Matches in Houston are never easy.
It doesn’t matter that Sporting Kansas City is in the midst of a five-game winless streak, down to its seventh different pairing of central defenders (and, potentially, it’s 17th different combination along the back line season) and just lost a key player to a European club.
Two reasons for optimism: A two-week World Cup break from the grind of the MLS regular season starts on Saturday and Houston has been really, really bad recently.
How bad? The Dynamo have lost three games in a row (all on the road) by a combined score of 8-0. On the season, Houston’s once-vaunted defense has allowed a league-best 27 goals.
Both teams have been absolutely wrecked by injuries and international call-ups. You probably know Kansas City’s problems, but Houston will be without both of its main creative midfielders Brad Davis (United States) and Oscar Boniek Garcia (Honduras). Also missing: Midfielder Ricardo Clark (concussion issues) and forwards Tony Cascio (knee surgery) and Mark Sherrod (ACL tear). Over these last three games, the Dynamo have named only 17 players to the game day roster.
Only two points separate the teams in the Eastern Conference (KC is ahead with 19 points and one less game played). Both are still squarely in the playoff picture still — which says everything you need to know about the state of the Eastern Conference.
Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. tonight. Broadcast details: KMCI 38 the Spot and SKCTV will carry the game. You can find the match on Sports Radio 810 AM (English) and 1340 AM (Spanish).
Don’t get stretched to death
The injury situation on the defense is almost to the point of being laughable. Here are a few numbers:
12 different players have lined up in a defense position this year — including forward Jacob Peterson.
8 different players have lined up at center back — including fullbacks Chance Myers, Seth Sinovic and Kevin Ellis. Ellis has looked pretty good and will likely get the start this weekend.
There have been 7 different pairings at center back — including a pairing of Ellis and Erik Palmer-Brown (both homegrown players from KC’s academy) with a combined age of 40.
When it’s all said and done, KC has used 16 different defensive combinations through 14 games — and might have another one this weekend.
What have we learned? Well, that healthy center backs matter, obviously. The other, which was evident multiple times, is that Kansas City can’t afford to have its back line stretched out.
Unfamiliar and inexperienced players have trouble minding gaps. Fullbacks drift too far up field, center backs separate from each other a step too much, the line doesn’t step up together to get the offside trap right or the defensive midfielder doesn’t drop into passing lanes quick enough. That’s how gaps form. Good teams will carve up gaps.
Gap #1: Aurelien Collin steps up to deny Thierry Henry a path up the middle but can’t stop the ball. Kevin Ellis loses his man, the eventual goal scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips moving diagonally across the line. Igor Juliao misses the step up to lock Wright-Phillips offside. Goal New York.
Gap #2: After a midfield turnover, Jermain Defoe dribbles directly into the space a defensive midfielder — either Paulo Nagamura or Benny Feilhaber — normally occupies. Seth Sinovic and Ellis, thrust into a central partnership after Chance Myers’ injury, both move to deny the ball while the goal scorer Luke Moore runs diagonally into the pocket between Sinovic and Jacob Peterson. Goal Toronto.
In both examples, Kansas City played its normal defense — pressure the ball, deny the run, step up together — but because of inexperience together didn’t make those moves in unison.
The stability of Lawrence Olum
Those two goals from above were both the result of a player running through the middle of the field to the edge of the penalty box. If that seems like an unfamiliar sort of goal for KC to allow, that’s because it kind of is. Normally, Kansas City’s defensive midfielder is roaming that area to break up play and close down passing lanes. In both examples, that midfielder was Benny Feilhaber.
While Feilhaber’s passing ability and patience on the ball are extremely important in replicating one part of Oriol Rosell’s game, he doesn’t have the physical strength to stand up attacks barreling down the middle.
That’s where the return of Lawrence Olum can help. He might lack the passing skills, but he will double the defensive strength in the middle of the park.
Also, Olum’s return can push Benny and his passing ability further up the field. This, likely, will help Dom Dwyer and the attack not seem quite so isolated. Feilhaber connects defense to attack better than anyone on KC’s roster.
Do it again Dom
May wasn’t all bad for Kansas City, as Dwyer was voted the MLS player of the month. He had six goals in May and is currently second in the Golden Booth race. Now of course is a good time to remind everyone of Dwyer’s most important goal: The clincher against Houston in the Eastern Conference Final last year.
That’s also a great reminder of what Feilhaber can do further up the field.
With Collin (hopefully) shut down for a few weeks to recover from a hamstring strain and reports of an injury that has limited Igor Juliao, any lineup prediction is a complete and total guess. So, here goes.
GK: Kronberg; DEF: Zizzo, Ellis, Palmer-Brown, Sinovic; MID: Olum, Feilhaber, Nagamura; FWD; Dovale, Dwyer, Peterson
BENCH: Gruenebaum; Medranda, Martinez, Duke; Saad, Sapong, Bieler
While Zizzo has usually been deployed as a forward, he has experience playing fullback. He can be trusted to be responsible in that spot.
Kansas City 1, Houston 1. Yes, I know. I’m predicting that KC goes into the two-week MLS break on a six-game winless streak. But, I think Houston — despite its issues this year — are a smart, well-coached team that will be well-prepared to work over KC’s makeshift defense. Of course, a little bit of unknown could work in KC’s favor in this matchup.
Besides KC’s 2-1 win to clinch a spot in the MLS Cup, the last three matches between these two teams have ended in a draw. In the regular season, five of the last eight match ups have ended in a draw.