The Full 90

To extend the season, Sporting KC must answer tough tactical questions

Updated: 2013-11-06T17:45:51Z

Charles Gooch

The Kansas City Star

Down 2-1 to the New England Revolution, the math is simple for Sporting Kansas City: Win. If Sporting KC wins by two goals (or more), it moves on to the conference finals. A win by just one goal would trigger an automatic 30-minute overtime (split into two 15-minute halves) and then, potentially, a penalty kick shootout.

A loss or draw? The season ends tonight.

Coach Peter Vermes said after the match on Saturday night that KC wouldn't change its style much for this game, as they’ll press and look to dominate possession in the opponent’s half of the field. As Vermes said Saturday night, "Do you ever see us play any other way at our place?"

But there are some tactical questions that remain going into this match. While my prediction in The Star this morning was generally positive (I said KC can win this match 2-0), that doesn’t mean I don’t have some pointed questions.

1. Can KC finally solve a bunkered defense? Will they even need too?

Ever since Houston came to town for the 2011 Eastern Conference Final (and left 2-0 winners), some teams have figured out how to play KC at Sporting Park. This year, Kansas City lost five times at home and drew three. Successful teams this year have defended deep, defended in numbers, pushed the ball out wide, hassled Graham Zusi (or Benny Feilhaber) and isolated the central forward (whether its Claudio Bieler, Dom Dwyer or Teal Bunbury). The really successful teams (Portland and New York both won 3-2 this year), additionally set up for lightning-quick counter attacks.

When faced with this defense, Kansas City's plan is usually to throw cross-after-cross into the box and hope a forward gets a head/foot on it. Only, that offense is not only predictable, it’s rather easy to smother. And easy to counter attack.

Without a Kei Kamara — someone who can be unpredictable and run at a defender — what is Kansas City's Plan B? We've not seen it recently: The team has just two goals in the last four games against teams (Philadelphia, D.C. United, Real Esteli and CD Olimpia) that bunkered in Sporting Park.

But, will New England bunker? It would be the smart, Dynamo-like thing to do. Though, I'm not sure the Revs are built to be that team. This is a technical squad built on the attacking capabilities of Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, Diego Fagundez and Juan Agudelo. Jay Heaps traditionally plays just one traditional defensive midfielder (either Scott Caldwell or veteran Welshman Andy Dorman — who scored against KC). I'm not sure defending deep with Nguyen/Fagundez trying to mark Kansas City's midfielders is a very solid game plan.

New England needs to defend (mostly) and Kansas City needs to attack (mostly). It will be interesting to see how each copes with the other.

2. Will Vermes get the Starting XI right? Especially the forwards

The Starting XI on Saturday night was curious. It was a defensive lineup meant to play against New England without surrendering anything on defense. It proved to be the wrong choice because the forward group didn’t hold up its end of the bargain.

Bunbury (it was his second start of the season) played well, but was rusty. Jacob Peterson (in the lineup because Vermes always starts at least one "hustle" player in the midfield/forward spots) hasn't typically offered much service with just one assist this season. Sapong is still sometimes an adventure on the wings (he's not as threatening wide as he is in the box).

That trio, for the season, had created (scored or assisted) on eight goals all season. And Sapong was responsible for six of them. According to the excellent WhoScored.com, Bunbury and Peterson are the two lowest-rated players (6.09 and 6.32 averages for the season respectively) with more than 10 appearances on the team this year. The website gave them ratings of 6.1 and 6.2 — the lowest on the field for both teams — on Saturday night.

As I've pointed out in several places, the forwards have accounted for exactly three goals (two by Sapong in one game) since a 3-0 win against Columbus on Sept. 7.

Will Vermes make a change? He has too. And he will, because, over the last 10 games, he’s tinkered with his forward lineup (thanks to injuries and form) using seven different combinations.*

*If you’re looking for a reason why the group seems to lack confidence, understanding and chemistry, perhaps that's the number one thing to focus in on.

I expect Soony Saad (6.77 average rating on WhoScored) will find his way onto the field, he’s the one current forward who has shown the ability to create offense on his own this year. As for the other two spots?

Dom Dwyer (6.44) or Claudio Bieler (6.8) should vie for the central spot. I think Bieler would be the player most prefer (he’s the team’s designated player and leading scorer), but he’s been very ineffective (only one goal since July, and it was a penalty kick). Dwyer was great with Orlando, but has just two MLS goals.

Sapong (6.83) might get the call out wide again, if only to provide KC a set-piece target up top.

3. What will the midfield look like?

Sadly, Lawrence Olum's year is done after fracturing his leg late in the New England match. He's become a regular fixture at defensive midfielder and scored a very important goal against Philadelphia.

Also, Peterson Joseph will miss the match with an undisclosed health issue. Paulo Nagamura has battled an ankle sprain for seemingly the last three months. And Feilhaber hasn’t been a factor, playing just 45 ineffective minutes in October.

Which means Uri Rosell and Graham Zusi are the only two midfielders Vermes can rely on. Who will join them?

The key for me is whether or not Nagamura can go. He’s the most logical two-way midfielder for this team. He allows Rosell the freedom to join the attack and gives Zusi a safety valve and is smart enough to re-set the offensive himself.

If he's not healthy, Vermes might have to go with a very rare Zusi-Benny Feilhaber combination. The Uri-Zusi-Feilhaber group have played together just once since the All-Star break. That was the 1-0 loss to Philadelphia. It's such a finesse midfield, I can't imagine it's the ideal choice for a team that presses and tackles as hard as Kansas City.

If New England opts to go out and play against KC instead of bunkering, Kansas City will need someone to help Rosell break up play or the back line will be under an immense amount of pressure.

The answers will come tonight at 8 p.m. at Sporting Park.

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