Here's another look at the upcoming game by Martin Tomszak. Sporting is nowhere near the defensive club they were two seasons ago.
What Are They All About? Sporting Kansas City Preview
Three in a row. That’s the phrase on the tip of everyone’s tongue after another hard fought win by the Chicago Fire. This week the Fire will head on the road to see if they can get things done away from the comfort of Toyota Park and the boisterous support of Section 8 and Sector Latino. On Sunday they will travel to former conference “rival” Kansas City to face Sporting KC.
SKC Form Guide (Last 5 Matches): D-L-D-W-W
Previous match: A 4-4 away draw at Houston.
While stats and various aspects of their previous five matches will be highlighted here, there is perhaps no better indicator of how Sporting’s season is going than their last match. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of this KC team all came out in plain view against Houston and an extended look at those 90+ minutes will reveal exactly what the Fire can expect come Sunday.
Formation in the last match: 4-3-3: Marin; de Jong, Besler, Ellis, Anibaba; Espinoza, Carrasco, Feilhaber; Nemeth, Dwyer. Zusi
Strengths: A quick glance at the SKC team sheet will reveal that they have proven quality all over the field. In league veterans like Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza, Benny Feilhaber, Dom Dwyer and Graham Zusi this club has a mix of talent built to succeed in MLS. When factoring in the fact that coach Peter Vermes is the only the second person to have won MLS Cup as both a player (2000) and a coach (2010), the tools are there for a great squad.
Vermes began the season experimenting with a different formations, including a 4-1-4-1 and a 4 2-3-1 but failed to win any of his first three matches. Since then his players have lined up in a more familiar 4-3-3 formation, which yielded immediate success. SKC notched their first win of the season against NYCFC as a result. With the exception of the long term injury to center back Ike Opara, the most recent line up appears to be Vermes’ preferred starting eleven. SKC players seem to understand and implement this system well.
While on paper it may appear that SKC have a flat back four with Carrasco sitting slightly in front of them as a holding midfielder and Espinoza and Feilhaber acting as attack minded mids that support the front three, the reality is much more complicated. Throughout the match against Houston, the midfield players changed position frequently. The typically vocal Vermes continually shouted instructions to his midfielders and they had the mobility to move about as they saw play developing. This fluidity meant that they were a handful for the Dynamo and man marking was not straightforward, as was exhibited on several counterattacking plays to start off the first half, one of which ended in an early lead for SKC. These breaks often involve the two defensive backs as well with Anibaba and de Jong adding speed and crossing ability on both flanks.
Their strength in midfield is further exhibited in statistics. KC has out-possessed almost all of their opponents in the middle of the park (the exception being 50/50 against LA), and has out-passed their opponents in both the number of passes made and pass completion percentage. The midfield even contributes to the goal totals with Feilhaber notching two in his last three matches. Sunday will be a midfield battle and the Fire will be need to account for Feilhaber and Espinoza. Carrasco will miss the game due to a suspension handed out by the MLS Disciplinary Committee.
Aside from the midfield trio, the Fire will also need to be weary of the front three. While Krisztian Nemeth may not be a player that many people had heard of prior to his transfer to KC, the Hungarian international has notched three goals in his last four matches. All three came from inside the box and if the Fire are to get anything from this match they will have to make sure to stop service into Nemeth. Eric Gehrig will have his hands full with Nemeth. They will also need to keep a watchful eye and a strong arm on Dom Dwyer. While he has not found the same form as last season yet, Dwyer has had chances by the handful in every match and it is only a matter of time before he starts putting them away. Add to this Graham Zusi who can hold up play, shoot from distance, and find the clinical final pass and it is no wonder that Sporting have outshot their opponents in every match this season (an average of 13 shots per match). It might be a busy day for Sean Johnson between the pipes unlike last weekend against NYCFC.
Weaknesses: Given the extended coverage of Sporting’s strengths, the obvious question becomes “what can the Fire do to win”? Luckily, the Houston match has answers to this as well. Vermes and his team have once again reinforced the notion that while they can play fluid soccer they have no problem playing ugly as well. Giles Barnes found himself fouled six times by SKC and that was only part of the fifteen total fouls they committed against Houston. This is reflected in other matches that SKC has played this season, hitting double digit fouls in every one. The Fire will likely find themselves with a few set piece opportunities for Larentowicz, Maloney, and Shipp to mull over. Perhaps Chicago will even find themselves up a man for a fourth consecutive match. Either way, the Fire will need to take advantage of any free kicks given away by their opponent as Sporting has shown a lack of astuteness on set pieces this season with goalkeeper Luis Marin and his defenders not always being on the same page.
Most of the fouls that Sporting commits come in the middle of the park, so if Shipp and Maloney can break the first few tackles to feed the ball to the forwards, the Fire will have chances on the counter. The speed that Chicago has exhibited this season might come in handy against SKC. With Anibaba and de Jong showing that they’d rather help in attack than track back and defend, the Fire’s play on the break will be key on Sunday. The prospect of Accam working against Jalil Anibaba is an interesting one.
These two weaknesses, giving away/defending set pieces and defending the counter, have directly led to every goal that Sporting has conceded in their last four matches. If the Fire can feed the ball to their speedy attackers early and often then there might just be a result at the end of the 90 minutes in Kansas City.
Prediction: Unfortunately, the winning streak ends here. Chicago 2-2 Kansas City. The fluidity of SKC’s attack will prove too much for the Fire with Nemeth and Dwyer notching a goal each, but their defensive lapses mean the Fire will escape with a point. The two DPs earn their money in this one: Accam on the break and Maloney with a set piece.
Fire notes: Matt Watson will miss the match due to suspension after the MLS DisCo levied a one game ban against him for an ugly tackle committed in the 27th minute of the NYCFC game. Michael Stephens was held out of training late this week and looks likely to miss his second consecutive match. Either Chris Ritter, Razvan Cocis, or Victor Perez (probably in that order) look to be the second central player next to Matt Polster.