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Scouting Report: Sporting Kansas City

Sporting Kansas City has been the most difficult opponent for D.C. United over the past three seasons, and comes into tonight's game after easily their best performance of 2013. United, meanwhile, travels to the Midwest following our worst game of 2013 and with two of our three best attackers hurt. How can this game go in United's favor? B&RU investigates.

Graham Zusi has broken through with the USMNT and is likely the best player D.C. United has faced in 2013.
Graham Zusi has broken through with the USMNT and is likely the best player D.C. United has faced in 2013.

Here at B&RU, we've been having this discussion for over two seasons now about why teams playing 433 (or certain 4231 sides that are not far removed from playing 433) cause trouble for D.C. United. The trick, of course, is that there is no one reason. The Houston Dynamo's version of the formation in question was a lot different from, say, the Philadelphia Union's more rigid 4231-that-they-called-a-433. The Dynamo based their approach on possession and somewhat fluid positions; the ever-changing Union preferred to focus on keeping things ugly and got their offense from speedy counterattacks whenever they took the field against United.

Then there's Sporting Kansas City, who are the most dedicated 433 team in MLS. Most other clubs have flirted with a 433; the Sporks put a ring on it. KC has bedeviled United since moving to a 433 full-time. In fact, we've never beaten "Sporting Kansas City," as our last win over this club was when they were the Kansas City Wizards. Since that night - May 5th, 2010 - United is 0W-0D-6L (including preseason), with a goal differential of -7 (2 for, 9 against). Strangely, every game - bar this year's 2-0 preseason loss - has been a one-goal defeat. Last year's games were unfortunately typical: KC dominated the game but couldn't get comfortable due to poor finishing. Nick DeLeon's goal at CAPSLOCK Park was a nice finish to one of the only coherent attacks the Black-and-Red managed in either game.

As a club, KC has something of a Barcelona fetish, but beyond their formation and the acquisition of Oriol Rosell - a Barcelona academy product - there isn't much resemblance. KC plays a direct, physical style that relies on having a team full of big, aggressive players. Barça, meanwhile, often plays a front six consisting of guys who are below average height for regular people (much less top athletes). It's harsh to have too much fun at KC's expense on the topic, though; after all, Barcelona's fiscal situation is rather different, and they've had a world class youth academy for longer than MLS has existed.

If there is a resemblance, however, it comes from the fact that KC has fully embraced a hallmark of Barcelona's style of play: High pressure. The Sporks may not have Xavi (unless you count Peterson "the Haitian Xavi" Joseph, which is a hilariously inappropriate nickname), but they do have a team full of hardworking players who are more than willing to pursue the ball all over the field. Plenty of teams in MLS talk about applying pressure high up the field, but no one comes close to replicating the fury with which Sporting does it.

All that said, perhaps "does it" is the wrong tense. Last year's Kansas City side essentially wanted to tackle and harass teams into oblivion, but they lost several players that make that possible. Roger Espinoza - the quintessential 2012 Sporting Kansas City player - left for Premier League side Wigan Athletic this winter, while leading scorer Kei Kamara is currently on loan (through May 6th) with Norwich City, also in England's top flight. Vastly experienced anchor midfielder Julio Cesar was released to make room for the more skillful but less disciplined Rosell at the base of the midfield.

KC's biggest offseason acquisition - striker Claudio Bieler, an Argentine DP - also plays into this. While Bieler is undoubtedly a sharper finisher than Sapong or the injured Teal Bunbury, he is not nearly as enthusiastic about leading KC's line of pressure. Sapong and Bunbury more or less were obliged to do that extra work to make up for their skill level. Bieler, meanwhile, was brought in because Peter Vermes wanted a more skillful player and was willing to sacrifice some pressure to get it.

Other new faces are also a factor. Benny Feilhaber was marketed as a replacement for Espinoza, but that's not really accurate. Paulo Nagamura is Espinoza's replacement, while Feilhaber's presence has let Vermes play Graham Zusi in a rather free role. Zusi is nominally a wide forward, but will regularly drop off the front line to set up teammates.

The overall result is a more patient, skillful KC side. However, one can't mention the gains without the losses, and it's safe to say that the current Sporting eleven is less athletic and less hardworking. Thus far, the results have been mixed. A 3-1 win in Philly looks good, but the Union were very poor on the day in what was a sloppy game. The Sporks followed that up with some very disappointing results (2-1 loss at Toronto FC and two 0-0 draws against the lowly Chicago Fire and at New England). However, Sporting rebounded from that disappointing stretch with a 2-0 win over the previously unblemished Montreal Impact. It's worth noting that the performance matched the quality of the result; KC was head-and-shoulders better than the Impact in what had promised to be an intriguing battle of styles.

With KC's form in mind, let's look at how Vermes should line his team up:


Take note of that asymmetry up front and in the midfield. By design, Zusi has the freedom to play from - rather than on - whatever wing he lines up at, while Feilhaber pushes ahead of the rest of the midfield from his left-center position.

The only injury doubt is Sapong, who was elbowed in the back against Montreal. KC was as close as they could have been to replacing him with Bobby Convey (who changed out of his warm-ups and was standing at midfield ready to hand off his player card to the fourth official) before Sapong was deemed ready to return. It was a questionable decision, as Sapong's gait went from graceful to gimpy until halftime, and his speed was diminished in the second half. Sapong is listed as questionable to play tonight, and we probably won't know if he'll partake until the lineups come out.

Zusi will definitely start on one wing, but Sapong's availability dictates which one. With the Virginia native at his disposal, Vermes prefers to play Zusi on the left. However, the potential replacements for Sapong - Convey or forward Soony Saad - are both players Vermes uses almost exclusively on the left.

The choice here for Vermes is an interesting one. Convey played very well against United in the preseason and gives an otherwise narrow side some natural width. With Chance Myers flying up the right wing whenever he gets a chance, Convey would be the bookend on the left (left back Seth Sinovic only joins the KC attack when the time is just right). On the other hand, Convey can be moody, and when he's not up for a game you'd be just as well to jam a pillow into his jersey and toss that on the field.

Saad, on the other hand, is not a natural wide man. He's much more of an elusive second forward, but generally has found himself on the left because he is neither a powerful target man like Sapong nor does he have the all-around skill of Bieler.

If Saad gets the start - and really, in any situation where Zusi plays on the right side - look for KC to be heavily right-sided in their attack, with Zusi and Myers putting in a ton of crosses. The idea will be to eventually put in a ball that gives Bieler (near post) or Saad (back post) the chance to score on the volley or to control the ball before shooting. If KC's crossing is off, this would result in easy pickings all night long for Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic.

If Sapong does play, the challenge is a bit different. Vermes may start Sapong on the right and Zusi on the left, but he will have them switch for 10-15 minute spells throughout the game. United's fullbacks will have to be ready for the contrast in styles. Zusi is KC's top creator of chances, while Sapong is a phenomenal athlete who can beat you with either size or speed. For Chris Korb and either James Riley or Daniel Woolard, being flexible enough to defend both players is going to be huge for United.

In last week's game, Feilhaber got both assists on through balls from around 30-40 yards from goal. That got headlines, but lost in the hype was the fact that Montreal did a deplorable job on both occasions of positioning themselves in the midfield. On the first goal, a turnover left Patrice Bernier alone to defend all three KC central midfielders, and a decoy run from Seth Sinovic forced Bernier to defend space rather than get in Feilhaber's face. Montreal's defense didn't tighten up fast enough after the turnover, and Feilhaber had a 20 yard gap to pass through.

For any team, this would be suicidal defending. United is going to need to transition into a defensive mindset more quickly than this after every turnover, and you can never give Feilhaber an easy forward pass without getting into trouble. United must be positionally intelligent and willing to sacrifice to maintain a good defensive shape. If one of our central midfielders isn't caught forward or wide and won't be available to block Feilhaber off from this kind of ball, someone else needs to get into position to cover for the moment. If Feilhaber is passing sideways rather than vertically, United has shut down a big part of the KC attack.

As was discussed Wednesday in Behind Enemy Lines, cutting off KC's vertical game has forced them to play crosses all day. Sporting hasn't figured out how to attack when the middle is crowded, and they don't have any central players capable of breaking down a defense on the dribble (a la David Ferreira). Further, this bombardment of crosses no longer plays to KC's personnel. There's no Kamara, and Sapong will either be weakened or not play. Bieler can't compete in the air with McDonald and Jakovic, so if you see KC starting to cross over and over again, United is having success.

Going forward, there are some things tactics don't account for. If Olsen's Army is as wasteful on the ball as we've been in the past two games, KC will eventually score a goal just based on the quantity of chances they'll have to put the ball into the box. United must be sharper with their passes and think more quickly than they have been both on and off the ball.

Despite KC's habit of keeping clean sheets - they're currently on a 339 minute shutout streak - there are weaknesses. Rosell lacks the positional discipline of Julio Cesar and likes to push higher upfield, and that leaves a larger gap between the KC midfield and back four than there should be. While Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler have the quickness to step up into this area if needed, United might be able to take advantage. If a center back is lured forward, there will be a huge gap available if we make the pass quickly. That doesn't just mean the player on the ball hitting a first-time pass; it requires a smart run into that gap from players that aren't on the ball. Anticipation of someone - likely Collin - jumping forward will be just as important as making the pass itself.

On the wings, KC's enthusiasm for going forward is also a vulnerability. Assuming Chris Pontius plays left midfield and shows the bravery he only found against Columbus after we went behind 2-1 (a period in which he beat Josh Williams three times 1v1 after not even attempting to go 1v1 for the previous hour), he should have a strength advantage over Myers. That's the beauty of Party Boy: He can beat you with speed, or he can beat you with strength. Pontius should look to put Myers into a footrace for the ball time and again, because CP13 has the size and strength to win any shoulder-to-shoulder challenge Myers puts in going for the ball. If Pontius actually gains position on Myers, the right back will likely barge him and foul anyway because he doesn't seem to know better.

On the other side, Sinovic is even more prone to fouling. Whereas Myers tends to foul due to a combination of being overly enthusiastic and lacking the problem solving skills to come up with a better way to do things, Sinovic tends to want to "send a message." Watch any KC game and you're likely to see Sinovic plow into someone at some point.

For United, that gives two potential avenues to attack: First, if Sinovic wants to be aggressive, a quick touch away from him means a DC player will have him beat down the line. It's a bit like judo or bullfighting, where you want to let the aggressor miss you and then take advantage. Second, if Sinovic commits a foul, we need to make KC pay with set pieces. Perhaps we'll see something clever like Real Salt Lake's rehearsed corner routine from last week? United gives away some size to KC, but that doesn't excuse us from turning KC fouls into danger in the attack. There's no reason to waste these chances, especially with United missing Dwayne De Rosario and Nick DeLeon.

Speaking of set pieces, KC is as good as anyone in MLS at converting them. Collin and Sapong are outstanding targets, and Zusi's delivery is beyond reproach. KC is unlike Houston (their competition as the best set piece team in the league) in that they don't heavily target one area. Instead, KC strikes a balance between near post, central, and far post free kicks as well as blending attempts at goal with flick-ons or knock-downs to a second target. Further, Zusi can go to goal from long range. To lower the number of fouls, United will need to be proactive defensively and maintain positional focus throughout.

Mentally, KC can be thrown off their game. The team follows the lead of Vermes, who is unmatched in MLS when it comes to complaining from the sideline. Essentially, Vermes feels that his players should never be touched but are allowed to clatter into anyone with impunity. This trickles down to a team that already features the overly emotional Collin, the petulant Feilhaber and Joseph, the brooding Convey, and guys like Sinovic and Nagamura (who relish the physical side of the game to an unreasonable degree). When things go poorly for KC, they are very easy to push over the edge in terms of temperament.

That means United needs to remain calm while mixing in a bit of quiet provocation. Players like Feilhaber and Collin in particular stand out as guys that can be fooled into getting themselves sent off for retaliation or simple recklessness. I don't endorse diving or play-acting, but I have no problem with some jawing or judicious fouling (near midfield only). It's a gray area and a thin line to boot, but if we can walk it we should be able to get Sporting off their game. KC can be tricked into self-destructing, but only by teams that are mentally stronger than them.