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Three Thoughts: Sporting KC advance in U.S. Open Cup

06/18/2014 11:15 PM

Sporting Kansas City, showing a bit of a rust and relying on a lineup depleted by injuries and international call-ups, survived a challenging Minnesota United squad out for an upset.

After a second half red card to United defender Cristiano Dias and a tactical change to bring on the speed of Sal Zizzo, Kansas City finally found the breakthrough it needed. Goals by Soony Saad and Alex Martinez lifted KC to a 2-0 victory.

The win moves KC to the fifth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup to face the Portland Timbers on June 24.

Kansas City was without several key players including Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Benny Feilhaber, Aurelien Collin and Paulo Nagamura. Victor Munoz and Andy Gruenebaum made their first starts for Sporting KC.

This wasn’t a case of Sporting KC beating up on a minor league club. Minnesota plays in the NASL, the second tier of American soccer. The league does not have the same salary restrictions as Major League Soccer and Minnesota features several players with experience in England and Brazil.

Minnesota were also the champions of the NASL spring season, edging out the New York Cosmos by one point.

Here are three thoughts on the win for Kansas City.

The inclusion of Zizzo changed the game for KC

For much of the game, Minnesota’s defense forced Sporting KC to constantly move the ball from side-to-side, looking for holes that were hard to find. Lacking that final, vertical ball to open the defense, Peter Vermes took designated player Claudio Bieler (who was starting to wear down an hour into the game) out of the game for Zizzo. With Zizzo taking over as the right winger, Toni Dovale was allowed to take over as the central playmaker.

Zizzo’s speed was a valuable asset. “That what his game is,” Vermes said after the game. “He glides, he gets behind defenses.” Which is exactly what happened on KC’s second goal.

Zizzo used his speed to blow past the fullback and Dovale picked out a great weighted through ball to find Zizzo in space. That combination of vertical movements was what KC needed to break Minnesota’s defensive line.

Second-half kit change

The action on the field for the first 45 minutes wasn’t the only difficult thing to look at. Apparently, so were the uniform choices for both teams.

Minnesota United couldn’t wear its traditional road uniform, an all-blue kit very similar to Sporting KC’s color scheme because they clash with KC’s primary and secondary. Instead, they wore their gray kits with black wings across the front. (BTW: Those kits are excellent.)

Sporting KC opted to start with its second kit, the light/dark blue striped shirt and socks. For many watching the game, it was fairly hard to tell the two apart.

At halftime, Sporting KC switched to the only kits that didn’t clash: Its training tops — which featured no Ivy Funds logo and no numbers on the back.

Basically, these two teams have very difficult kits to match.

Alex Martinez is a real find

With the injury situation such as it is for Kansas City, several off-the-radar players have been put into action much earlier and more often than many expected. Erik Palmer-Brown has grown in confidence every game he’s played. Kevin Ellis has been a solid defender no matter what position he’s been asked to play. Igor Juliao has also shown a lot potential.

But Alex Martinez is perhaps the most surprising. KC’s third-round draft pick in this year’s MLS SuperDraft, the midfielder has made 10 appearances in all competitions for KC (more than Claudio Bieler, Soony Saad and Jimmy Medranda).

Against Minnesota, Martinez was my man of the match. He came on midway through the first half after Munoz (who didn’t cover himself in glory during his first start) went out with a leg injury. Immediately, Kansas City’s midfield found continuity and started to retain a workable shape with Lawrence Olum dropping back and Martinez operating as a box-to-box midfielder.

Martinez was very useful in restricting space for Minnesota’s midfield to operate and put himself in great position to score the second goal. It was his first professional goal.

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