Sporting KC

April 5, 2014

MatchDay 5: Sporting KC vs. Real Salt Lake, a rivalry renewed

The rematch of the 2013 MLS Cup finals is another round in one of Major League Soccer's best stylistic rivalries.
When the MLS 2014 schedule came out, this is one of the games a lot of people had circled. An MLS Cup rematch. The whole "rivalry" thing . MLS Cup "ticket-gate." These shirts . Garth Lagerwey and Jacob Peterson's Twitter beef . This game . The Dom Dwyer and Nat Borchers thing . There's a lot going on. But more than that, these are two highly entertaining, high-fouling, high-possession teams. It's a showcase event for Major League Soccer — even if MLS and NBC don't agree, but it's hard to argue with the overwhelming "Cascadia" thing overshadowing KC-RSL this weekend. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at Sporting Park. It will be broadcast locally on KMCI-TV and 102.9 FM. Let's preview.

1. How will Sporting KC's central forward platoon play out?

I'm not here to re-hash old arguments. The Great SKC Forward Drought of 2013-14 has been hashed out a time or two or three already, so we won't go there again. (Also: It ended last week when Dwyer scored.) I want to instead focus on a different problem: Isolation. Through six games this year, both Dwyer and Bieler have made three starts (only one in the league for Bieler). Here are the central-attacking actions for each in the games they started. (Click image to expand.) (Click image to expand.) As you can see in the charts, both players have spent the majority of their time on the outside of the penalty box. Bieler, in fact, has tended to operate almost completely in the space between the edge of the box and the center line -- almost as if he's operating as an attacking midfielder or as an "underneath" striker. Both players have been stranded the middle. Dywer tries to hustle his way out; Bieler tries to pass his way out. And, while it's a small sample size, that sort of isolation is troubling. It can be a lonely job being the advanced forward in a 4-3-3. If you are detached for too long, you start to become ineffective. Judging by their usage, Peter Vermes has opted to use Bieler in fixtures where more creativity/possession has been needed (Cruz Azul, on the road to Colorado) and Dwyer when in need of a physical presence (on the road in Seattle, San Jose). He's effectively created the soccer version of a lefty/righty platoon . Against Real Salt Lake, you would think, it's likely going to be Bieler. But Dwyer's goal last week — and the likely need for a more vertical threat higher up the pitch — might have Vermes thinking a little differently. It would be interesting to see what would happen if Bieler and Dwyer were ever both on the field together. (It's worth noting that Bieler did play in an "underneath" striker role during the preseason.)

2. Which team plays the right way?

Kanas City is often accused of not playing "pretty" soccer, which was an issue during the run up to the MLS Cup when Salt Lake GM Garth Lagerwey said:
"We play diametrically opposed styles of soccer. We want to keep the ball, we want to possess, we want to attack. Kansas City wants to kick people, pressure you all over the field and try to rely on set pieces and turnovers to generate their chances."
Kansas City's number one defensive priority under Vermes is usually to disrupt the opponent's possession. Tactical fouling is but one facet. And they do foul a lot. They don't run from that characterization. Sporting KC leads the league this year with 18.3 fouls per game. You know who's right up there with them? Real Salt Lake at 17 fouls per game. (Those numbers are from This isn't a new trend for Salt Lake, either. Our Twitter friend Nathan Martin took a look at the top ten teams ranked by fouls committed/suffered in 2013 — including the MLS Cup playoffs. He organized the table based on home/away splits. (Click here if you're having trouble seeing the chart he attached to that tweet. Also: Follow him. He's full of great info/insights.) Not surprisingly, Sporting KC was first in fouls committed at home and on the road. It's also not surprising that Kansas City committed 40 more fouls on the road than at home. (Home teams usually dictate possession, it makes sense KC would disrupt more often on the road than at home. Also: KC was the best road team in MLS last year.) What is sort of surprising is that Real Salt Lake also committed 40 more fouls on the road than at home — and only Portland and KC fouled on the road more times in 2013.* *Which means three of best teams in the league last year adopted a strategy to tactically foul more often on the road. There's an interesting correlation there. Not related to RSL directly, but I also find it interesting that Sporting KC are easily the "most-fouled team" at home on this list. In fact, they suffered more fouls at home than any team in the league committed home or away.

3. Overloaded March leads to April rest

Remember how we talked at great length about how crowded and crazy KC's March schedule was? Five games in 15 days! Six games in 21 days! Well, Sporting KC gets to take a bit of a breather here soon. After the match against Salt Lake, Sporting KC gets a bye week and then two fixtures (home against Montreal April 19 and away to New England April 26). Three matches in 32 days.

Sporting KC Injury Report

OUT: Peterson Joseph (illness), C.J. Sapong (neck strain)
QUESTIONABLE: Ike Opara (right lower leg contusion), Andy Gruenebaum (right ankle sprain)

Best Guess at Sporting KC's Lineup

With a bye week looming, a few reserves out injured and a few others returning from injury, I expect Vermes will roll with the same Starting XI as last week in Colorado. I'm going with Kevin Ellis to start over the returning-to-fitness Chance Myers. But I wouldn't be surprised if that flipped. The lines on the formation graphic above are based on my understanding of KC's "normal" movements. For instance: Zusi likes to pinch in a lot toward the middle AND press forward from a wide position. I haven't included lines for Feilhaber and Nagamura, because those two cover everything from box to box and lines are useless to explain that. Subs: Kempin; Myers, Olum; Martinez, Toni; Saad, Dwyer

Prediction Time

Sporting KC 1, Real Salt Lake 1 This match should live up to the hype. These are two quality teams with dangerous attacking players and sturdy defenders. Unfortunately, it also might end with something many KC fans will find disappointing. Salt Lake is still a good team and there won't be penalty kicks to settle the winner this time.

Go See Live Music

There's all sorts of music going on around Kansas City this weekend. Ink's Middle of the Map Fest is going down in Westport. I used to write quite a bit for Ink. It's a good festival put on by good people. Lots of great bands. * *If punk is more your sound, the Center of the City Fest is also going on Saturday/Sunday night. On Thursday night, I saw the band Loose Park. They were great. If you like 90s rock, you'll dig them. Sadly, they don't have any music online to share. So, in lieu of sharing, I'll just recommend that over the next few days or weeks, just go see some local music.

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