Last year ended on a down note for the Seattle Sounders. After breaking the bank (and, with a little help from the league, a few squishy MLS player-acquisition rules) to bring in Clint Dempsey, the Sounders had visions of an MLS Cup filled with neon green confetti. Portland spoiled it for them with a 5-3 aggregate win in the playoffs.
Which led this season to a massive overhaul for Seattle. They unloaded 14 players — including both starting center backs, the regular goalkeeper, designated player Mauro Rosales and Eddie Johnson. In their place are a bunch of well-traveled and experienced MLS regulars. Chad Marshall, a former MLS Defender of the Year, was acquired in a trade with the Columbus Crew. The team also imported forward Kenny Cooper from Dallas, defender Jalil Anibaba from Chicago and goalkeeper Stefan Frei from Toronto. On top of that, Seattle got former Fire midfielder Marco Pappa, who had been playing in Holland, by moving up in the allocation order.
That's a lot of players to integrate in one offseason.
Compare that to Sporting Kansas City returning 10 of 11 starters from the MLS Cup final (and five more who sat on the bench in that game). The only major losses for KC? Jimmy Nielsen and, to a lesser extent, Teal Bunbury.
The stout league-leading defense? Back. Leading scorer Claudio Bieler? Back and "Sporting" fit. Midfielder Oriol Rosell? Back. Creative engines Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber? Yeah, also back.
In other words, Kansas City should still be quite good. And they will have a big edge in the cohesion department.
Kickoff is at 2 p.m. on the NBC Sports Network. No local radio.
Tactical Preview1. Claudio Bieler or Dom Dwyer vs. Chad Marshall/Jalil Anibaba
Marshall and Anibaba have only had the preseason to get acquainted. While Marshall has been one of the better defenders in the league, he's not known for his pace. He's an aerial monster and organizer. Anibaba, much faster and more athletic, is converting to center back after playing mostly right back for the Fire. Which gives Vermes a few options at central forward. Does he go with designated player Bieler, who can use his intelligent movement and positional sense to drag the still-forming duo out of position? Or does he go with "bull-in-a-china-shop" Dwyer to use his pace and tenacity to put Marshall on his back foot?
What Bieler can do with space.
What Dwyer can do with pace.
Whichever way Vermes opts to start (I think it'll be Bieler), when he makes the switch in the second half, it could have tremendous effect on changing the game for Seattle's defense.2. Uri Rosell/Aurelien Collin vs. Clint Dempsey
There aren't many players in MLS quite like Dempsey when he's on his game and playing in that space behind the striker. He's crafty with the ball at his feet and has the vision to pick out a pinpoint pass. Which of KC's hard-tackling interception-machines will be responsible for trying to harass him out of the game? Rosell, from his defensive midfielder spot, could stand in passing lanes directly in front of Dempsey and force him into less dangerous spots to find the ball. Collin, pushing up in his traditional aggressive fashion from his own box, could make the American midfielder's day a lot harder by playing him physically when he gets the ball.
Since Vermes doesn't often utilize man-to-man marking outside of set pieces, it will probably be a group effort. But don't be surprised if Rosell* stays back more often than usual.*Something else to watch with Uri during the game is the defensive-midfielder chess match between him and Osvaldo Alonso. Both are exceptional passers (Alonso was the league's most accurate passer at 88.6%, Rosell was no slouch at 84.4%). What's more astonishing, both managed such high completion rates despite being among the league leaders in long balls. Alonso averaged 6.8 per game; Rosell 6.4. All stats are from WhoScored.com.
3. Reactive or proactive?
When I think of how to describe the Sporting KC system, the words I tend to fall back on: aggressive, physical, pressing, possession, disruptive, fast. Basically, all very active words to describe a proactive system that presses for nearly 90 minutes every single game. An uncomfortable opponent is an opponent more likely to turn over the ball or make a similar fatal mistake. That's the "in-a-nutshell" style KC plays.
Which is why last year's playoff run was quite striking to someone who has closely watched as Vermes has honed and refined this style of play. They didn't play that way in big away games.
Take the Houston game in round two. Midfielders Benny Feilhaber and Paulo Nagamura stuck together in the middle of the field. Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic — who often live in the attacking half — were very, very selective in coming forward. Jacob Peterson, employed as an extra defensive midfielder disguised as a left winger, worked primarily to keep the Dynamo's Oscar Boniek Garcia occupied. Sporting KC ceded possession to the Dynamo in exchange for more defensive stability, hoping to create a chance via a counter.
It was Kansas City playing "reactive" soccer. And the Houston game wasn't alone. KC did this against New England in the playoffs and in the run up to the playoffs against Houston, Columbus and Philadelphia (for a half) too.
It worked. It wasn't pretty, but it worked. Which makes me wonder: Is this a new style to be rolled out on the road against tough opponentsonly
in the fall? Or is this a permanent change that might leak into early season game plans to handle tough road games with difficult Champions League matches on the horizon? We'll find out soon.
Projected lineup (4-3-3)
GK: Kronberg; DEF: Myers, Collin, Besler-c, Sinovic; MID: Rosell, Nagamura, Feilhaber; FWD: Zizzo, Bieler, Zusi
BENCH: Gruenebaum; Jerome, Opara; Olum; Peterson, Sapong, Dwyer
Kansas City lists Paulo Nagamura (left ankle sprain), Seth Sinovic (right hip strain) and Chance Myers (right groin strain) as questionable.
For Seattle, the only injury is to forward Tristan Bowen, who is listed as out.
It didn't go so well for Kansas City. Seattle always seems to find a way to get a late goal to get a result, which is why Sporting KC has beaten Seattle just once (the first meeting) in 8 matches.