Watching Sporting Kansas City this season has defied expectations, and D.C. United appears to be facing an opponent that is a work in progress. The tough-as-nails defense that gave up well under one goal per game in 2017 is tied with the Black-and-Red for the highest goals against total (nine) this season. The side that ultimately fell short because of an anemic offense leads MLS with nine goals scored in 2018. It’s like Sporting has been replaced by Bizarro KC, though they’re a little short on pointy villain goatees.
Peter Vermes still wants his team to be a suffocating high-pressure team that plays physical soccer based mostly on the idea of not letting the other team play more than it is around the idea of putting on a show for the fans. The differences this year include some unexpected holes in that press, and the attacking firepower to haul themselves back into games after conceding. Last year, this team needed to win 1-0 pretty much every week, and never gave anything away easily. This year, they’re on a run where the scores of their last three games are 4-3, 3-2, and 2-2.
The 433 Vermes installed years ago is still firmly in place, with a very familiar defensive group and engine room combined with a completely rebuilt front three playing in front of emerging star Felipe Gutierrez, KC’s new attacking midfielder. Here’s how it should look tomorrow:
In goal, the reigning Goalkeeper of the Year is still in place. Tim Melia hasn’t really had much of a chance to replicate last year’s heroics. He’s still very solid all-around, though he did make a couple of rather curious choices against Colorado that didn’t turn into Rapids goals. If United gets a penalty kick this weekend, pair your normal “D.C. has been bad at PKs for a while now” pessimism with the fact that Melia is Nick Rimando’s closest competitor in MLS in terms of saving them.
The fullback positions are kind of polar opposites. On the right, Graham Zusi is sure to start, and he’s most likely the more attack-minded fullback no matter who starts on the left. That uncertainty, though, is worth discussing. Veteran Seth Sinovic is the conservative choice, but Vermes started the season with Cristian Lobato (advertised last year as a left winger rather than a left back) there instead.
Sinovic has started the last three games, but curiously Vermes has ended up subbing in Jimmy Medranda in to play left back in three different games. As unconventional as it may sound, it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see that move happen yet again, particularly if United has a lead around the hour mark. Medranda doesn’t really defend as part of a unit (he generally ends up isolated and having to win a ton of tackles to succeed), but he does bring a lot more to KC’s attack.
At center back, there have been no changes. Ike Opara (the 2017 Defender of the Year) and Matt Besler are the unquestioned starters. They haven’t looked all that comfortable this season owing to some unexpectedly sloppy moments in midfield, but this is still one of the best pairings in MLS. Opara in particular has seemed to step his game up against United for whatever reason, so if the Black-and-Red give up another set piece goal, he’s the main guy to worry about.
Ilie Sanchez and Roger Espinoza are the defensive midfielders, with Ilie sitting deep in the anchor role while Espinoza functions as the ball-winner. Ilie has been mostly good, but this season his bad moments have been really bad, rather similar to what we’ve seen here with Junior Moreno. Espinoza, meanwhile, appears at 31 to have lost some of the acceleration and power that characterized his game. He’s still adjusting to his current level of quickness, and United should try to test that out and exploit those pockets that didn’t used to be there.
They’re joined by Felipe Gutierrez, who should be on any credible shortlist for March’s Player of the Month. He’s a big departure from Benny Feilhaber, who was a less mobile player who relied on his passing vision. Gutierrez, instead, is more of a goalscoring midfielder reminiscent of Blerim Dzemaili, who torched MLS briefly before returning to Europe this offseason. Gutierrez is fast and thinks the game even faster, making his off-the-ball movement the biggest threat for United in this game.
Given how many runners D.C. has let loose, it’s reasonable to be very worried about the Chile international. His approach seems custom-made to trouble the United side we’ve seen thus far in 2018. Don’t be surprised if the fact that Gutierrez tends to play a little further left of center than the left-center midfielder normally does in a 433 means that Nick DeLeon has a more conservative approach for this one. United needs to mind that channel both for runners and as a passing lane.
Speaking of that area of the field, Johnny Russell has also been quite effective since coming over from Derby County. The occasional Scotland international fits KC’s approach, bringing hard work and a willingness to get physical along with being dangerous on the dribble. He can also play on the right, but that probably won’t happen until late in the game (if at all).
Khiry Shelton should get the start, but it’s not clear where he’ll line up. He was the center forward last week, but that was to make room for Yohan Croizet, Sporting’s less impressive DP signing. While Gutierrez has been an unqualified sucess, Croizet has looked pretty much like what you’d expect out of a guy whose career has taken him to Ligue 2 in France and to the Belgian top flight (but not to any of their best clubs). Croizet is also a more natural #10 who has been used on the wing because Gutierrez is just a better player.
My suspicion is that if Diego Rubio is fit enough to play 60 minutes (he returned from a knock to make a cameo last week, and ended up scoring a stoppage-time equalizer), Shelton will play wide right. That’s a more dangerous front three than if Shelton has to play up the middle with Croizet on the right. Shelton has a good history against the Black-and-Red, which is bad news, but his role in this attack is more worker bee to help Gutierrez and Russell. Rubio, if he starts, is not so much a hold-up option as a poacher who will try to run the channels.
Off the bench, KC has some interesting options. Medranda seems like a solid bet to be the first sub, whether it’s at left back, in the midfield, or even on the left wing. Gerso, who played well last year, looked very far from his best against Colorado last week, but he can add speed and some crossing ability from the wings. Daniel Salloi could play on the left or up the middle of that front three. Generally speaking, Vermes doesn’t make changes in the midfield unless he has to, so aside from Medranda look for the other two subs to be up top no matter the scoreline.