orlando City helped him because he was getting regular playing time against real teams, instead of working in training with the senior club. This allowed him to make the adjustment between college ball and a professional league. He was then able to translate what he learned in Orlando to Sporting KC and is now our best offensive target. It's come to the point where he draws defenders towards him, leaving other players open either on the wing or in the center attacking midfield role. That allows Benny Feilhaber, Graham Zusi and whoever else is on the wing more freedom to create chances at goals. The drafting and subsequent development of Dwyer has been one of Sporting's best moves over the past couple of years.
B&RU: We all laugh when Peter Vermes gets up in press conferences and blames referees, the surface, other teams, etc., for the way that games turn out. What do SKC fans think of Vermes' post game words?
TBT: I've gotten to the point where, when I see some article about it, I ignore it because it's the same thing every time. It's not like he is bringing it up at every press conference, he's being asked about it. Vermes is not one to necessarily hold back when answering a question. I understand his frustration with teams that play back because his tactical style, and the way the team is built, works very well when teams go up against Sporting KC head to head. When teams stay back and put numbers behind the ball, it doesn't work as often. I imagine Vermes is sworn enemies with Chelsea for this very reason.
As for comments about referees, playing surfaces etc., they can come off a bit whiny depending on the situation. Like I said above, Sporting KC's style depends a lot on them being able to fluidly pressure the defense. That doesn't work as well when it's a bad playing surface or the referees allows the teams too much freedom on fouling. I don't defend him much in these cases, since I do expect coaches to adjust to these situations (And to be fair, he does fairly often), but I do understand where he is coming from.
TBT: (4-3-3) Kempin; Juliao, Collin, Besler, Sinovic; Olum, Claros, Feilhaber; Zusi, Dwyer, Saad.
Questions for Black and Red United
TBT: Like Sporting KC, DC United has a midweek CONCACAF Champions League match. How do you see Ben Olsen rotating the squad between the two matches?
B&RU: Ben Olsen will completely rotate the squads between the two games, having started no one last night who started on Sunday or who will start on Saturday. The only regular starter to appear in the CCL game was Eddie Johnson, who is currently serving a two game MLS suspension. The team didn't look great, but the fact that the won and that Olsen was able to rest players like Chris Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, Bobby Boswell, and Fabian Espindola was basically the perfect scenario. Expect United's full-strength starting 11 on Saturday.
TBT: With Eddie Johnson suspended for this match, how will the attack differ and how much of a detriment to the attack is his suspension?
B&RU: In the absence of Eddie Johnson Ben Olsen has turned to the pairing of Fabian Espindola and Luis Silva, and they have excelled together. As a pairing, Luis Silva has one goal in every 22 minutes of the field, which is just an insane number that there is no way he can keep up. The stat is a bit misleading as it does include a first half hattrick against Montreal and then a game against the decimated back line of Colorado. When the two of them are on the field together there is more of a focus on playing the ball on the ground, whereas when EJ is on the field there is more of a focus on letting him hold the ball up. The team will miss Johnson's physicality, especially against Besler and Collin; his holdup play could have proven vital. If Espindola and Silva can break down SKC's defense, however, then don't expect Eddie Johnson back in the starting lineup any time soon.
TBT: DC was able to shut down Sporting KC's attack after Espindola scored in the game earlier this year, United winning 1-0. Do you see DC United going for a similar strategy or will going on the road force them to play differently?
B&RU: It will be a similar gameplan as to the first matchup between the two teams this season: try and force players wide and make them cross the ball into where Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum, and Bill Hamid are waiting. The major change on the defensive end is that rookie Steve Birnbaum has taken over for Jeff Parke, who has been out with a foot injury and with migraines, for which he just had surgery. If Dom Dwyer, Soony Saad, Graham Zusi, and company are able to run directly through the middle at speed, however, D.C. United will be in for a very long night. On the offensive end, United will probably sit back a little more, but possessing the ball the relieve pressure of their back line will be part of their gameplan as well.
B&RU: Bill Hamid; Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum, Taylor Kemp; Nick DeLeon, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, Chris Rolfe; Luis Silva, Fabian Espindola