Despite the fact that D.C. United is now nearly six full months into the 2014 season, it still feels a little odd to have the eyes of the league upon a game involving the Black-and-Red. United's match against Sporting Kansas City tonight will be crucial for both teams in the absurdly tight Supporters Shield race - KC is in a four-way tie for the league lead with 42 points, while United could leapfrog that whole pack with a win tonight - and it's been a hell of a long time since the capital city has had a shot at that piece of hardware. Even 2012's medal stand regular season involved a late surge from deep within the chasing pack; United never got within sight of the Shield.
To find the last time United was in a game like tonight's, you'd have to go back to 2007, when United held off Chivas USA - no, seriously - to win the Shield. Coincidentally, 2007 is also the last time United went to Kansas City and won. Since then, the team there has changed their name, their venue (twice), and their identity. Once all those changes were made, Sporting has dominated this pairing. United won the last meeting 1-0 on a fluke Fabian Espindola goal, but before that the Sporks won nearly game home and away.
Staying with KC's palatial home stadium, though, it's been a tough venue for any visitor. The team formerly known as the Wizards have lost just once at Sporting Park in 2014. However, that may obscure an issue the Sporks have had this season: They've only won five of their twelve home games, with six draws serving to reduce the fear factor to a certain extent. We're talking about a venue that Philadelphia has taken four points from this year, and Chicago managed to avoid losing there as well. United may have a dreadful track record there, but the rest of MLS has avoided defeat there more often than not this season.
KC's overall form right now is very strong, as they've gone 7W-2D-1L in the league since losing to United back on May 31st. Aside from last weekend's 4-1 battering of Toronto FC, though, the Sporks are getting it done the hard way. Five of the wins in this run were one-goal victories (including four straight 2-1 wins), which fits the old truism that top teams can win tight games regularly.
However, the flip side of that coin is that KC - a team built around high pressure and an airtight defense - is giving up more goals than they normally do. Sporting has given up at least one goal in eight straight matches, and have just two shutouts in their last fifteen games. It's not like they're bleeding goals - KC saw a ten-game streak of holding teams to one goal or less broken by Vancouver on August 10th - but they're not quite the immovable object we usually think of when we think of Sporting.
The first goal is always vital in soccer, but with KC it is unusually predictive. When Sporting scores first, they're 11W-5D-0L in MLS play this season. Falling behind to a team notorious for (or should that be "obnoxious about," I wonder?) their fitness level and who have far and away MLS's best pressing game isn't ruinous, but it's close to it. However, KC's record when they concede first is nearly the opposite case: They're 1W-1D-6L against teams that open the scoring. The Sporks have MLS's best goal difference, but that doesn't mean they have the firepower to reverse deficits.
One thing you can depend on when you play Kansas City is that to succeed, your team has to be ready for a fight. Sporting's roster is built in the image of head coach Peter Vermes, which means they're strong, aggressive, provocative, and mean. When you take the field against KC, someone on your team is going to catch an elbow or forearm to the face. Everyone on your team is going to come off the field with a new bruise or three. Sharp observers will note that KC has some players that like to cause trouble away from the ball, too. Seth Sinovic has mastered getting away with bundling players to the ground as they try to run into space to help switch the point of attack, and no MLS center back comes off the field without getting an earful from Dom Dwyer.
For United's purposes, being the visitor means that any punishment from when this sort of thing boils over is likely to come down to someone wearing black rather than blue (unless KC wears their black-and-blue argyle jerseys, that is). When Aurelien Collin flies in to someone with his arms out recklessly, United can't retaliate. When Dwyer or Igor Juliao commit a foul that they could have avoided, the Black-and-Red need to get on with playing soccer. KC generally does better when their opponent loses their cool, but they also tend to get frustrated when their aggression doesn't throw teams off their game.
KC is nice and predictable when it comes to formation, but they've used more of their roster than anyone in the league this season. Both teams will be on their third game in a week, but KC's need to rotate is more acute after they fielded six current first-choice players in Nicaragua for their CONCACAF Champions League game against Real Esteli.
Vermes is rotating his squad every game out of necessity, but after looking at KC's last four games I think I've narrowed down most of the positions on the field to a likely starter in their 433 formation:
Due to a lack of other options, KC is almost certainly going to start Collin, Matt Besler, and Sinovic despite the fact that all three have played 180 minutes and dealt with the at least 16 hour round trip to Managua. At right back, however, look for Juliao to come back in after Kevin Ellis played in Tuesday's CCL match. The Brazilian is probably not quite as good defensively as Ellis at this point, but he's faster and Vermes likes the fact that he gets forward far more frequently (which mirrors KC's best RB, Chance Myers, who is out for the season due to injury).
United should be pleased to see Juliao despite the fact that he didn't exactly endear himself to anyone at RFK Stadium. He's far and away the weakest link in this back four - really, in the entire eleven - and DC has had great success attacking down the left thanks to Espindola and Chris Rolfe outwitting their opponents. Juliao's inexperience (today is his 20th birthday) is exactly the kind of player United would want trying to solve the riddle that is the left half of the Black-and-Red attack. Ben Olsen should have no reservations about urging his team to pick on Juliao throughout.
Further forward, the biggest puzzle is where Vermes will deploy Graham Zusi. In recent weeks, when KC plays a team likely to stay narrow and focus on defending, the Sporks have used Zusi and Benny Feilhaber together in central midfield with only one defensive midfielder. However, Zusi played over an hour against Esteli, and we shouldn't forget that he was in Brazil with the USMNT during the World Cup. Paulo Nagamura was only just moved up to questionable after weeks out with an ankle problem, so if Vermes elects to keep Zusi on the bench he'd likely give a start to Mikey Lopez.
However, Zusi has also played plenty of games as a wide forward with freedom to roam. Charles Gooch, who covers the Sporks beat for the Kansas City Star, just yesterday said that he feels Sporting is better with Zusi playing higher up the field. If KC were to start Lopez - or even Swiss newcomer Martin Steuble - Zusi could still end up playing on either side of the front three. He's best playing from the left, but Vermes will likely be tempted to send him up against Taylor Kemp.
In any case, Zusi is a difficult player to shut down. He's a chance-creating machine, he's always on the move, he's physically strong enough to withstand more cynical means of stopping him, and he can attack from a lot of different angles. In a way, it simplifies how United can stop him: Always know where he is, and always apply pressure so he has to go backwards with his passing. "Simplifies" does not mean "easy," though. It's going to be a very difficult test that United's midfield and defense needs to be up for.
Whether he's a forward or not also has an impact on what Vermes does on the other side. He generally likes to create a balance by using someone who wants to cut in and create or shoot - think Zusi, Soony Saad, or Toni Dovale (who plays on the right) - opposite a player who uses his physical tools. Sal Zizzo offers speed and width if used as a right winger, while CJ Sapong could be used on either side. As Sapong just went 90 hard minutes in the CCL, I'm thinking we're more likely to see Dwyer flanked by Zizzo on the right and Saad/Zusi on the left. Toni only went 55 minutes in Managua, but starting him likely means no rest for Sapong.
Speaking of Dwyer, he's the kind of guy that fans of other teams can't stand until he suits up for their team. It's not that Dwyer has any particularly remarkable skill on the ball; rather, he's relentless, extremely physical, and has a good short burst he uses to escape marking. The phrase "quantity over quality" comes to mind with Dwyer. He's not MLS's best finisher by any stretch, but he works so hard that he'll still get enough chances to be a real threat.
Throw in the fact that he probably has his swagger back after scoring two penalties last week against TFC, and it should be a hard night's work for Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum. They'll have a huge advantage on aerial balls, but KC doesn't really feed Dwyer through the air. Their communication and anticipation will need to be even stronger than usual throughout to keep Dwyer from running onto through balls or being freed up by a combination.
One way to stop Dwyer is to deny him service. Throughout the midfield, United will need to stay narrow and disciplined to prevent Feilhaber from having space. He's in the form of his life this season thanks in part to his improved mentality. The old Feilhaber was inconsistent and could be bullied out of games; nowadays, you try to kick Feilhaber out of the game, and he does this. Despite the temptation to sit very deep, United can't afford to stand off of KC. If Feilhaber has time in the midfield, Sporting will eventually be celebrating a goal. Feilhaber doesn't fade out of games he's being suffocated in any more, but it does still make it a lot harder on him to create for others and set a rhythm for his team.
Going forward, United would do well to play around central midfield rather than trying to go through it. For one, there's the numerical disadvantage playing a 442 against a 433. Just as important, though, is that KC's formation leaves space open on both wings. There are wide forwards and outside backs, but the midfielders all play centrally, so Rolfe and Nick DeLeon will be put under pressure a bit slower than central players. I mentioned Juliao as a weak point, but it's worth noting that TFC's only goal came on a diagonal ball that found Dominic Oduro in a pocket of space on the other side, and he had plenty of time to set up Gilberto's clever flicked goal on the doorstep. Through the middle, KC is the toughest team to beat in MLS; down the wings, they're actually rather run-of-the-mill.
Young goalkeeper Jon Kempin will continue to start due to injuries for both Erik Kronberg and Andy Gruenebaum. He's won two straight Save of the Week awards, but a pair of saves don't tell the whole tale. Kempin has good reflexes and shot-stopping ability, but he looks a bit raw from where I sit on crosses (which are often the last thing young GKs come to grips with). United shouldn't be playing too many crosses given the size of Espindola and Luis Silva, but balls curled in low behind the defense will test the same faculties for Kempin. It would be a shame if United didn't put his decision-making abilities to a stern test given that he has a total of 135 minutes of MLS experience.
On set pieces, KC is a huge threat. Collin is arguably the most lethal target in the box in the entire league, and guys like Lawrence Olum (if he starts over Jorge Claros) and Sapong are also really tough to pin down. Add in Zusi's service and Feilhaber's ability to score directly from dead balls, and you have a real problem. United's tallest players need to be a lot sharper in this department than they were against Real Salt Lake, and even the shorter players have to deliver. Dwyer has a knack for finding the scraps, and last week Saad killed the game off with a sublime shot directly following a half-clearance.
From attacking set pieces, United has hopefully kept some rehearsed movements up their collective sleeve for this game. KC will have the size advantage, but they're not ironclad in this department. The common tactic of setting a pick on the goalkeeper may work here as well, as Kempin doesn't appear to be strong enough to barrel through traffic to snare corner kicks himself.
United will have the fresher legs after resting everyone against Waterhouse, and despite a bad record against KC Olsen has shown that he knows how to get his team to frustrate Sporting. The 2013 version of United managed two 1-0 losses at Sporting Park, and the 2014 edition is obviously a vastly more formidable outfit. This will be a very difficult game, but United is entirely capable of getting the marquee win that arguably hasn't happened yet.