By now, our longtime readers have come to expect a certain pattern when it comes to a piece like this. Normally a scouting report involving Sporting Kansas City would involve a lot of talk about pressure to start. Pressure, pressure, pressure. Today, however, we're going to start with a more salient point for D.C. United's hopes (and also a blatant ploy to get Alexi Lalas to plug our work): Set pieces.
In the past, KC was associated with great set piece play at both ends. It was one of the hallmarks of what Peter Vermes had his team doing, and it often provided Sporting with their victories when their offense - with a knack for creating shots but not finishing them - came up short in open play. It was also often a rarity to see them concede when the shoe was on the other foot. In 2015, however, things are just a wee bit different. Let's take a look at how KC's defensive efforts are going:
This screen grab of ESPN2's good work not just a problem; that's horrific. KC has given up 10 goals in 9 games from the various types of dead ball. Aurelien Collin's expansion draft departure followed by a season-ending injury to Ike Opara are both big factors, but Opara still played a few games. This is a problem involving a lot of issues: The mindset of various new players, communication at the back, and perhaps a touch of overconfidence on the part of the Sporting coaching staff.
And how, pray tell, is United doing on attacking set pieces?
I probably don't need to overdo this point: United is a very good team on attacking set pieces, even with somewhat inconsistent delivery. The Sporks are a mess defending the set pieces. This might lend itself to a similar performance as last week against Columbus, where United ends up being conservative waiting to exploit the opponent's most obvious flaw.
Of course, KC has also been very good on attacking set pieces (with Kevin Ellis thumping a header off the crossbar against Chicago last week to go with those 5 goals as a team). United will be working very hard to create set pieces, but they should be just as focused on not giving them up. With Graham Zusi providing service, and both Zusi and Benny Feilhaber threats to go to goal, this game could easily become a battle of set piece prowess.
Speaking of last week, United had to deal with a heavily right-sided attack. It's the same this time around, but the fine details are unsurprisingly different. Columbus is big on getting in behind down the right wing, while KC prefers to find Zusi's feet. The result at the back post is also different: Whereas Justin Meram looks to use his dribbling ability to create shots, Sporting's left forward Krisztian Nemeth is looking to get in behind with cultured runs for shots inside the box.
In the midfield, United is going to have to be extremely focused on closing down space. Benny Feilhaber has been in great form and provides a wide range of threats. He's assisted by Roger Espinoza, who during his time in England added more of an ability to spread the play to the wings, opening the game up for Sporting. It seems safe to expect Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud to maintain their starting roles, and they're going to have to once again deliver top-notch performances.
Interestingly, KC's attack seemed more comfortable last week playing ahead of Ligue 1 veteran Soni Mustivar than they have with regular starter Servando Carrasco. Mustivar is much more of a traditional #6, whereas Carrasco prefers a "seek and destroy" sort of game. In terms of playing style, Mustivar is the better fit, and Sporting's front five seemed to trust Mustivar. I'm not sure that trust is merited, because in transition Mustivar - and everyone in Sporting's new, unfortunate third jerseys - were disorganized. Carrasco is the better player as an individual in my book, but I think he's a bit redundant with Espinoza on the field.
KC needs a patient player with great anticipation in that spot, and they don't really have one at the moment. United has shown this season that they're as good as anyone in MLS running the counter, and in watching the Fire last week I'm sure they noticed KC's tendency to get caught with too many people forward. A good anchor man would slow these attacks down, but that's an issue the Sporks have had since Uri Rosell left last season.
Of course, all of this midfield talk assumes the game even happens in the midfield. Per WhoScored.com, United and KC are both among the five teams that play the most long balls per match. That means less steady possession and more fighting for knockdowns and loose balls. However, since KC doesn't have much size up front, this might mean seeing the danger coming and dropping off early to prevent Dwyer and Nemeth from running in behind rather than trying to win headers.
Shutting down Dom Dwyer is going to take some strong work from center backs Bobby Boswell and Kofi Opare. Dwyer is not scoring at his normal rate, but he's still causing plenty of trouble through his work rate and direct running. Dwyer's the kind of striker that can be effective even when he's not scoring because he leads KC's pressure and drags defenders around with his persistent movement. Last week was a battle due to Kei Kamara's height and flailing arms; this time it's going to be more about collisions and harassment whenever United tries to hold possession along the back line.
Normally KC's 433 is expected to press for 90 minutes, no matter the situation. This year, things are different. Vermes knows that he doesn't have the defenders to cope with the high risk that comes with that sort of aggression, so the adjustment is to adjust to different phases of the game. They've been a bit more aggressive of late now that Zusi and Nemeth are fit, but it's no longer the endless high-press of the past.
In terms of psychology, I sense a bit of frustration in Sporting's ranks. Of course, they're always one of MLS's most high-strung teams thanks to the ceaseless complaining and claims of victimhood that come from Vermes, but even with that in mind they seem a bit tense right now. United would do well to make that come to the fore, because KC loses their way once they start to get upset with the opponent, the referee, or whoever else happens to be nearby. Last week, United managed to frustrate a normally composed Crew side; this week, they're facing a team that is more easily thrown off their game in terms of mentality.
In the attack, United needs to change a normal habit - the slight preference towards attacking from the right - to best take advantage of KC's biggest weakness. The right half of their back four has been poor since Opara tore his achilles, and there's no one coming in to save the day. If Fabian Espindola and Chris Rolfe are both forwards again, or if Rolfe plays left midfield, the overall concept - meet up somewhere in the left-center area of the field and combine so that one or the other can run at Kevin Ellis - will remain the same.
Luis Silva would also likely have plenty of success due to his ability to lose his marker, but this is also an opportunity for Chris Pontius to gain some confidence. I think he can get the better of Anibaba, and if he cuts inside on his right foot he'll be attacking Ellis. United isn't really cut out to take advantage of Ellis being undersized in open play, but he and Anibaba have positional and decision-making issues. Given the cleverness that defines the Black-and-Red's attacking approach, that's very good news.