This was a remarkable season for Sporting Kansas City (among the best statistical regular seasons in franchise history) and they closed it out with an equally remarkable 12-match unbeaten streak. They're the first-place team in the East for the second year and a row and have home-field advantage.
The Kansas City Star
To get to this point in the season, Peter Vermes rode his team's stellar defense (27 goals allowed was the best in MLS) and its ability to get an early lead (15-2-4 when scoring first) and sit on it (10-1-2 when ahead after 45 minutes).
And, right now, Kansas City are pretty much the odds-on favorites to reach the MLS Cup from the Eastern Conference. I think tournament-style play suits Kansas City -- they are deep, solid defensively and very good on the road.
However (there's always a "however"), there are several pesky questions Kansas City must answer to achieve its MLS Cup dreams.*
*To keep this from sounding like a gloom-and-doom article, I've offered a counterpoint to each and every "negative."
Can KC Defeat the Dynamo?
It had to be the Houston Dynamo, didn't it?
The Dynamo have KC's number. In the last six matches between the two (including the playoffs), Sporting has just one win (a 3-0 victory at LSP last September). I probably don't even need to reference last year's Eastern Conference Final. You remember that. This year, the teams drew twice this year in KC, with Houston winning the lone match in Texas.
The Dynamo personnel seem to give KC fits.* Bobby Boswell seems to swallow up C.J. Sapong, Andre Hainault seems to always give no quarter to KC's left-sided attackers, Brad Davis doesn't cave to Roger Espinonza's pressure, Tally Hall becomes the second-coming of Peter Schmeichel against Kei Kamara and Calen Carr seems to always find the right way past Aurelien Collin.
*Also, Houston coach Dominic Kinnear has developed the most effective anti-KC strategy: Keep the defense tight, clog the middle of the pitch and isolate Sapong. He also smartly has his goalkeeper and defenders avoid playing the ball in their own half -- this has the effect of bypassing KC's high level of confrontation, effective dulling KC's pressure at its source.
What's more, is that Houston is unbeaten in its last 25 home games (including playoffs) and have yet to lose at BBVA Compass Stadium. The first leg is Sunday in Houston at 2:30 p.m. (NBC); the second is Nov. 7 at Livestrong Sporting Park at 8 p.m. (KSMO-TV).
Counterpoint: Houston have had an erratic season and their undefeated record at home features SIX draws. (They led the Eastern Conference win 11 draws on the season.) They also haven't won a back-to-back game since Aug. 3.
Will KC Have Its Best Midfield?
When Roger Espinoza returned from the Olympics before the Open Cup final, Vermes made a really interesting change to the team's midfield -- he pushed the team's best offensive player and creator (Graham Zusi) out of his natural position in favor of a defensively-rigid midfield trio of Espinoza, Paulo Nagamura and Julio Cesar.
The effect: It became very, very difficult to get past Kansas City's newly balanced and determined midfield. The presence of Nagamura allowed Cesar to act as the anchor man, sitting back to cover the defenders. With Cesar in that role, Espinoza could freely attack the ball across the field. With Espinoza attacking everywhere, Nagamura was allowed to shift between attack and defense depending on his read of the game (which is one of his best features).
When that midfield has started together (seven times since August -- including the U.S. Open Cup), Kansas City haven't lost, allowing just four goals.
The problem right now is that both Nagamura and Espinzoa have picked up ankle sprains -- with Nagamura looking unlikely for the first leg on Sunday. Espinoza is further along in the road to recovery.
It's not that Vermes doesn't have options to spell them -- it's just they aren't nearly as effective.
The simple solution would to slot Zusi back to his natural position, although he's not been nearly as good for KC in that role down the stretch (particularly earlier this month with New York ran all over KC's midfield and stunted Zusi completely).*
*I think Zusi is something of a paradox in this regard. He's become the team's best creative player and is a natural attacking central midfielder. But Kansas City seem to be a worse team recently (offensively and defensively) when he plays in the middle. So, he gets to play out of position on the right wing, where he's not quite comfortable but still very lethal at times. It's a fascinating tactical situation worth watching.
Another option would be to go more offensive with Peterson Joseph (he was the sole highlight of the first 30 minutes against Philly last week). The only problem there is that, while technically gifted, Joseph is prone to immature mistakes (like his red card against Houston earlier this summer).
Oriol Rosell (too inexperienced) and Michael Thomas (seemingly out of favor since August) are the other options.
Counterpoint: KC were quite good earlier this year when Zusi played centrally and Jacob Peterson started on the right wing. Perhaps Vermes can re-find that on-field chemistry balance again.
Can They Score Enough Goals?
This team loves its, shots, possession and pressure. But, all those shots and all that possession and pressure haven't translated to a lot of goals this season.
Perhaps Kansas City suffered from not having a consistent, cultured goal scoring threat to pair with Kei Kamara (11 goals this year). Perhaps Kansas City didn't get enough contributions from its midfielders/defenders (the only non-forward with more than 1 goal was defender Aurelien Collin, 3).
Perhaps it was the untimely injuries to creator Bobby Convey and young forward Teal Bunbury (who was just finding his rhythm before tearing his ACL in August). Perhaps it was the lack of firepower on the bench (young backup forwards Soony Saad and Dom Dwyer made 10 appearances with 0 goals between them).
Perhaps it's a formation issue and KC can't put the right players into the right positions to break down bunkered defenses.
Whatever the cause, it's a problem and will likely continue to be one unless C.J. Sapong can morph into the American version of Didier Drogba for the month of November.
Of the 10 playoff teams, only one (Vancouver) scored less than KC's 42 goals this year. On the season, KC had only 13 multi-goal games (out 34 games) and 8 of those multi-goal games came against non-playoff teams.
What's more, they've really struggled to post goals at home. Only Chivas USA (9), Toronto FC (15) and FC Dallas (21) had fewer home goals than Kansas City (22). By comparison, Houston had 31 home goals.
Counterpoint: The defense is good enough to grind out 1-0 games for the next month if it has to.
How Does KC Deal With Long Layoffs?
When KC kicks off its playoff run Sunday, it will have been 11 days since the season finale against Philadelphia.
This is the fifth time this season Kansas City have had a layoff of 10 or more days. Kansas City won just once in 2012 after a 10-day layoff -- a 2-0 win over Toronto FC on June 16th after an 11-day layoff.
In the other three post-layoff matches, Kansas City either lost miserably (on May 5 to Montreal after 14 days) or didn't play well at all (a 1-1 draw with a late, late C.J. Sapong winner against Houston on Sept. 14 and the dull 0-0 draw with New York this month).
The biggest problem for KC in these games has been asserting the high-pressure system that has been so effective for most of the season. Which shows me that Kansas City are a "form" team that plays better and more cohesively when playing regularly.
A slow start on the road against either Houston would be devastating, as they've shown the ability to frustrate and attack at Livestrong Sporting Park. The Dynamo also looked especially lethal against Chicago on Wednesday on set-pieces.
Counterpoint: This layoff will help them get Espinoza/Nagamura healthy and allow Vermes an extra day or two to implement post-season tactical tweaks. Also, with the potential of four matches over the next 14 days, KC could quickly regain "form."
How Peter Vermes juggles these problems and how the team itself responds to the different level of adversity that comes with the playoffs, will determine whether Sporting KC can "paint the wall" once more this year.