The Full 90

MatchDay Preview: Sporting KC faces gut check in D.C.

SKC's Igor Juliao defends against United's Perry Kitchen at the soccer match between Sporting KC and DC United at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Ks. August 23, 2014.
SKC's Igor Juliao defends against United's Perry Kitchen at the soccer match between Sporting KC and DC United at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Ks. August 23, 2014. Special to The Kansas City Star

It’s gut check time for Sporting Kansas City. With the August slide having continued through September, the playoffs are no longer a certainty.

Peter Vermes and company likely have to find six or eight points from the last four games. Earning anything at D.C. United tonight is a very tough proposition.

Can KC get back on track? Is a late run to the playoff on the cards? Let’s throw out a preview and get ready for tonight’s massively massive major game.

The Basics

Venue: RFK Memorial Stadium

Kickoff: 7 p.m.

Broadcast: NBC Sports Network

About KC: 13-11-6 (45 points) on the season, 8-7-0 on the road. Over the last six games, KC is 1-5-0.

About DC: 15-9-6 (51 points) on the season, 10-2-3 at home. Over the last six games, United is 2-2-2.

Previous Meetings: D.C. United has defeated Kansas City twice this season by a combined score of 4-0.

Tactical Question: Where will the line settle?

This is a leftover question from yesterday’s mailbag that fits way more with the preview. So, here goes.

The simple answer: Stop making mistakes and get back to basics.

The more complicated answer: KC needs to figure out where to set its defensive line.

When Kansas City played a very high line against D.C. United in August, the United forwards attacked into the space behind. It was a bloodbath.

Against New England last week, Sporting defenders dropped deeper to clog passing lanes and restrict space behind, but it actually opened up space for the Revs to attack in other ways.

It’s a common move for a coach looking to stop leaking goals out of the back. Unfortunately, KC kept up the high pressure from its forwards. This left a lot of space between the defensive and forward lines for Paulo Nagamura, Benny Feilhaber and Jorge Claros to cover. At times, way too much space.

The part of that goal that sticks out like a sore thumb for me? Lee Nguyen isn’t confronted as he dribbles forward with the ball and allow the Revs to set up shop. To make it worse, Nguyen smartly drags Claros with him out of position to open up a lane for Jermaine Jones. Matt Besler and Kevin Ellis are too far back to close down, Feilhaber and Nagamura are late arriving to help.

Since the line had dropped off to cover the Revs forwards, Jones had enough space to do whatever he wanted.

Sporting KC needs to right the ship, and it can start by figuring out if it’s going to drop deeper together or keep pressing high together. The key is that all three lines of players need be in sync.

Last year during October and into the MLS Cup playoffs, Peter Vermes had a lot of success with a more counter-attacking and withdrawn set-up — especially on the road. While not very sexy, it has proven in the past very effective.

Lineup Questions

The two injury doubts for this game: Jacob Peterson (left hamstring strain) and Aurelien Collin (right ankle strain). Earlier this week, Erik Palmer-Brown was shelved for the rest of the season with a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot.

Other than that, Kansas City is about as healthy as it’s been since April.

Lots of Kansas City players on yellow card warnings: Antonio Dovale, Eric Kronberg, Paulo Nagamura, Kevin Ellis, Graham Zusi, Matt Besler.

Dangerman

Davy Arnaud is a Kansas City legend. One day, his name will be enshrined in Sporting KC’s hall of honor.

But his career isn’t over yet and, recently, he’s been quite vital to United’s revival. Having dropped deeper into a box-to-box role, he’s been highly effective in shielding the defense and winning the ball back in the midfield.

Davy’s always been a warrior and a much better ball-winning midfielder than he gets credit for. During his last years in KC, Vermes had been deploying him in a box-to-box role (with more attacking tendencies) because he chased the ball like it owed him money.

Ben Olsen has harnessed that drive and given him a younger running mate to help carry the water in Perry Kitchen.

According to this excellent piece at Goal.com, United is 15-4-4 with Arnaud and Kitchen together in the midfield. Without them, United is 0-5-2 with another other combo.

Prediction

Sorry KC fans, I think this is a hill too high to climb. United is very good and has the sort of lineup to make KC pay for any mistakes. And, recently, KC has been making a few too many mistakes. The points needed to make it to the playoffs will have to come from matches with Chicago, Philadelphia and New York.

 
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