Sporting Kansas City scored a surprisingly easy victory during the last visit to Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., where the New York Red Bulls hadn’t lost all season to that point.
Sporting struck early then pressured the Red Bulls into continual turnovers through the midfield. And that prevented outgoing coach Hans Backe’s bunch from getting into a rhythm during the 2-0 loss to Sporting KC on Sept. 19.
“It was a really good performance from us when we played there,” Sporting coach Peter Vermes said. “Our closing down of the space on the field for them and not allowing them to have a good rhythm of their play was not easy to do at somebody else’s stadium, let alone New York.”
Repeating that performance, however, might be tougher for Sporting without midfielder Roger Espinoza, who is still recovering from a sprained ankle suffered Oct. 7 against the Columbus Crew. Espinoza has been ruled out for Saturday’s game.
Without tipping his hand about how he’d tweak the lineup in response to Espinoza’s injury, Vermes didn’t seem too worried about Sporting KC’s chances to once again control and stifle New York.
“The guys that come into our team all know what their role and responsibility is within the position, individually and then how that fits within the team collectively,” Vermes said. “I don’t think we miss much of a beat in that regard.”
Midfielder Graham Zusi and forward Kei Kamara are expected to be fully available despite recent international duty.
Of course Zusi didn’t exactly have a taxing return trip from his stint with the U.S. men’s national team, which wrapped up first place in Group A during the semifinal round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2014 World Cup with a 3-1 win Tuesday against Guatemala at Livestrong Sporting Park.
Kamara’s wending journey back from playing with Sierra Leone in the Africa Cup of Nations wasn’t going to keep him out of the lineup either.
In any event, Vermes is adamant that Sporting KC’s depth and the way the squad trains is designed to limit the impact of player absences anyway.
“It’s not like somebody has to take over and do something different,” Vermes said. “Our system, and the way we train all the guys is that when you’re playing a certain position on the field, there’s a certain role and responsibility that goes with that position. You have something individually that you have to do, but you also have it in relation to the guys you have around you.”
Saturday’s matchup with the Red Bulls is rife with playoff implications.
New York, 15-9-8, needs a win to qualify for the playoffs but is also hoping to avoid a first-round wild-card match under the new MLS playoff format.
Meanwhile, Sporting KC, 17-7-8, is closing in on a second straight Eastern Conference championship, though a loss could deal a severe blow to those plans.
For Sporting KC’s All-Star center back Matt Besler, who could find himself paired with Aurelien Collin again after Collin’s three-game absence from the starting lineup, there’s a little added motivation as well.
The even-keeled Besler — a 2005 Blue Valley West graduate who grew up nestled in the heart of “the flyover states” —admits that playing against a more-hyped team from a major media market adds fuel to his fire.
“Especially this time of year, I get excited playing the big-market teams,” Besler said. “It’s another chance to beat them. … That’s kind of been my mind-set, growing up here in Kansas City. A lot of times, we don’t get a lot of respect nationally. I’ve grown up as a Royals fan and Chiefs fan. I love beating the Yankees as a Royals fan.”