What Are They All About? Sporting KC
Learning from mistakes. This past weekend the Chicago Fire traveled to New York to take on NYCFC in a second versus third Eastern Conference clash. Despite being up a man for nearly eighty minutes of the match, the Fire lost 2-1 at Yankee Stadium. A warm-up injury to Brandon Vincent, an ongoing power struggle with David Accam, bizarre substitutions, and a lack of finishing plagued Chicago in the display. The loss is not crippling by any stretch of the imagination, losses happen throughout the season, but the display itself will need addressing in the coming encounters. The Fire will have to pick themselves up and dust themselves off as they head to Kansas City to play against SKC this Saturday (7:00 CT on CSN Chicago Plus).
Sporting has had a whirlwind of a week of their own both on and off the field. On Saturday, they drew Real Salt Lake in Utah in a match that they arguably should have lost and then they dropped a bombshell on the MLS transfer market by sending Dom Dwyer to Orlando for a record $1.6 million in allocation money. They are a side that is within touching distance of first place in the West but they haven’t been playing like it recently and the Dwyer traded raises even more questions.
Saturday’s encounter offers an opportunity for both sides to get back on track in their assertion of dominance in their respective conferences. Paunovic will be looking for Chicago to respond to one of their worst displays of the season and Vermes’ charges will be looking to impress a coach that has recently acquired a whole lot of buying power to replace inadequacies. Will one of the older rivalries in MLS be reignited this weekend, or will the impending Kansas heat and form of both sides stifle the encounter? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
SKC Form Guide (last five league matches): D-D-D-W-D
Previous Result: A 1-1 away draw with Real Salt Lake.
Formation: 4-3-3; Melia; Sinovic, Palmer-Brown, Ellis, Abdul-Salaam; Feilhaber, Sanchez, Espinoza; Blessing, Rubio, Fernandes
Strengths: Peter Vermes has always ensured that his sides are competitive. This season is no different and it is no surprise that they find themselves near the top of the MLS pile. If Chicago enter this match thinking that SKC was Dwyer and ten other bodies they will be sorely mistaken. Let’s see where the team formerly known as the Wiz might succeed in this one.
Stingy Defense: Nemanja Nikolic may be the current Golden Boot leader, but Sporting will have their sights set on stifling him this weekend. No team in MLS has given up fewer goals than SKC’s fifteen GA on the season. Goal keeper Tim Melia is largely responsible for that number, having earned a league high nine shutouts, an almost 80% saves/shot ratio, all while having played more minutes than any other MLS keeper. Oh, and he’s also saved three of the five PKs he’s faced this season. While SKC’s social media campaign complaining about him missing out on the All-Star Game may have been in poor taste, the arguing points for his inclusion are blatant.
While Melia has been exceptional, no goalkeeper works on his own and the backline in front of him has been exceptional as well. Matt Besler and Graham Zusi’s national team call ups speak for themselves; Ike Opara’s raw talent and polished skills should never be questioned; Seth Sinovic has played the role of hometown hero on a number of occasions; Kevin Ellis is growing into a league veteran; Eric Palmer Brown has attracted European suitors at the age of 20; and Abdul-Salaam had GMs circling like sharks in the midseason window. What’s that you say? We’ve listed seven defenders? It must be nice to have depth…
Perhaps the scariest thought for Paunovic and company is that if you only count the sixteen matches that Graham Zusi and Matt Besler have featured in together the SKC GA total drops to eleven. With the prospect of that duo returning from National duty after Wednesday night’s Gold Cup match, Chicago could be in for another long night.
Geometric Beauty: While Saturday’s encounter may help decide the matter indefinitely, SKC have their hat in the ring for the most dynamic midfield in all of MLS. It seems as if the trio at the center of the pitch is able to orchestrate triangles within their triangles as the move up the pitch or intervene in the opposition’s buildup. Vermes utilizes a combination of Benny Feilhaber, and Illie Sanchez along with either Roger Espinoza or Jimmy Medranda depending on tactical need. In a more attacking mindset Feilhaber and Espinoza will be allowed free rein underneath the forwards while Sanchez puts his Barcelona academy skill to use serving as a classic “six” in front of the back four.
If they opt for a more conservative approach, Medranda lines up next to Sanchez to help clog the midfield. Their tactical awareness and intervention capabilities often make the midfield a dense place, clearly having an impact on their impressive defensive streak. Even if Dax is back alongside Schweinsteiger on Saturday, Chicago might struggle to dominate the middle of the park in their usual manner. Schweinsteiger will be playing with a bit of extra caution in this one knowing that his next yellow card will result in a suspension. Ultimately, this could be another example of why Nelson Rodriguez needs to get the Quintero deal done in this window if Chicago is to unlock defensively stubborn teams in the playoffs.
You Will Get Nothing and Like It: Coinciding with those defensive displays is an impeccable home record for Kansas City. Sporting has yet to lose at Children’s Mercy Park, winning six matches and drawing four, a run largely responsible for their standing in the table. Chicago have a more impressive home record but have also struggled on the road this season. Given that the Fire tend to play their best soccer when they have a majority of the possession, KC’s tendency to dominate that stat at home should also be worrisome. You have to go back to May 27th of last year to find Sporting’s last MLS home defeat and we don’t see that record being broken this weekend. Did we mention it will be eighty-five degrees and sixty percent humidity?
Weaknesses: Although SKC is undefeated in their last ten matches across all competitions, five of those have been draws and three have been Open Cup matches. Three MLS victories in the last three months is not exactly stellar form and there are clear reasons why Sporting has fallen out of the running for the Supporters Shield. Let’s see where they could struggle on Saturday.
All Good Things Must Come to an End: We’ll start with the most obvious weakness: Dom Dwyer is no longer an SKC player. Dwyer has essentially been the face of the franchise over the last few seasons. He was the perfect package, he has the work ethic, the technical ability, and the goal scoring prowess to succeed anywhere, not to mention that his marriage to USWNT star Sydney Leroux adds to his marketability. Orlando’s record breaking offer for the striker may or may not pan out in the long run but one thing is for sure, it has panned out for the Fire immediately. Dwyer is SKC’s second leading goal scorer despite having a slow start to the season by his standards and is the second leading goal scorer in Kansas City’s history. He will surely be missed by everyone at Children’s Mercy Park.
Questions about who will replace his long-term productivity have been asked and there is speculation that Sporting will be bringing Krisztian Nemeth back from Qatar in this window. However, acquiring his rights from Columbus, flying him in from the Middle East, and having him ready to play before Saturday doesn't seem likely.
It Gets Worse Up Top: If losing Dwyer wasn’t bad enough, the MLS Disciplinary Committee suspended SKC forward Gerso Fernandes on Wednesday. The suspension was a retroactive punishment for Gerso’s studs up over the ball challenge on Luke Mulholland in Sporting’s last match against RSL. Soony Saad or Diego Rubio will likely play the number nine role on Saturday but Saad has yet to notch a tally in any of his ten matches this season and Rubio has also been out of favor this season despite his two goals. The encounter may also feature a historic moment if SKC chooses to give Daniel Salloi any minutes up top. If that were to happen, it’d be the first time two Hungarian players face each other in MLS.
You Can Have It from There: Examining all three of SKC’s most recent matches reveals a potential weakness in their otherwise stalwart defense. As Sporting resets in transition, their three attack minded midfielders are often caught out on the break. The skill of KC’s backline makes up for this tactical choice but they like to sit deep an allow the opposition to come forward before intervening in the final third. This leaves time and space for the attacking team to take shots from distance. If Paunovic can utilize Michael DeLeeuw or Lucho Solignac’s strengths as clinical finishers from distance and instructs them to shoot on sight, they’re might be something for Chicago to take home from this match. In their last three matches, almost half of the shots that Sporting have given away have been from outside of the eighteen-yard box. More importantly, Diego Valeri and Luis Silva both capitalized on their long range efforts to take points off of Vermes and his men.
Prediction: Chicago’s loss and lack of identity in New York was a fluke. However, continuing questions about depth, Meira’s proneness for error, and Accam’s commitment will surface once again. Chicago 1-1 SKC. Michael DeLeeuw notches his second goal of the season to keep Chicago in the race for the Supporters Shield.