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Opposition 11: Who will Sporting Kansas City start against D.C. United?

International call-ups and suspensions will leave KC short of at least four regular starters tomorrow night

Tomorrow might be a good time for D.C. United to play Sporting Kansas City. The Copa America Centenario has deprived United of Steve Birnbaum (the club's best defender, and in the discussion for best player on the team this year) and Alvaro Saborio (DC's top scorer on the year with 4 goals), so that might seem like a crazy way to lead things off. However, the Copa has hit Kansas City up for more starters: Matt Besler and Graham Zusi are with the USMNT, while defensive midfielder Sony Mustivar is with the Haitian national team.

Sporting has already been uncharacteristically brittle this year, posting a home record of 3W-1D-3L while making mistakes at such a rate that Peter Vermes has already had to publicly declare that "there will be changes" before benching numerous starters. Now they'll be without their captain, a veteran attacker, and easily their best anchor in the midfield. It's a bad time for them to be missing experienced players, even if Besler has been off all year long.

Missing those players and struggling - KC has 17 points, but they've also played more games than anyone bar FC Dallas - has not been enough for Vermes to change what he wants out of his team. They're still playing a 433, they're still looking to high press, and they're still physical. It has caused some more familiar names to find themselves second choice though:

Tim Melia has been the starter since the middle of last season. He's a good story - once the league pool GK, and he eventually pushed aside both Luis Marin (who has been capped by Chile) and Jon Kempin (a KC homegrown product) to become the #1. However, that ended up causing a fairly common MLS phenomenon to happen: People took that good story and ran too far with it, overestimating Melia's play. We're talking about someone who people mentioned on the fringes of the Goalkeeper of the Year pool last season, which is outlandish.

Melia is a solid goalkeeper, and coming off his line in the run of play he's usually pretty good. However, I have my doubts about him on balls in the air, particularly on distant set pieces and corner kicks. He doesn't attack the ball with confidence, and he's dropped a few balls in traffic that he should have either a) been strong enough to hold or b) just punched away. United needs to finish runs inside the box in those situations and be willing to take the collision with Melia, because we could be talking about an open net from inside the box as a result.

At right back, one of those recognizable names has been dropped. Since Vermes blasted his players a little while back, Chance Myers has just one start, and it was due to having 3 games inside a week. Instead, Vermes has gone with Saad Abdul-Salaam. MLS fans mostly know him as the dude who hit both posts on a PK last year in the playoffs, but he's been solid enough defensively. Abdul-Salaam has also very quietly amassed 4 assists this year thanks to his crossing ability. He's not quite relentless in bombing forward, but when he does make that move United needs ot make sure he doesn't have an easy way to find Dom Dwyer inside the box.

In central defense, newcomer Nuno Coelho has been a good addition. The Portuguese veteran has the normal attributes you'd expect Vermes to want out of a center back - size, strength, bravery, and he plays with an edge - while also adding some surprisingly soft feet to the mix. With Besler on Copa duty, Coelho will have more of the responsibility as far as passing out of the back goes.

Partnering Coelho will be Ike Opara, who has had a long history of a) severe injuries to various bones and joints and b) a knack for scoring on United whenever he actually does get healthy. Opara is outstanding in the air and brings plenty of speed to the table. He'd probably be a big name in MLS if he could ever avoid the injury bug. United cannot give away cheap free kicks and corners with Opara in this game (particularly with Birnbaum unavailable for the Black-and-Red).

In the past, left back for Sporting meant Seth Sinovic, but in 2016 there has been some upheaval. Sinovic has had a couple different injuries, and his form otherwise has been underwhelming. Amadou Dia has 9 starts on the year, but he appears to have been another player Vermes was unhappy with. Since putting his squad on blast, Vermes has left Dia out of the 18 entirely a few times. Last week, the left back role went to Jimmy Medranda, a natural central midfielder that Vermes has been shoehorning into wide forward or fullback spot starts just to get him on the field.

I think Medranda will end up replacing Zusi as a wide forward, but Sinovic was questionable last week. If he can't go tomorrow, Vermes will have to choose between reinstating Dia or finding someone else (Jacob Peterson, most likely) to play up front. If Medranda ends up at left back, United should swap Patrick Nyarko and Lamar Neagle so that the more physical Neagle is coming up against Medranda - who is all of 5'2" - more frequently.

In the midfield, there may be a further starter missing:

Espinoza may be KC's most consistent player on the season, so that's a huge loss for them. Sporting thrives on exactly the kind of intensity Espinoza brings, and he's an underrated player with the ball at his feet as well. Paulo Nagamura will likely step in, and while he also plays physical, hard-nosed soccer, he has gotten all of one minute of playing time in the 2016 season. Aside from being a less skillful and less physically strong player than Espinoza, Nagamura will step in with some major rust.

Mustivar's spot at the bottom of the midfield triangle will go to Lawrence Olum. The Kenyan international will improve KC's overall size as a team - he's built like a center back - but he's not as fluent on the ball as Mustivar is. Furthermore, Olum lacks agility and is sometimes slow to cover space when games open up. As a result, KC will be more vulnerable to attacks coming through the middle while also losing some rhythm in their possession game. The Black-and-Red should look to pressure Olum whenever possible, and Luciano Acosta could be primed for a rebound game due to his speed and quick feet.

Benny Feilhaber is the only normal starter who will be on the field at kickoff in this one, but he has had a down 2016. Vermes dropped him for one game after those aforementioned changes were guaranteed, and in general his production is way down. Last year's MVP-quality 10 goal/15 assist season has given way to just 2 goals and 2 assists thus far in 2016. Still, Feilhaber is a huge talent who could break out at any time. United cannot afford to let that happen tomorrow evening. As a group, they need to pay particular attention to preventing him from playing vertical passes when the game opens up in transition.

Up front, we already discussed the option of using Medranda as a wide forward. If he's up there, he'll use his shifty dribbling ability to open passing lanes rather than to go past people on the wing. Vermes has used him up high primarily because he's a very hard worker who helps their high pressure get going, but the fact is that Medranda is still not a natural in that role.

We could also see Jacob Peterson in that spot. Peterson has been useful to KC over the years as a sub, but as a starter he has had trouble having the same kind of impact. If Peterson gets the start, he will work hard to make himself a pest, but he's not much of a problem-solver, he doesn't bring too much skill to the fold, and he doesn't have the kind of speed or size to overwhelm anyone. It's more of a quantity issue instead of a quality one. Peterson will keep trying, and if United lets their guard down he'll take advantage.

Whether it's Medranda or Peterson up front, it will be interesting to see what wing the starter gets. Vermes has used Brad Davis whenever possible, but he's often been played as an inverted winger on the right side. Davis is all left foot, and the idea is to have him either cut inside to shoot at a more favorable angle or to have him dipping underneath the front line to play Dwyer through. However, Vermes will switch him out to the left for a more traditional approach when things aren't working or if he sees a tactical weakness. With Birnbaum out, he could well opt to start Davis on the left and tell him to whip some crosses in just as a test of United's less familiar center back pairing.

Dwyer will start as the center forward, and he's pretty much met expectations thus far this season. He has 6 goals in 14 appearances, putting him within touching distance of the Golden Boot leaders on the year. Dwyer hasn't really added anything new to his game recently, but what he does, he does well. He never stops running, and his movement off the ball is pretty intelligent. On top of that, Dwyer is a famously abrasive player; he'll get physical, he'll run his mouth, and he will generally make himself an unpleasant person to play against. It's a strong test for Bobby Boswell and Kofi Opare, particularly since Dwyer is better on the ground than in the air.

Off the bench, Peterson will probably sub in if he's not starting. We could see Vermes go with his newest young Designated Player, Diego Rubio, but the Chilean has not been able to make much noise this year. He was thought of as a potential replacement for Krisztian Nemeth, but unlike the Hungarian, Rubio has not been comfortable at all as a wide forward. With KC's 433, there's only one center forward role, so Rubio has largely been trapped on the bench behind Dwyer.

One other option to look for is Myers being used as a wide forward. Vermes tried that a few times when Myers first joined KC, and he might be the only available source of real width that the Sporks can call on for this game. He's not an instinctual attacker, but his speed and direct running could still be a challenge late in the game.