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MatchDay 13: New York match another test of Sporting KC’s depth

05/27/2014 12:43 AM

Life without Matt Besler and Graham Zusi was always going to be tough for Kansas City. Life without Besler, Zusi, Aurelien Collin (hamstring), Uri Rosell (quad strain) and Lawrence Olum (international leave) was going to be extremely challenging.

Now that Chance Myers is out too, it’s become completely apparent that this isn’t about “tough” or “challenging” anymore. It’s about survival.

Kansas City’s depth has been one of its strengths the last two seasons.

Against the New York Red Bulls (3-5-5, 14 points) tonight at 7 p.m. (on ESPN 2), It’s being put to an extreme test.

Think of it as: Surviving, Kansas City. The goal is to make it through the next week and half without any more players going down and, hopefully, pick up a few points here and there.

With 22 games to go this season and a two-week World Cup break coming up, now isn’t really the time for Vermes and Kansas City to panic. No matter the situation, panic is never a good look.

As a fan of the survival TV show genre (especially Les Stroud’s “Survivorman”), I’ve learned that the most important factor in a survival situation is take into account what you have at your disposal — not what you don’t.

The team still has a versatile utility knife (fill-in captain Paulo Nagamura), a working compass to point them in the right direction (Benny Feilhaber), just enough cover to build a shelter (Eric Kronberg, Kevin Ellis and Seth Sinovic) and a pack of matches to start a fire (Dom Dwyer).

Collin is close to a return, maybe even tonight. Rosell should be soon. Olum is coming back, maybe as early as this weekend. Igor Juliao looks a capable fullback. Jacob Peterson remains The Answer to the question “Who can we plug in to that hole?”. C.J. Sapong and Sal Zizzo are back to full health and ready to contribute again.

While KC might have just enough bodies to assemble an 18-man roster against New York, there is reason to hope.

They just need to make it through a few more games. It might not be pretty, but surviving rarely is.

Let’s preview.

Tactical Considerations

Keep cover on Thierry Henry and Bradley Wright-Phillips

Henry is one of the most dangerous players in the league. Whether he’s scoring or creating, he’s always a force to be reckoned with. And, this year, he has a friend. And his friend is a very good finisher.

Wright-Philips is the co-leading scorer in the league, tied with KC’s Dom Dwyer at 10 goals.

It’s a pairing that can put a lot of pressure on a defense — especially an untested defense with players in unfamiliar roles. They’ve absolutely carved up defenses together, with Henry pitching in three goals and four assists himself.

Pay too much attention to Henry, Wright-Philips will beat you. He’s a good finisher with a knack for getting into space.

Experienced Fire defender Patrick Ianni gets sucked toward Henry for just a split second too long and BWP jumps into a pocket of space.

Pay too much attention to Wright-Philips, what do you think Henry is going to do with that?

The good news? No Tim Cahill, he’s training with Australia ahead of the World Cup. Cahill’s runs from midfield would be extremely troubling for Feilhaber holding down a defensive midfield role. The bad news? Peguy Luyindula should be available. KC’s midfield will need to make sure he’s marked or he can create from deep and relieve pressure on the forwards.

Whatever the defensive lineup for KC, they can’t over commit on any player more than the other. Or else Henry and Co. will feast on the gaps.

Is the best defense really a good offense?

Kansas City’s MLS Cup last year was won on the strength of a difficult-to-penetrate defense. Given the shambles that defense is in right now and the rise of Dwyer, perhaps it’s the dawn of a new plan: Score and keep scoring to protect the defense.

It’s a similar strategy that the Red Bulls have used most of this season. New York is tied for fifth in the league with 19 goals scored. (Kansas City is one behind with 18.)

But that strategy hasn’t totally worked for them.

While Jamison Olave remains one of the league’s most formidable defenders, the defense has allowed 21 goals — only Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia and Montreal have allowed more this year.

The Red Bulls have been really struggling of late, allowing nine goals in the last three matches — all losses.

If KC’s wide players can get behind the fullbacks (in the last game that was rookie Chris Duvall and former KC winger Bobby Convey), Dwyer should be able to use his speed to find space between Olave and Armando.

Give Dwyer that sort of space, he’s probably going to put one at least on frame.

Focus required

The result against Toronto FC was disappointing, plain and simple. Credit to KC’s coaching staff, they weren’t making any excuses afterward. Without four key players — and after another hobbled off — it’s a testament to that depth that this was even a game KC was in position to win.

“We felt like we should have walked away with three points,” Vermes said after the match. “We had the run of play, and we had good possession. We just made two mistakes … and they both led to goals.”

With the team already handcuffed with injuries, limiting mistakes has to be the key. Especially as the game draws on.

The mistake here was not clearing the initial ball back out of a dangerous situation. That’s not usually a problem for KC’s defense. Collin and Besler make their living clearing dangerous balls like that.

However, that sort of play hasn’t only cost KC when it’s down two first-choice defenders. Of the 12 goals KC has allowed, seven have come after the 75th minute. What’s more, five have come after the 90th minute.

Best Guess at the Starting Lineup

For defensive reasons, the question is whether Vermes goes with the regular 4-3-3 or the experimental 3-5-2. The former provides familiarity while the latter might offer more defensive strength. A three-man back line of Ellis, Collin and Palmer-Brown, for instance, could offer an extra defender to follow Henry or Wright-Philips with Juliao and Sinovic providing help out wide as fullbacks when necessary. (It would also pivot on Collin not Palmer-Brown as in the Fire game — that’s a big difference.)

I’d probably opt for the 3-5-2 (which would be a 5-3-2 in defense), but I’m not a professional coach. I just pretend to be one on the computer. Here’s my best guess. I give it a 38.6% chance of being right.

GK: Kronberg; DEF: Ellis, Collin, Palmer-Brown; MID: Juliao, Nagamura, Feilhaber, Dovale, Sinovic; FWD: Bieler, Dwyer

BENCH: Gruenebaum; Martinez, Medranda, Zizzo, Peterson; Sapong, Saad

Prediction

Kansas City 3, New York 3. I think there will be goals on goals on goals. Both teams are on short rest with unreliable defenses. Both have proven MLS goal scorers. This looks headed for a high-scoring draw.

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