Much has been made in recent years about Sporting Kansas City's style and formation. They're the highest-pressing team in MLS, and they play a 433 every time out. Peter Vermes sees his team as positive and attractive, but just about everyone else sees a team that is mostly defined by tackling, physicality, and the occasional dash of skill. They are attacking, but attacking and attractive don't always mean the same things in soccer.
Funny thing, though: This year's KC spent about a month not really high-pressing so relentlessly, and they dropped their wide forwards off into the midfield. Injuries and spots going unclaimed by various players saw some positions take on new responsibilities (see: Benny Feilhaber settling in as a deep-lying playmaker behind the more prosaic talents of Roger Espinoza and Paulo Nagamura). The resulting 4141 looked a lot like how KC would close out games they were winning rather than the typical Sporks.
The good news for bloggers trying to sum up their likely starting lineup against D.C. United on Saturday is that the 433 is back, and the starters seem more or less settled. In some cases, it's because a player has stepped up: Krisztian Nemeth has come back from an injury looking very sharp as the left forward, for example. In other spots, it's because there simply isn't another player available for the job. That's why Kevin Ellis keeps getting to play center back.
As such, I'd be surprised if we see anything other than this look tomorrow night:
There aren't many question marks here, especially in the attack. At the other end, though, KC might have some issues. In goal, Tim Melia got strong reviews after replacing Luis Marin against Chicago, but I was less than convinced. On more than one occasion, he made a poor decision coming out for a ball only to be bailed out by his defenders winning the aerial challenge, and it seemed to me that he was not completely smothering low shots. Still, he probably has the edge due to Marin's general shakiness thus far. Marin has had real issues when it comes to timing and judgment. It's a little odd to talk about KC as being vulnerable in the air, but here we are: They're vulnerable in the air.
Jalil Anibaba should remain at right back, though Chance Myers is progressing towards his return from last year's torn achilles tendon (the estimated return for him is next month). Anibaba is an odd player: He is built and carries himself like a center back, yet in recent years he's making fewer appearances there than before. Anibaba is not a great right back, which may be why he's bounced around in the last couple of seasons. Still, he's a good athlete and has shown the capability of crossing well when given time and space.
In central defense, USMNT regular Matt Besler is inching back towards his pre-World Cup best, but he's not getting much help from his partner. Ike Opara suffered the fourth (!) season-ending injury of his career a couple of weeks ago, and unlike last year - where Opara was backing up Besler and Aurelien Collin - there is no MLS-caliber starter waiting in the wings. Ellis has gotten the call ahead of teenager Erik Palmer-Brown, but he's been a mess. Ellis is below the average height for an MLS midfielder, so as a center back he's clearly undersized. More than that, though, he has positional issues and loses track of his man too often. He's still very strong and fast, and has enough leaping ability to still challenge in the air despite being 5'9" on his tallest day, but he's a huge vulnerability. Look for United to attack him throughout.
Left back has been something of a revolving door. Canadian international Marcel de Jong was brought in from the Bundesliga, but has really failed to make much of an impression. He got several starts due to an injury to Seth Sinovic, but last week was left out entirely as Sinovic got the nod and rookie Amadou Dia (who can also play on the right) sat the bench. Sinovic will be very lucky to play tomorrow, as he very clearly deserved a second yellow card for a jersey tug to stop David Accam from dribbling into the KC penalty area last week. He also subbed out of the game after several hard collisions with a bit of a hitch in his step. He's probably fine, but you never know.
Defensive midfield is the other toss-up. Soni Mustivar started last week, but that was a product of Servando Carrasco being suspended. It's an interesting situation, because Mustivar seems to inspire more trust than he actually deserves from his teammates. Sporting's front five seemed less worried about this area with Mustivar in, but I have to say I thought he looked rather vulnerable whenever Chicago attacked in transition (and anchor midfielders are not supposed to get confused in that kind of situation). Carrasco's issue is that he wants to rove around too much and make hard tackles, but he may actually be the superior player in a vacuum.
Espinoza as not quite looked like the player he was before leaving MLS in my book, but he's still going to cover a crazy amount of ground and pick out the occasional accurate long pass as well. Next to him, Feilhaber is having an outstanding season despite being shifted around a couple of times in the midfield triangle. These two are going to be a huge challenge to deal with defensively.
Graham Zusi spent most of the preseason dealing with an old injury, and I'm not quite sure he looks over it just yet. He's playing, but he's looking a bit flat in 2015. Still, his ability to tuck inside and pop up in different spots helps the rest of KC's flexible attack, and "a bit flat" for Zusi is still pretty good. Dom Dwyer has also struggled a bit this season, as he has just 2 goals from 9 games (and missed a sitter last week). He's still working as hard as ever and being a general pain for center backs, but in watching him I get the impression that his lack of goals is weighing on him a bit. Nevertheless, we're talking about a guy who scored 20 goals last season, so it's not like United is catching a break.
Finally, Nemeth has impressed since returning to full fitness. He's a tricky player off the ball thanks to a well-honed sense of when to knife in behind the defense. KC is showing a preference to look for him whenever they start connecting passes near the top of the box, and he's now their leading scorer with 3 goals. Just like last week, United is going to have to deal with a goalscoring left winger who relies on cleverness first and foremost.
As for subs, look for Nagamura to enter at some point and raise the intensity of the match. Vermes seems to be finding a way to get Dia into games, so United will have to be aware of his speed. I've been surprised that Bernardo Anor hasn't played more of a part given his generally chippy mindset and flailing elbows, but for whatever reason Vermes hasn't given him much time of late. Instead, look for veteran Jacob Peterson to play...well, somewhere. He's a winger by trade, but he's played on both flanks as a fullback, as a striker, as a linking midfielder, and last week against the Fire he spent the last few minutes in the anchor role after replacing a tiring Mustivar. Like Nagamura, Peterson is mostly a work rate/fresh legs sub.