A frustrating regular season for the defending MLS Cup champs comes to an end this evening. This season, which started with so much promise, will close with Sporting Kansas City fighting for a playoff seed and pride against the talented (but also temperamental) New York Red Bulls.
Kansas City is coming in off a very difficult week that saw them lose a tough road game to the Philadelphia Union and get bounced out of the CONCACAF Champions League down in Costa Rica on Thursday. The injuries have continued to pile up on Peter Vermes’ squad as well with Matt Besler, Benny Feilhaber and Andy Gruenebaum all doubtful to some degree.
But, no pressure, right? The Red Bulls only bring the league’s Golden Boot winner (Bradley Wright-Philips) and one of the most dangerous attackers in the league (Thierry Henry, potentially in his last regular season game) to town.
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Venue: Sporting Park
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Broadcast: Live on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes. Also, you can find it on SiriusXM FC and LA Gran D 1340 AM in KC.
About Kansas City: 14-12-7 (49 points) overall and 6-4-6 at home. Over the last six matches, KC is 2-3-1.
About New York: 12-10-11 (47 points) overall and 2-7-7 on the road. Over the last six matches, NY is 3-2-1
What’s At Stake?
Well, playoff position. Kansas City currently has a two-point lead over New York and a three-point lead over Columbus (who play Philadelphia early in the day).
Here are the scenarios.
A win means KC will hold the third spot and host the New England Revolution next weekend in the first of a two-leg series in the Eastern Conference semifinals. (If KC and Columbus both win, KC would hold the advantage based on the first tiebreaker of total wins.)
A draw and a Crew loss or draw would lead to the same outcome. However, a draw and a Crew win would see both finish on 52 points, with Columbus moving into the third spot based on tiebreakers. (In this KC draw/Crew win scenario, both would finish with 14 wins — first tiebreaker — but Columbus would have a better goal differential — the second tiebreaker.)
That’s the easy part. A loss makes this more complicated.
A SKC loss would drop Sporting into the play-in game. A loss combined with a loss by the Crew would see KC as the #4 seed, Columbus as the #5 and the game would be at Sporting Park.
A SKC loss combined with a Crew win or draw would see KC drop to the #5 seed and travel to New York for the play-in game. (If Kansas City loses by more than six goals to New York, flip the Red Bulls and Crew in this game with Sporting as the road team.)
Got all that? The TL;DR version: If Kansas City takes care of business, it will get at least one more home game.
In case you’re wondering
Kansas City’s record against its potential playoff opponents.
vs. New England: 0-3-0, -5 goal differential
vs. New York: 0-1-1, -1 GD
vs. Columbus: 2-0-0, +3 GD
Tactical Question: Does KC have anything left in the tank?
Today will be the 34th MLS match for Kansas City and the 43rd match overall (including the U.S. Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions League and the friendly against Manchester City). It’s also the 17th match since Aug. 1 — that’s about a game every five days.
That’s a lot of fixtures for a team in a league that caps its roster at 30 players.
This team started the season touting its depth and stability for those 40+ fixtures, and Peter Vermes certainly needed just about every single body available. Throughout the year, he used 30 different players and 31 different starting lineups in league play.*
*Of the 14 teams to start 30 different players in MLS history, only Kansas City this year and Chivas USA in 2008 have finished with winning records.
The lack of consistency and fatigue have been noticeable for months. Look no further than number of late goals allowed (10 after the 76th minute) and general mistakes (including poor turnovers and set-piece marking) committed over the last three months.
It’s like a car running out of gas about 45 miles from the next exit on a highway.
Injuries, obviously, have been the primary factor. Every single regular (save for Dom Dwyer) has been injured at some point this season. Questionable for this game: Matt Besler, Andy Gruenbaum and Benny Feilhaber. Igor Juliao (who left the Saprissa game with an injury in the first half) would join that list, but he’s suspended for this game anyway.
After a trying trip to Costa Rica a few days ago, this will be a tremendous gut check time for Kansas City. The team needs rest and all the recovery time it can get. A win against New York means KC won’t have to travel again until the second weekend in November.
But do they have enough to get past a Red Bulls team fighting to stay out of the fifth spot? Before Kansas City can even think of putting together an MLS Cup run, it needs to show it can beat a playoff team in a high-pressure situation.
The team is missing four players out for the year — Chance Myers, Ike Opara, Erik Palmer-Brown and Christian Duke — and Matt Besler (right thigh contusion) and Andy Gruenebaum (right calf strain) are both questionable. What’s more, Benny Feilhaber and Igor Juliao both had to leave the first half of the Saprissa game injured on Thursday. Feilhaber is a doubt for this game, Juliao is suspended.
The saving grace for KC here is that the Red Bulls have been poor on the road this year, with only two wins away from Red Bull Arena (at Dallas in May and at New England in June). It’s also a hard team to get a read on. Over the last month, New York has thumped Seattle (4-1 at home) and Toronto (3-1 at home), but have been drubbed by Los Angeles (4-0 in LA) and Columbus (3-1 last weekend in New York).*
*That sort of makes Kansas City’s consistency problems seem pretty normal.
The Columbus-Philadelphia game will be done and dusted by the time KC-NY kickoff. Meaning, these two teams will no exactly what result they’ll need in this match. A Columbus win might be just the kick in the adidas shorts that Kansas City needs. Perhaps this team can put together a champions-quality performance with their backs firmly and totally pressed into the wall.
All that said, I think this is going to end in a draw. Both sides are potent attacks. Both have leaky defenses.