The Full 90

MatchDay Preview Mailbag: Is Sporting KC back on track?

Sporting KC goalkeeper Eric Kronberg (1) grabs the ball before D.C. United forward Eddie Johnson (7) can make a play on it in the first half at RFK Stadium in Washington, Saturday, May 31, 2014.
Sporting KC goalkeeper Eric Kronberg (1) grabs the ball before D.C. United forward Eddie Johnson (7) can make a play on it in the first half at RFK Stadium in Washington, Saturday, May 31, 2014. MCT

Since this week was light on mailbag questions and this is a rare Thursday game, we’re combining a MatchDay Preview with a Mailbag.

Last week, Sporting Kansas City emphatically put an end to a four-game losing streak and got its MLS playoff campaign (at least temporarily) headed back in the right direction. Over the next week, can SKC do the same for the CONCACAF Champions League journey?

With only one game played — a 1-1 draw in Nicaragua with Esteli — Sporting KC sits in third place in Group 2 behind Deportivo Saprissa (1-0-1, 4 points) and Real Esteli (0-1-2, 2 points). Over the next five days though, Kansas City host both Saprissa and Esteli at Sporting Park. Two wins would put KC in control of the group with 7 points from three games. (The only game remaining then would be KC’s trip to Costa Rica in October. If KC is on 7 points for that game, a draw will be all that is necessary to win the group outright.)

Up first tonight is Saprissa, one of the more dangerous teams in CONCACAF. The Costa Rican squad reached the CCL semifinals in 2010-11 and currently sit in fourth place in the Costa Rican Primera Division. The team hasn’t played a league match in September however due to player involvement in the Copa Centroamericano and the last league match was a 1-1 draw with winless Uruguay on Aug. 31.

For Kansas City, tonight could see the return of first-choice goalkeeper Eric Kronberg from a broken bone in his left hand.

Without a league match looming this weekend, Peter Vermes has the option to use a lot of his first-team regulars. It’s a strategy that would make sense against a tougher opponent, with the option of resting players against Esteli next week ahead of an important clash with New England next Friday.

It could be a good chance for the team to build consistency and form at this stage of the season — especially as out of sorts as the team has looked at times.

Winning at Sporting Park has often been difficult for Sporting KC the last two seasons — especially in CCL play, when KC drew with both Olimpia and Esteli in 2013. However, I think KC can build on its last match and overtake a potentially rusty Saprissa team.

 

Kickoff is at 7 p.m. tonight and will be broadcast on Fox Sports 1 and Univision Deportes Network.

Time for a few reader questions sent in via Twitter.

First the facts. As of right now, there are four ways for an American MLS team to qualify for the CCL: win the MLS Cup, win the Supporters’ Shield (best record), finish first in the conference opposite the MLS Supporters’ Shield winner and win the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

On Tuesday, the Seattle Sounders won the Open Cup. The Sounders are also the leaders in the Supporters’ Shield standings. According to CONCACAF, should one team occupy more than one of the U.S. slots (or the unlikely scenario that a Canadian team wins a league spot), the next best U.S.-based MLS team qualifies based on regular-season record.

So, basically: Kansas City has two main paths to qualify for the CCL next year.

1) Win the MLS Cup. Obviously, still in play.

2) Pip D.C. United in the East if/when Seattle wins the Supporters’ Shield. (Best finish in opposite conference.) Of course, if Seattle does win the SS to go along with the Open Cup, that would open another spot. And, should KC finish behind D.C. but ahead of the likes of Los Angeles and Salt Lake (could be difficulty), that could be an option too.*

*If Seattle wins the treble — the first Open Cup, Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup winners in the league history — it would open up an extra TWO spots.

Qualification in a dual-country league with two distinct conferences and playoffs isn’t as cut-and-dried as it is in European leagues.

This is sort of a tricky question. I think it’s too easy to immediately say that KC is absolutely and totally back on track. Sporting KC demolished Toronto 4-1 before losing four games in a row.

I also think it’s too easy to completely write off Chivas as terrible. Of course, Chivas has been bad — but I actually thought the Goats gave KC a good game at times on Friday night. Ultimately though, Chivas without Erick Torres just couldn’t compete with KC’s firepower and shot themselves in the foot too often on defense.

So, my answer is mixed. Kansas City looked really good against a non-very-good-but-game team. I’m always a fan of waiting to see a pattern emerges.

But soccer— especially in a league as tight and parity-driven as MLS at this point of the year — is really about momentum.

We saw this in August when a few negative results — especially one as demoralizing as the 3-1 loss to Houston — cascaded into a full-on slide for Kansas City.

This is a team that, from Peter Vermes on down, that is driven by confidence. (You don’t play a high-line pressing system without believing you are good enough to compensate for mistakes.)

Benny Feilhaber, Dom Dwyer, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi all had good games against Chivas. All four needed to get their confidence back.

Feilhaber, Dwyer and Zusi, especially, showed how lethal Kansas City can be on attack when all three are operating with confidence and enthusiasm.

Perhaps one result — a big one at that — is enough to restore self-belief in a team that had started to display slumped shoulders and nervous touches. But I want to see what Sporting KC can do over the next week and a half before I’m ready to have this discussion for real.

Before the game on Friday, Sports Illustrated’s Brian Strauss reported that Chivas might sit out next season as part of the ongoing ownership-crisis with LA’s second team. With Orlando City and New York City FC joining expansion clubs, it would leave the league with 20 teams — and an extremely imbalanced 12 teams in the East with only 8 out West. The two most likely clubs are Houston and Kansas City.

It makes sense, both are the only two Eastern Conference teams on the West side of the Mississippi River. Whether it happens next year or in a few years — another Eastern team, Atlanta will join in 2017 — it’s likely going to happen at some point.

From an entertainment perspective, I think it could be a brilliant move. Imagine a conference with Los Angeles, Seattle, Salt Lake and Kansas City? It would be a playoff race the entire season. Those are the four most consistently good teams over the last three years. Throw in Portland, Vancouver, Houston and Dallas and that’s a stacked conference.

Life will be different though not just in terms of getting results against stiffer competition, but there will long-distance travel and lots of 9:30 p.m. kickoffs — Chivas, Los Angeles, San Jose, Seattle, Portland and Vancouver are all Pacific time zone teams and two hours behind.

As for the rivalries, I already consider Kansas City’s two best rivals Salt Lake and Houston. Colorado and Dallas are both drivable road trips — and, stylistically, probably better rivals than Chicago.

A big question that I have if this does actually happen: Will the league go to a balanced schedule with 20 teams? Currently, the league has a 34-game unbalanced schedule (Eastern teams only play Western clubs once but some conference rivals three times). It would up the games played for each team by four (38 total), but would do away with the messy business of bye weeks and games in hand.

It’s a development to watch over the next month, especially as we near the expansion draft in December.

Thanks as always for the good questions. We’ll be back before the Esteli game with a preview and a mailbag after.

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