Two games in March won't make or break a season. No matter how good or bad.
The Kansas City Star
It's a lesson some learned back in 2010 when the Wizards stormed out of the gate with a 4-0 win over D.C. United and a 1-0 win over Colorado. Things went downhill from there and KC ended up out of the playoffs -- and the most memorable moment that year was the Diop Game.
Just last year, the Los Angeles Galaxy drew with Toronto (at the Rogers Centre, home of the real "bumpy" pitch), lost convincingly to Real Salt Lake (3-1!) and lost to Toronto in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals (yeah, it was amazing). Turned out all right for them.
As such, seeing Kansas City at 1-1-0 with just three points, I'm not ready to even start looking for where I placed the panic button. (Last seen in May 2011.)
However, the sluggish starts in both games are troubling.
Peter Vermes contends: "It's not technical. It's not tactical. It's not physical. It's a psychological thing." I'm not going to argue with him. The mistakes made by Kansas City are a mixture of miscommunication and bad decision making.
But there is a tactical issue here worth exploring that is lying under the surface of these "psychological" things: Kansas City's midfield is out of balance this year.
Like with your car, if one tire is out of balance (either deflated or over-inflated), it can throw off the way the whole car drives. And the midfield -- especially in a narrow three-man midfield like KC runs -- cannot have an imbalance.*
*Whether it's deflated over-inflated, it's too early to tell.
The team found a balanced approach in the middle last year with the combination of Roger Espinoza, Paulo Nagamura and Julio Cesar. Those three were strong enough not to get overrun, technical enough to keep possession and aggressive enough to shield the backline without taking anything away from the attack. (Also: Calm enough to understand the flow of the game and when to change gears. This current team has yet to harness that ability.)
It's no coincidence that trying to bring in two new players has caused some issues. I still contend that things will be fine over the course of the next few months. Benny Feilhaber has faded out of some matches and is the player KC most needs to assert himself on the pitch. Like, ASAP. Oriol Rosell needs to continue to learn the defensive expectations of his position.
Which is why Nagamura is so important. He's the fulcrum of the midfield. It's up to him to make the decisions to shuffle between offense and defense. And it's incumbent on him to help Rosell and Feilhaber get into the game and get comfortable.
Before the season, captain Jimmy Nielsen told me how important a balanced team was. "Our defense starts with the first striker. If he's doing his job, the midfield looks good. The midfield makes the defense look good," Nielsen said. "At the end of the day, it makes me look good. It's all about the team. We need to attack together and defend together."
The defense has looked shaky because the battles are being lost in the midfield.
Perhaps all they need to get their mojo back is a trip back home and a good old-fashioned rivalry.*
*This is a topic I'm already tired of hearing about. Rivalries are great for the sport and make for great TV. It doesn't matter if it's Chicago or Houston or D.C. or Seattle. Have rivalries with them all! There's no need to pick a best or argue about it.
Kickoff is at 2 p.m. on Saturday -- but I'm sure if you're reading this you plan on being there much earlier.
If you can't make it out, the match will be on NBC Sports as part of "Rivalry Day."
Let's get going with the preview.
Silviu Petrescu, one of the league's finest referees. He has been in charge of 59 MLS matches -- including last year's MLS Cup. He was the fourth official charged with the unenviable task of dealing with Vermes in his ear all game.
Well, it's not great. At 1 p.m. on Friday, it was 78 degrees in Kansas City. At kickoff on Saturday, forecasts are calling for 45. At least the rain is out of the forecast.
Chicago Fire: OUT -- Arne Friedrich (hamstring), Brendan King (ankle sprain), Steven Kinney (hamstring strain) and Victor Pineda (left meniscus repair); QUESTIONABLE -- Logan Pause (Quad tightness)
Kansas City: OUT -- Jacob Peterson (shoulder), Teal Bunbury (ACL surgery); QUESTIONABLE -- Chance Myers (quad strain), Aurelien Collin (ankle sprain)
1. Which team will discover/re-discover its identity first?
Last year, we knew what Kansas City was: A high-pressure team willing to attack! attack! attack! every square inch of grass. Lots of tackles, lots of open-play crosses, lots of shots.
This year, it's a much more precise and patient team -- but one that hasn't completely clicked into place. There are moments when KC tries to attack but gets caught out. Or times when they try to pass the ball around in the box when a shot would do just fine.
As for Chicago, it's a team that really doesn't have an identity right now. Frank Klopas is rebuilding its midfield with Jeff Larentowicz and Joel Lindpere in the middle, suffering through two really important injuries (Friedrich and Pause) and struggling to find a strike partner for Chris Rolfe. The results have borne this out: Zero goals scored, two bad defeats and no consistency.
Another cause for concern, Chicago seems to be accumulating cast-off MLS pieces like Maicon Santos, Quincy Amarikwa, Larentowicz and oel Lindpere.
2. Can Sporting KC control the game?
Teams expected to finish near the top of the league and "win all the trophies" should control the pace of play at home. On the road, we've seen flashes of Kansas City's capacity to do this -- of course, that required them falling into an early hole first.
3. When will Benny finally push the game?
It was a criticism aired by Jurgen Klinsmann after the January U.S. national team camp: Benny Feilhaber didn't push the game enough. And, thus far, I'm not seeing that from him in a Sporting KC kit. Maybe he's deferring to Graham Zusi a bit. Maybe he's finding his footing connecting with Oriol Rosell behind him and Claudio Bieler in front of him. Maybe Bobby Convey and Zusi are swallowing up the space and role he needs to take charge of.
There are a lot of maybes. It might be time for him to assert control and play like the No. 10 that Sporting KC's front office believe him to be.
Best Guess at the Starting XI
I'm sticking by my prediction last week: C.J. Sapong starts over Convey -- despite my feeling that CONVEY ISN'T THE PROBLEM. I also think Myers and Collin will both play, despite the injury report -- Questionable isn't Doubtful.
GK: Jimmy Nielsen-c; DEF: Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic; MID: Oriol Rosell, Paulo Nagamura, Benny Feilhaber; FWD: Graham Zusi, Claudio Bieler, Bobby Convey
SUBS: Eric Kronberg, Ike Opara, Josh Gardner, Lawrence Olum, Peterson Joseph, Soony Saad, Bobby Convey
Kansas City 1, Chicago 0 These games are normally weird. Red cards. Penalties that are called. Penalties that aren't. The managers will yell at each other. Chris Rolfe might crawl back onto the field injured to waste time. I'm thinking it's a lot tighter than KC fans are apt to desire -- think back to KC's home opener two years ago -- with Zusi finding the net off a set piece. Chicago just have too many faults in defense.
MatchDay Hype Song
Sunday will be the third anniversary of the founding of this blog. Yup, we were born on St. Patrick's Day in 2010.
So, in honor of this anniversary, I'm going to do something I've tried to avoid because it seems a little too self-promotional: Pick my wife's band as the MatchDay #3 Hype Song.
Here's Deco Auto doing "I Shouldn't Know." That's my wife on vocals and bass.