Over the past few years, the last opponent D.C. United supporters wanted to see on the schedule has been Sporting Kansas City. While it has been a while since Sporting absolutely destroyed United, the inevitable one-goal loss that this fixture has resulted in almost always flattered the Black-and-Red. On the rare occasions where United kept KC's chances down, there have been extremely late game-winning goals for the former Wizards.
There's no way around the fact that this series has been one-sided for years now. Ben Olsen is 0W-1D-6L against the Sporks. United hasn't beaten Kansas City in just over four years (last win: May 5th, 2010...yes, believe it or not, United won a game in 2010). Since that win, DC has just two goals against the Sporks. That's two goals in seven games.
The good news is that this isn't the normal Sporting Kansas City. I won't lie and say this is the perfect time to play them - that privilege fell to the Chicago Fire and Toronto FC over the past couple of weeks - but it's still a very good opportunity to finally slay this particular beast. The defending MLS Cup champions are in the midst of a bizarre personnel crisis when it comes to their back four, and for all their high pressure this is a team that is fundamentally built around keeping clean sheets. This month, Sporting has managed to lose to Philadelphia at home and Chicago on the road, and also threw away leads against TFC and the Red Bulls.
Only Seth Sinovic among the normal four starters has been available for the entire month, and it's worth noting that he's the least of KC's defenders. Aurelien Collin missed games with a hamstring strain, Matt Besler is going to Brazil for the World Cup, and Chance Myers - at the time deputizing as a center back due to a lack of other options - tore his achilles tendon against Toronto.
Even the second-choice players have been unavailable. Ike Opara picked up a season-ending injury weeks ago, Lawrence Olum was called up on very short notice by the Kenyan national team, and Homegrown product Erik Palmer-Brown - after recovering from an injury - was sent off in his debut. Oriol Rosell, who played some center back when coming up through Barcelona's B team, has been injured as well (he's in doubt for tomorrow's game as well).
This farcical list of missing players doesn't even mention Graham Zusi, who is with Besler and the USMNT. Peter Vermes has had no choice but to try players in unfamiliar roles, change the responsibilities of certain positions, and even roll the dice on a 352. Youngsters like rookie Alex Martinez and teenage loanee Igor Juliao are being given starts instead of merely making the gameday squad, and stars like Benny Feilhaber are lining up in new spots.
It's a measure of KC's depth and the winning culture they've established that, despite this potentially season-derailing injury crisis happening just as they start a stretch of five games in two-and-a-half weeks, the results are two one-goal losses and two draws in which they were unlucky not to take three points. Vermes has his team trying to press just as high as ever in an effort to dictate the terms of each game, which is a better way of protecting a patchwork defense than simply sitting back and hoping it works.
It also hasn't hurt that this year's KC is actually a better team than last year's MLS Cup winner. They're more attractive going forward, they have a better portfolio of potential wide forwards, and in Dom Dwyer they appear to have a real Golden Boot contender.
As that 352 experiment resulted in probably the worst game of the year for KC, we should absolutely expect to see the Sporks play their normal 433:
As I indicated earlier, KC's fortunes are starting to turn when it comes to player availability. That does mean fewer question marks, but this is still a very unfamiliar Sporting eleven with several players in odd spots. The more straightforward question mark is on the left wing, where Sal Zizzo may simply be rotated out since KC played NYRB on Tuesday. If Zizzo is rested, look for Jacob Peterson to step in. Zizzo is the bigger offensive threat due to his speed and direct running, but Peterson usually makes a pest of himself on both sides of the ball.
The midfield is where things are more up in the air. Rosell's status is the crucial factor here. If the Catalan is fit, KC gets one of MLS's best defensive midfielders and their midfield metronome back. On top of that obvious benefit, it also means Feilhaber can push further forward into the spot that would otherwise be taken by Martinez.
If Rosell is out, Feilhaber will function in a role we don't often see in MLS: A legitimate deep-lying playmaker. There's a trade-off involved here, though. Feilhaber's passing range is better than Rosell's, but defensively there's no comparison. Feilhaber's perceived lack of interest in defending has always been overstated, but he's still principally an attack-minded player. As a team, KC becomes more elegant with Feilhaber in that role, but they're also a weaker side defensively.
Vermes doesn't really have options, though, as Paulo Nagamura doesn't do very well when he has to be tethered to a small region of the field. The Brazilian wants to cover tons of ground in pursuit of the ball, and he can't do that when playing the bottom point. Thus, Vermes must leave the most defensive midfielder he has available in his normal spot and instead hope that his side can keep the ball enough to hide the fact that Feilhaber's defensive acumen isn't the highest.
That issue means that United should be able to find space between the lines, which is usually not the case against the Sporks. Chris Rolfe, Nick DeLeon, and Lewis Neal have found time and space tucking inside - particularly Rolfe, who often gets into the sort of spots you'd expect from a central attacking midfielder who drifts left of center - and the most vulnerable spots are going to be the ones left and right of Feilhaber. DeLeon (or whoever plays right midfield for United) will need to be sharp, because Martinez brings less defensive bite to the table than Nagamura.
Across the back, there's an understandable lack of familiarity. Juliao has only been on these shores for a couple of months, Kevin Ellis was only recalled from a season-long loan with the Oklahoma City Energy due to the injury crisis (and is also more of a right back than a center back), and Collin is an unusually dynamic center back in the first place.
The Frenchman's ability to cover so much ground makes KC harder to play against, but it's also not a normal thing to see from a center back. Those playing alongside him need time to figure out when he's going to hurl himself forward in an attempt to win the ball early, and against the Red Bulls it was clear that Ellis and Juliao are still uncertain in that category.
United can take advantage by maintaining possession - easier said than done against KC, but nothing's truly easy against the Sporks - and by being a confusing team in terms of movement. If Rolfe and Fabian Espindola are both ready to play from the start, this should be a promising match. The last thing a new-look back four shielded by an unfamiliar defensive midfielder wants is to confront an unorthodox attack, and that's what United is capable of with those two on the field exchanging spots on the fly.
Smart play will open up channels for Eddie Johnson to run, and with Espindola and Rolfe doing their work left of center it'll often mean crosses aimed over right-center back Collin and towards Ellis at left-center back. EJ has a big advantage there physically, and it's a situation United should be trying to manufacture as often as possible.
Defensively, United will need to be alert to the prospect that Feilhaber can deliver his through balls from that deeper spot. The Black-and-Red will need help from their forwards to press Feilhaber, but they'll also need to maintain increased awareness of the threat along the back four all game long.
Another threat in terms of defending in the midfield is Martinez's ability to dribble through traffic. The rookie was a rather unheralded pick, but he's shown that he can unlock defenses at the top of the box by dribbling out of crowds before laying the ball off to another attacker. It will be important for United to prevent him from facing goal around the top of the box; instead, he needs to be under pressure before the ball arrives so that his best-case scenario becomes a back pass.
Along the front line, new-ish signing Toni has been tasked with replacing Zusi. The Spaniard - who was incorrectly billed as a left back when signed - pops up in the same sort of spots that Zusi does. What that means is that he prefers a starting position tucked inside and slightly beneath the front line (that's in contrast to Zizzo or Peterson, who both play as true wide forwards).
Toni is inverted on the right side, and his left foot is no joke. He scored a very nice goal on the run against the Red Bulls mid-week and nearly had what would have been a very similar second. Christian will need to play a bit narrow to keep Toni out on the wing, and he'll also have to avoid fouling his countryman too often. In my book, Toni has progressively gotten better in each appearance for KC, so he'll probably be a big threat tomorrow.
That brings us to Dwyer, who was previously only limited by his finishing ability. Dwyer remains less skillful or clever than Claudio Bieler, but his endless running - good luck trying to find a preview or profile on him that doesn't include the words "relentless" or "bulldog" - and his enthusiasm for physical play are far more suitable for KC's style.
Now that the Englishman has started finishing the tougher chances, though, stopping him has become extremely difficult. Dwyer's speed makes him a threat to chase down through balls, and his non-stop engine means that he's always finding channels to run. His runs aren't that clever yet, but they don't have to be because he's fast and despite his size is quite strong. Dwyer hasn't lost his touch on finding loose balls or diving onto crosses in the process of sharpening the rest of his game either. Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke are going to have to play as well as they have all season to contain Dwyer, and they'll have to do so while also ignoring his attempts to provoke them.
Set pieces are always a danger against KC. Feilhaber hit the woodwork direct from a free kick on Tuesday, and Collin has better goalscoring instincts inside the 18 yard box than many starting strikers around the league. Sure, they're without their normal free kick taker in Zusi, and without Besler or Rosell they've lost some secondary targets, but they're hardly starving with Feilhaber over the ball trying to pick out Collin and Dwyer.
That said, United may be able to find some joy at the other end. Collin, for all his ability in the air, isn't as good at marking up in these situations as one would expect. And even if he locks up one DC target, there's a distinct lack of size in this KC lineup without Besler, Rosell, Olum, and Opara. Assuming Collin marks Boswell or Johnson, guys like Sinovic and Ellis will be mismatched against Christian, Perry Kitchen, or Parke. There's a chance here to give KC a taste of their own medicine.
The bottom line is that United might have to wait years for a better opportunity to end Sporting's run of success in this fixture. Furthermore, legitimate playoff teams don't waste games like this against embattled opponents regardless of how good or bad they are. Vermes will still put out a team that can win this game, but they're not as confident or as organized as they normally are. I'll stop short of calling this a "sweep the leg" game out of deference to the Sporks owning this series for four years, but United needs to seize this golden chance to finally beat KC and score more than one goal in the process.