We’ve had to spend plenty of time thinking about injuries, as D.C. United has had a wide range of odd injuries to fullbacks. Sporting Kansas City would love to trade their injury troubles for United’s though. Peter Vermes arrived in Atlanta last week with just five substitutes available, and their current list of players who physically can’t play tomorrow is at eight. That’s nearly one-third of a maxed-out MLS roster.
They’ve also got two more key starters listed as questionable, and two more youngsters are away with the U.S. under-17 national team. It’s so bad that our friends at The Blue Testament had to do an article just summing up all of their injuries.
Here’s what we expect Vermes to do when he cobbles together a lineup from the remaining players at his disposal:
Goalkeeper: Tim Melia
Melia, by the numbers, is the best goalkeeper on penalty kicks that MLS has ever seen. He’s also been, like Bill Hamid, strangely overlooked by Gregg Berhalter. Melia may not have the ceiling of Hamid, but he’s still one of the very best goalkeepers in MLS.
Right back: Graham Zusi or Nicolas Hasler
Zusi is questionable with an oblique strain, and had some moments last weekend where he was clearly not at his best (and wincing in pain). A week isn’t really enough time to heal much from any abdominal strain, since you have to move those muscles to do pretty much anything, so Hasler might get the nod instead.
If Zusi plays, KC will be a more techincal team, but they might be vulnerable on the right side to quick transitions or physical play. After all, anything that tests that injury is potentially going to be dangerous. If Vermes goes with Hasler, they won’t have Zusi’s service or technical ability available, but they will have a fully fit player. Hasler’s no oaf, of course, but the choice may signal whether Vermes is going to be risk-averse or not.
Center back: Botond Barath
Barath, a 27-year-old with caps for Hungary last year, is pretty solid depth at center back in MLS. Despite looking like he might be more of a classic big, slow option at this position, he’s actually got pretty respectable quickness. Vermes prefers Andreu Fontas (who is out with a calf issue) for the Spaniard’s ability to pass out of the back, but Barath can hold his own.
Center back: Graham Smith or Matt Besler
Besler was injured three weeks ago, and is currently listed as questionable with a hamstring strain. With 3 straight home games against Western Conference games coming up, Vermes may well opt to start Smith and be sure of having his team captain back for the long term.
Smith was drafted last year and signed with KC, but has spent the vast majority of his time playing for Swope Park Rangers instead. He has 3 MLS appearances, which means this should be an appetizing match-up for Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta.
Left back: Seth Sinovic
The ever-physical Sinovic just returned from an injury his own to play the full 90 last weekend. He’s not the biggest attacking threat, but he works hard and has a knack for tactical fouling without getting into trouble. If Vermes has doubts about Smith and can’t play Besler, Sinovic has in the distant past played some emergency center back, which would mean Yohan Croizet would be over here...well, if they don’t use him in the midfield, where they’re also really short-handed.
Right-center midfield: Felipe Gutierrez or Kelyn Rowe
Gutierrez had to play the anchor role last week, as Ilie Sanchez was only fit enough to play off the bench. It’s not the ideal role for the all-action style Gutierrez prefers, but then the Chilean has looked a bit tired of late (which is understandable, since rotation has been impossible). United needs to make sure they’re keeping tabs on his late runs into the box, and to hassle him in midfield (where he can occasionally tend to rush things).
If he’s needed deep again, look for Rowe to get the start here. It’s a role that suits the former New England midfielder very well. The major gain in that exchange will be KC forging ahead without Ilie, who is perfect for the no. 6 role in KC’s system.
Defensive midfield: Ilie Sanchez, perhaps?
Ilie probably isn’t fully fit, but he might be well enough to play 45-60 minutes. The issue with Besler applies here: is it worth it to Vermes to risk Ilie in this non-conference game, and possibly be without him for more vital matches in the near future? He played 25 minutes in last week’s 3-0 loss to Atlanta, and he looked like he was laboring a bit to even get through that.
Vermes could opt for Gutierrez here, but during Benny Feilhaber’s first stint here, he played more or less a full season’s worth of games as a no. 6 (and did the same with LAFC last year).
Left-center midfield: Benny Feilhaber or Kelyn Rowe
Feilhaber, despite just getting back to KC after 18 months away, is probably starting this game regardless of how healthy Ilie is. For Vermes, the ideal may be having Feilhaber helping Ilie set the tempo while Gutierrez makes runs into the attack, but that might not be feasible from the start. If Feilhaber has to play the deep role, Rowe probably steps in here, giving KC a good (albeit slightly redundant) pairing further forward.
Right forward: Johnny Russell
KC’s attack is not nearly as depleted as the midfield and back line, which means United is going to have to deal with one of the trickiest players in MLS. Russell is dangerous no matter whether you shuttle him outside or funnel him inside. He’s also proven himself to be dangerous as a free kick taker, as if the dribbling threat weren’t enough.
We’re likely to see Marquinhos Pedroso make his debut at left back, and it’s going to be a tough one for him.
Center forward: Krisztian Nemeth
During his first spell in KC, Nemeth was a goalscoring left winger, but he’s now their no. 9, and he’s got 6 goals on the season to show for it. That number is a little bit of an illusion though, as 5 of those goals came in two bizarre games (KC’s 7-1 win over Montreal, and the recent bonkers 4-4 game between Sporting and the Revolution).
It’s not for a lack of opportunities, though, as Nemeth’s 28 shots has him tied for 9th overall in MLS. Nemeth isn’t particularly powerful, and thus has to rely on smart off-the-ball movement to get himself open rather than simply winning physical battles.
Left forward: Daniel Salloi
Salloi was the starter last year, but Gerso Fernandes took the job back with a strong preseason. However, he’s out after breaking his wrist in a bad fall in that bonkers Revs game, giving KC a probable third Hungarian in their starting lineup. Salloi proved last year that he can successfully adapt his instincts as a natural striker into a left-sided role for Vermes, and tracking his slashing runs is vital for the Black-and-Red. The downside for KC is that they’ve lost the width Gerso can provide, as Salloi really doesn’t stay out wide very often at all.
There aren’t many, but they do have some talent. Rowe has experience at six different positions in this formation, and you can bank on him coming in if he’s not a starter. Maryland native Gedion Zelalem could also sub into the midfield, though so far it has seemed like KC can’t quite find a role that suits him. Last week, he played on the left side of the midfield triangle, but (not for the first time) didn’t get that many touches.
Croizet, like Rowe, can play all over the place, making him a probable third sub pretty much anywhere other than center back or defensive midfield. He has been a flop with regards to the price KC paid, but he works hard and has added some passing fluency off the bench.
Vermes is no longer the one-note, “all pressing all the time” coach he used to be. KC, for one thing, has been very committed towards a possession-based approach. They do press, but it’s not as high up the field, it’s not as ferocious as it used to be, and it’s not their defining trait.
However, for our purposes, the variation would be moving away from this new method, and it is a possibility. We might see Vermes follow the examples set by LAFC, Montreal, or NYCFC last month when United went winless in 3 straight home games. If I had to rate the likelihood of approaches, I think LAFC’s mid-block with an emphasis on extremely quick raids forward after forcing a turnover is the most likely change-up. NYCFC’s more classic counter-attacking scheme isn’t far behind, though, as Sporting has an attack that can make both of those styles work. The Impact’s bunker is probably not going to come up.