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MatchDay 8: The Crew come calling

05/03/2014 2:23 PM

05/03/2014 3:17 PM

It's a little early in the season for this sort of hyperbole but: THE TOP SPOT IN THE EASTERN CONFERENCE IS ON THE LINE!

It's a very narrow margin, but New England has an early lead in the standings with 14 points (after nine games). Columbus (12 points from 7) and Sporting KC (11 points from 7) are right behind in the race to the top. Which means a win by either would be good for first place. (A win would put KC on top thanks to goal differential. Also, New York and D.C. United could both hit 14 points with wins this weekend.)

There might be only 8 more months of MLS action left, but you can already feel the excitement! Top of the East Showdown!*

*If the exclamation points weren't enough of a giveaway, this is sarcasm. It should be a very good game without any surrounding hyperbole.

Before the game, Sporting Kansas City players, coaches and front office staff will receive their 2013 MLS Cup championship rings. The ceremony begins at 2 p.m. Fans have been encouraged to arrive early to join the celebration.

Kickoff is at 3 p.m. on Sunday. It's going to be broadcast on NBC Sports — with Callum Williams, Andy Edwards and Jake Yadrich doing the local radio call on 810.

Let's preview.

Tactical Considerations

1. Can Sporting KC play the compression game without Aurelien Collin?

When Kansas City is playing at home and at their best, they compress the opposition's midfield.

A high defensive line by KC's defense and an active press from KC's midfielders/forwards restricts the room opposing creative players need to operate. This system effectively shortens the runway to launch attacking moves.

Recent examples of this compression: the scoreless draw with Real Salt Lake and the demolition of Montreal. Neither team had the room to start effective attacking movements from possession. KC posted shutouts in both games.

This sort of defense isn't perfect — a high defensive line is always vulnerable to vertical counter attacks — but it's been KC's bread and butter for three seasons. It usually works because they can rely on Aurelien Collin's physicality.

Collin usually draws the task of marking the opposition's top forward, with Matt Besler and Oriol Rosell sweeping up anything that gets through. Collin is suspended for this game and that puts Lawrence Olum into this spot.

Olum is a very good header of the ball (a key attribute for this role) and he's plenty physical. But he doesn't have Collin's experience (this is Olum's first start at center back since 2012) nor his knack for recovery.

If they can implement the same pressure with Olum — and not allow space for speedy players like Dominic Odurro to run into — KC can stop the Crew from building through Federico Higuain, the team's dangerous central attacking midfielder.

Kansas City will also need to be wary of plays like this, however, from young midfielder Will Trapp. A long diagonal ball can beat a high line.

A reassuring note: I've never seen a midfielder have that much space to maneuver against KC. Ever.

2. Who will win the width mini-game?

If you've not watched the Crew play this year, you're in for a very familiar feeling. Under new coach Gregg Berhalter, the Crew are quite Sporting-like in their approach. They use width, pressure and aggressive fullbacks to create chances. They don't play an all-out press like KC and they aren't necessarily a 4-3-3 (though, it can often look like it). But, like KC, they often generate offense with width.

This could turn into wing-play chicken. Who flinches first? Which team drops its fullback deeper? Will Peter Vermes go with his defensive midfielder/destroying winger Jacob Peterson to hold one of Columbus' wings at bay? Will Berhalter play tighter defensively to isolate KC's wingers?

It's a very intriguing duel. The team that wins this battle is likely to get the better of the game.

Best Guess at the Formation

Without regular starters Sal Zizzo (out with a left groin strain) and Collin, Vermes has some decisions to make with his starting lineup. With C.J. Sapong also out (neck strain) and Erik Palmer-Brown questionable (he's got sesamoiditis — it's not

as serious as it sounds

), Vermes should have some tough choices to make on the bench too. Notably: It's a very, very thin group who can play in the midfield.

Here's my best guess at what we'll see. (Hint: I think Palmer-Brown makes his first 18-man roster.)

Bench: Gruenebaum; Juliao, Palmer-Brown; Martinez; Toni, Peterson, Bieler

Prediction

Sporting KC 2, Columbus 1

This has all the potential to be a cracking game. There should be goals, as the Crew have had a few defensive lapses and KC will be without one of its defensive aces. Kansas City's strong home form the last few weeks, however, should carry the day.

Song of the Day

Go ahead. Try getting "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)" — the theme song from "The Benny Feilhaber Show" — out of your head.

Those Feilhaber dance moves, guys. Amazing.

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