Sporting Kansas City (a blow-out loss to Manchester City notwithstanding) is Major League Soccer’s hottest team with five wins and a draw over the last six matches.
Since losing back-to-back games to Philadelphia and Chicago Fire back in May (the beginning of the KC injury/call-up crisis), Peter Vermes and company have lost just once in nine matches — a 1-0 loss to D.C. United.
Tonight’s opponent, Toronto FC, is riding some pretty good form as well having lost just once over its last 10 games. However, they’ve drawn half of those games.
Grab the Tupperware full of orange slices, it’s time to preview.
Kickoff is at 6 p.m. from BMO Field in Toronto. Broadcast info: KMCI-TV 38 The Spot.
The Big Question: What is the shape of Sporting KC to come?
With challenges on the field and off mounting through May and into June, the challenge for Sporting Kansas City has been to just make it to the middle of summer in contention. There’s plenty of time to get healthy, figure out rotations and put the playoff pieces together in August and September.
The team survived the rough patch in decent shape. The injury situation is getting better and the final pieces of the roster puzzle are on the table.
The lingering question is, What’s Sporting KC’s best lineup now?
I don’t think we’ve seen it yet, but the lineup against Los Angeles last week was fairly close. And the smart money (especially since Paulo Nagamura and Eric Kronberg are listed as out for this match) would be on Vermes using the same eleven against Toronto.
However, if this is the lineup going forward*, Kansas City will have a difficult time with its geometry if Graham Zusi, Toni Dovale and Soony Saad are all going to play together. They are all ball dominant players who are naturally inclined to float from their position. (Against Manchester City, Dovale’s position could best be described as “wherever he found himself standing in the attacking half.”)
*I think we’ll likely see Zusi shifted back up top and Jorge Claros in the midfield somehow.
Geometry and width are important to KC’s attack. And, while it’s good to have possession-based creators around the ball, if the SKC becomes too narrow the ball circulation stagnates and the room for Benny Feilhaber and Dom Dwyer to operate is effectively clogged with bodies. Having one less creator and an additional wide player could help un-clog the attack.
Tactical Observation: The Igor Juliao underlap
Speaking of width... Over the last few seasons, part of Kansas City’s game plan has been to push its fullbacks (normally Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic) into the attack to help flood certain zones and create chances from crosses or pull open channels in the defense. Both Myers and Sinovic have excelled at this mostly by making overlapping runs around the wide midfielders/forwards in front of them.
With Vermes favoring “inverted wingers” the last month (such as playing left-footed winger Dovale on the right so he can cut in for a shot), the overlap can create a multiple options for point of attack.
Igor Juliao, KC’s young Brazilian loanee, has recently given the team another new option. Once or twice a half, he makes an underlapping run.
This movement has the potential to be devastating. (The Galaxy’s Jaime Penedo made a really good save to keep that out of the back of the net.) But it’s also something of a challenge for KC’s defense should he lose possession casually (which, while he’s been tantalizing, is a problem). Lawrence Olum, Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler can be left exposed and scrambling to shift into the void to cover.
Big Number: 2
Over the last 10 MLS matches, Toronto’s defense has allowed two goals six times. Oddly enough, only one of those matches ended in a loss for TFC.
On the other hand, Sporting KC’s attack has scored two goals in five of its last 10 games.* This could be a game for a few goals.
*However, in the spirit of balance, Toronto has scored 19 goals in that same span. KC: 13.
Toronto’s Dangerman: Gilberto
Without Jermain Defoe (who is suspended thanks to yellow-card accumulation) in the lineup tonight, Toronto will turn to Brazilian forward Gilberto to lead the line. This is a cause for concern for TFC, as he’s not been the most consistent threat. Over 13 games (nine of the starts), he has scored just twice and picked up two assists.
He did pick up a goal in Toronto’s last league game against Houston. It was the sort of goal — found a dangerous pocket of space, displayed a soft first touch, took his time to gain his composure and pick his spot — that Toronto likely expected to see more of this season alongside Defoe.
Michael Bradley is Michael Bradley and it’s criminal that I’ve neglected to mention him yet — but he’s the sort of player who often needs a forward to help finish the chances he creates.
The big news this week out of Sporting Land is the plan to build the national training facility in KCK. The Star’s Vahe Gregorian spent a good chunk of the week covering that event and also had a really good column about the team’s latest vision.
Toronto’s defense hasn’t been convincing (see above) and the team has been very dependent on Defoe to carry the offensive load. Up until last week, KC had been dependent in the same way on Dwyer but Feilhaber and Olum have stepped up with timely goals from midfield.
Kansas City is riding high and brimming with confidence. They should have enough to push past TFC, but it should be a fairly close and hard-fought game.