Tonight, Sporting KC adds another challenge to an already challenging season: Navigating the MLS Cup playoff chase while competing midweek in the CONCACAF Champions League.
It can be a tricky two-fronted journey filled with trips to such exotic locations as Esteli, Nicaragua, Tibas, Costa Rica, and Chester, Pennsylvania.
Peter Vermes and company navigated that potential mindfield last year with mixed results — SKC won the MLS Cup, obviously, but two draws at home in the CCL condemned them to a difficult match up with Cruz Azul which turned out bad.
With the CCL kicking off tonight for KC (9 p.m. on Fox Soccer Plus) — and a massive, huge game on the weekend against D.C. United — we’re going to break up the mailbag into two pieces this week. First, we’ll focus on some pertinent CCL questions. Later, we’ll get back to more D.C. United/MLS questions.
As we saw earlier this year in the quarterfinals against Cruz Azul, the team takes the competition seriously — fielding weakened lineups for MLS matches to have the strongest side for the CCL — and should seriously try to avoid stumbling in the group stage and avoiding a strong team such as Cruz Azul in the quarterfinals.
However, I think you might be alone in taking it that far.
It’s a trophy and KC fans (and owners) do love trophies, but the Supporters’ Shield — a trophy that I think should be far more important than it is in MLS circles — and repeating as MLS Cup champs are the top two priorities.
There are some who probably see the CCL as a distraction, while others might enjoy the variety of competition. How you choose to view it is probably analogous to how you view taking a scenic detour during a long car trip.
I personally enjoy this detour. It’s a chance to see teams you wouldn’t normally see and get a different gauge as to how good Sporting KC is/could be.
This is where it gets interesting. Typically, the CCL and Open Cup have both presented Vermes (and other MLS coaches) a chance to rotate their lineups and build depth. It’s sort of how Dom Dwyer started earning his spot last season.
Well, as you all might know by now, Vermes has used 24 lineups in 24 MLS games. If you throw in the Cruz Azul series and two Open Cup games, Vermes has used the same lineup exactly twice in 28 games.
Sporting KC has depth and is pretty well rotated, and Vermes doesn’t really need to challenge guys like Kevin Ellis, Jon Kempin, etc. He needs to start building consistency.
This could lead to an interesting chance for Vermes to kill two birds with one stone. He could experiment with potential combinations (such as starting Lawrence Olum and Jorge Claros in the midfield together) in preparation for the playoff push and build some consistency going forward (such as playing either the same defensive line or forward trio together for consecutive games for the first time in a month).
As for the strength of the side tonight, if you’re into reading the signs from internet channels — the player’s twitter accounts and Sporting KC’s CCL journal — most of the key first-team guys have traveled for the match. It’s hard to imagine all of them would travel that far without a few planning to play meaningful minutes. Vermes also plays to win most competitions he enters — even the squad that lost 3-1 to Portland in the Open Cup featured primarily first-team players.
Since Real Esteli isn’t the strongest team in CONCACAF — they’ve never won a CCL game ever —if Kansas City can get a lead (and stay healthy) after 45 minutes, Vermes might have a chance to substitute some players with an eye on D.C. United on Saturday.
I’m not sure that Vermes can rest both Feilhaber and Zusi at this stage in either competition. There just isn’t another proven creator on the bench for that position, especially since Claudio Bieler is having a passport issue and will not be available. With no Bieler, that also leaves Dwyer as the only regular central forward on the roster. (C.J. Sapong and Soony Saad can play there, but haven’t in a long time in this system.)
I imagine that subbing off Feilhaber and Dwyer against Toronto means both will likely start this one. Zusi seems to be over some of his fatigue issues from the World Cup too.
At least two of those three will start. I imagine all three will play a role.
To me, Sinovic is probably the most in need of a rest. Per Mike Kuhn of Down The Byline last week, Sinovic has logged the most minutes of anyone on the roster over the last two seasons.
Injuries are also still a factor. Depending on the health of Paulo Nagamura, Christian Duke and Jacob Peterson, there could be just 20 fit players for selection.
My best guess is that Vermes uses a few first-choice players to build consistency while mixing in a few players he needs to be on form down the stretch like Sapong and Dovale.
GK: Jon Kempin; DEF: Igor Juliao, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, Kevin Ellis; MID: Jorge Claros, Lawrence Olum, Benny Feilhaber; FWD: Antonio Dovale, Dom Dwyer, C.J. Sapong
That’s seven starters from the Toronto game — and two more that played in the second half. It leaves Sal Zizzo, Zusi, Mikey Lopez and Soony Saad as options off the bench.
Peterson was left out of the Toronto game and I heard from a reliable source that he might be recovering from injury (though not serious enough to warrant inclusion on the injury report). He’s been one of Vermes’ most reliable road warriors. If he made the trip, his positional flexibility to play fullback or winger would give Vermes the option of resting both Sinovic and either Besler/Collin.
We’ll be back on Thursday for Part 2 — which includes questions about the expansion draft, adventure time with Aurelien Collin and more.