Unless you've ended up here on accident, you know the details of tonight's match between D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City. A point for United seals a playoff spot, while three would put the Black-and-Red on the brink of winning the Eastern Conference (particularly if New England and Columbus were to draw tomorrow).
For Sporting, the game is less about opportunity and more about disrupting an alarming recent slide. Starting with United's stunning 3-0 win in Kansas, the Sporks have lost five of their last six MLS games. While they have put together two wins in the CONCACAF Champions League, their only league win since mid-August is over Chivas USA (who didn't even have Cubo Torres available). Six weeks ago, this looked like it would be KC's best chance at winning the East for the third time in four years; now, it's just about stopping the bleeding.
That's not how things are supposed to be going right now for either team. When the schedule came out for the season, it was justifiably seen as bad news by anyone attached to United to get KC three times, regardless of the fact that two of the matches were at home. Sporting had maintained such a vice grip on this particular match-up for so long that 2013's 1-1 home draw in May was DCU's best result against KC in years. United were usually able to keep the game close, but the 1-0 losses were almost uniformly flattering for Ben Olsen's side.
The series has been turned on its head in 2014, however. A 1-0 win back in May required a ton of fight but saw United create few chances (the eventual winner was Fabian Espindola's hopeful cross that drifted just barely into the goal over keeper Eric Kronberg. That game, at least, seemed about right: If United was going to put one over on their longtime tormentors, it always seemed likely to be a gritty win with a big side of good fortune.
Back in August, however, the Black-and-Red served up one of the more stunning halves seen anywhere in MLS this season to win 3-0 in KC. The Sporks have staked their identity on the idea of playing a high line and pressuring the ball, and United managed to ruthlessly take advantage of the former while also giving KC a taste of what it's like to deal with the latter. Los Capitalinos forced turnovers in the midfield during transitional moments and immediately looked to play the ball in behind. While KC's vaunted back four was still in the process of stepping forward, United already had runners sprinting in the opposite direction, finding the acres of space left behind and using that time to efficiently beat the keeper. It was brutal, and it was beautiful.
It can be argued that Sporting hasn't really recovered from being exposed. It's not necessarily that teams are countering them to death, but rather that KC's belief in themselves was shaken and has not been restored. A win over Deportivo Saprissa in CCL play is a good result, but one game doesn't fix this sort of thing, and the Sporks are well aware that their victories against the Goats and Real Esteli don't really add up to much. Since that night at Sporting Park, KC has conceded three goals on three more occasions - twice to the Revolution and once to Houston - and also let up two goals against the Red Bulls.
These issues can't all be explained by shattered confidence, though. The bigger problem in KC is fatigue. I'm not talking about something that can be fixed by giving a player a night off here or there; Sporting is suffering from accumulated 90 minute performances playing their physically demanding style, and nothing short of a full offseason is going to fix it. Guys like Matt Besler and Graham Zusi have it even worse thanks to the World Cup: Not only did they miss out on the MLS break, but they spent that time in a high-stress environment playing many games in a short span. Even training sessions for the USMNT were particularly demanding, and before leaving for Brazil these guys were going through summertime two-a-days.
Now, you might be wondering to yourself why Peter Vermes didn't rotate his players to give them adequate rest. In 2013, he did a tremendous job of protecting his key players while still getting results. In 2014, however, injuries took out starting right back Chance Myers as well as most of his key second-choice players, and the bottom of the roster has proven to be unprepared for high-end MLS play.
A key example is Ike Opara, who quietly put together 16 starts last year, allowing Besler and Aurelien Collin to rest. This year, Opara's season was ended by an injury in March, and as such KC's first-choice center back pairing has had to play over and over again. CJ Sapong missed most of the first half of the season with a neck issue, while Jacob Peterson has gone through his more or less standard set of nagging injuries all year.
Zusi's World Cup absence meant more minutes for Benny Feilhaber, as Vermes could no longer start one and rest the other in central midfield. Seth Sinovic has had virtually no rest at all in any competition. Kronberg broke his hand and missed all of September. Uri Rosell's departure meant Lawrence Olum had to play more in the midfield, further draining the center backs. The list goes on and on.
The issue was crystallized last weekend on New England's game-winner. I'm starting the video early in the sequence to show everything that went wrong for KC Forcing a long clearance is usually their bread and butter, but after Besler wins an initial header on just such a ball, the Sporting central midfield is in shambles. From that point, the Sporks make all of the following mistakes:
- They lose the second ball completely, allowing Scott Caldwell to direct his header
- No one is anywhere near Lee Nguyen, the most dangerous player for New England
- They are outnumbered 6v5 in their own half while the Revs have control of the ball
- The normally indefatigable Paulo Nagamura points to Jermaine Jones and shouts for Feilhaber to go pressure him rather than doing it himself, which would be the norm
- Feilhaber is dog tired and maintains his slow jog, apparently not recognizing the urgency or not having the energy to do anything about it
It was about as far from what Sporting prides itself on as possible. When KC thinks about themselves, they think about how they dominate games in the air, win the second ball most of the time, and they pride themselves on using their fitness to avoid ever getting caught short of numbers (barring a calamitous turnover). Besler arrives too late to prevent the shot from Jones, most likely because he's so used to Nagamura and Feilhaber taking care of this sort of thing. It's funny, though, because in the first half Jose Goncalves scored a similar goal by waltzing through central midfield without anyone closing him down. Who came the closest to blocking that shot? Besler.
The other interesting thing about KC's loss to New England was that, for 20 minutes in the first half, they looked pretty close to their normal level. Vermes appeared to have given them a lift, and they played with confidence and vigor. Two goals in two minutes - both involving Nagamura - pulled them from 2-0 down to level. The thing about halftime speeches, though, is that they can't fix tired for a full half. They can get players to dig really deep and find enough to go hard for a while on adrenaline, but KC was out of gas by the 70th minute and that's when New England sensed that they didn't have to just hold on to a road draw.
Nonetheless, there is no reason to expect much of a change in terms of lineup. Vermes could rest a guy like Nagamura, for example, but it's hard to imagine him sending out someone like Mikey Lopez or Jimmy Medranda when United will be without Perry Kitchen. The opportunity, from KC's vantage point, is too inviting to start rotating people out. Therefore, expect their normal 433:
In goal, Kronberg looked very rusty against the Revs in just about every category. His reactions were slow, his positioning was lacking, and he's not the sort of athletic freak who can compensate for those issues with size or reflexes. Andy Gruenebaum is probably the best GK on Sporting's roster at the moment, but Kronberg had been the starter for most of the season until that aforementioned broken hand, so it would be at least a minor surprise if Vermes made the switch.
In central defense, Kansas City Star reporter Sam McDowell is reporting that Vermes rates Collin's chances of playing as doubtful. That more or less forces Vermes to use Olum at center back, a position he has looked slightly less inclined towards this year. 17 year old Erik Palmer-Brown would at least be a theoretical candidate for the job, but just this week he was ruled out for the season with a stress fracture in his foot. Kevin Ellis started against the Revs, but was clearly not up to the job, particularly given Igor Juliao's problems at right back.
It would be awfully nice if Vermes sent Ellis - who is about 5'9" and is probably a better outside back than he is in the middle - out again, but it would require dropping Jorge Claros, who is a regular for the Honduran national team. Claros has not hit the ground running in MLS, but if I were Vermes there would be no way I'd drop a player of his quality in order to keep Ellis on the field at this time.
At right forward, Toni has pushed his way into a starting job after scoring three goals in CCL play. He's an unusual choice for Vermes, who has strongly preferred a more direct player to start opposite Zusi. In the past, he's used target wingers (Sapong and Kei Kamara) or more traditional wingers (Peterson and Sal Zizzo) to provide a contrast. Toni plays a lot like Zusi: He drifts inside and underneath the front line, and likely sees himself as a playmaker more than someone who beats people down the flank.
There's no doubting the Spaniard's skill, though, and as Sapong has never really gotten going this year, it's really down to Toni or Zizzo. If Zizzo is given a start, he will stay as wide as possible and look to get past United's left back in an effort to fire in crosses or cut into the box along the endline.
Toni is the better player, but Vermes has been right to look for less redundancy in his front line. The lack of width that happens when both wide forwards drift inside and underneath can make it very easy for opponents to congest the center and win the ball back. If United shows discipline in terms of maintaining good spacing between the lines, this narrowness could easily turn into quick counters by spraying the ball out wide to right or left midfield (not to mention Espindola's love of wandering wide to the left, which we should see a ton of given Juliao's lack of quality).
I'd like to note again here that United should be attacking Juliao throughout this game. He's positionally suspect, and he doesn't have the 1v1 defensive chops to make up for it. If the KC back four is normally Fort Knox, Juliao is an open, unguarded window. This should allow DCU to get in behind, and with Collin out Sporting is going to struggle whenever they have to scramble. Besler can't put out all the fires on his own, and Olum would much rather keep the game in front of him. This isn't like facing Carlos Valdes last week.
It wouldn't surprise me at all to see United once again focus on quick strikes after turnovers, particularly with Kitchen suspended. It might not pay off so early this time around, but once the KC central midfield starts to show their heavy legs, it will be time for United to up the tempo and, in the words of Guru, make 'em pay.
Defensively, United will obviously need to close down Zusi and Feilhaber. Yes, KC is not in a good place at the moment, but these two can conjure up a goal out of nothing, and Dom Dwyer is still in good scoring form. With Kitchen unavailable, it will be imperative that this is a team-wide duty rather than just Davy Arnaud and (likely) Jared Jeffrey. Center backs will need to step up from time to time, and wide midfielders will need to pinch inside to prevent the two-man central midfield from being overwhelmed.
It's also crucial that United start the game quickly. KC is going to come out and press, because that's what they do no matter what the circumstances are. In the early stages, they're going to have their normal amount of energy, and as such they'll be as dangerous as ever. If this requires playing defensively early on and grinding the Sporks down, so be it. There's no reason to let them start to rebuild their confidence in the first half-hour.
On set pieces, Collin is a big loss. However, Sporting is still a major threat. Olum will be the tallest field player in the game, Besler is an underrated threat, and KC has a bunch of determined, physical guys that excel at making sure it's hard to clear the initial service. That service is going to be good, too, since both Zusi and Toni are excellent in that department. Those two and Feilhaber are all threats to score from shooting positions as well, so fouling is to be kept to a minimum whenever possible.
At the other end, I can't help but wonder if KC can be fooled right now with a rehearsed set piece from United. They've been just a bit loose marking-wise, and tired players in general can be lacking in alertness. Throw in a lack of an authoritative goalkeeper at the moment, and I sense a team that will be reacting a half-step slower than normal. It won't be easy, but it wouldn't surprise me to see United catch the Sporks still trying to get organized if they move quickly enough.
Mentally, this could be a huge opportunity for United on two fronts. First of all, winning a game without Kitchen would do wonders for the team's confidence, especially since his rate of picking up yellow cards suggests a possible suspension during the playoffs. There's also the benefit of further damaging the psyche of a team that is struggling. Beating KC three times would help psychologically if we should come across them again in the playoffs, and it will also make that outcome more likely. It's not hard to imagine, on current form, this KC team playing in the 4v5 midweek game at the end of the month.