The Full 90

MatchDay Preview: It all comes down to this for Sporting KC

The Kansas City Star

This season has been a season full of frustration for Sporting Kansas City.

An optimistic preseason — defend the Cup, Champions League, Open Cup, treble talk — quickly gave way to the first sign of an uphill climb.

Not a month into the season, Sporting KC was drubbed out of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals with a 5-0 loss (5-2 on aggregate) to Cruz Azul in Mexico City.

Then came the season-ending injuries to Chance Myers and Ike Opara. The nagging injuries to key contributors at the worst possible times. Oriol Rosell leaving. Portland tossing KC out of the Open Cup. Matt Besler coming back from the World Cup a shell of himself. That stretch in August. The Philadelphia game. And then, crashing out of the CCL against Saprissa when in control of its own destiny and limping out of the regular season with a 2-0 loss to New York.*

*Thanks to that loss, Kansas City starts the playoffs having slipped from 2nd in the East in August to the 5th seed.

A season that began with great expectations, is suddenly one more bad result away from ending with a dull thud.

Let’s get the preview on. It might be our last in 2014.

The Basics

Venue: Red Bull Arena in Harrisonville, New Jersey

Kickoff: 7 p.m.

Broadcast: ESPN2, local radio on 810 WHB (English) and La Gran D 1340 AM (Spanish)

About SKC: 14-13-7 (49 points) overall, 8-8-1 on the road. Over the last six matches, Kansas City is 2-3-1.

About New York: 13-10-11 (50 points) overall, 10-3-4 at home. Over the last six matches, New York is 4-2-0.

Head-to-head: New York has the advantage with two wins and a draw this year against Sporting. The goal differential is +3.

Tactical Question: What happens if Thierry Henry plays?

Sporting KC’s biggest defensive issue over the last three months has been dealing with players drifting into the zone between midfield and defense. Think New England’s Lee Nguyen and D.C. United’s Luis Silva.

Creative players in that position have been pulling KC out of its defensive shape and then playing balls through to (often extremely) open forwards. Igor Juliao and Aurelien Collin in particular seem unable to find the right balance and distance between them.

Last Sunday, New York was able to stuff Bradley Wright-Philips right down Kansas City’s throat using this same channel, but without the services of the best creative forward (perhaps ever) in Major League Soccer at operating in that zone. Thierry Henry eats high defensive lines for breakfast.

Wright-Philips, the league’s golden boot winner, found space and time behind Kansas City’s defensive line. He’s been brilliant this year at making incisive runs and finding himself into dangerous spots. His 27 goals include four against KC.

Henry was rested in the season finale with sore Achilles. I don’t expect him to rest with this much on the line. And, if he plays, he’ll drift around the area behind the strikers and is absolutely deadly when he drifts out to the left wing. Kansas City will have to design a solution to help Igor Juliao — a defensive adventure with average MLS players — or else Henry can rip KC’s defensive line apart.

Lineup Issues

For Kansas City, the big question will be whether Benny Feilhaber is fit enough to go. As of Tuesday, he told The Star’s Sam McDowell he was 50/50. That’s not good for Kansas City. Without Feilhaber’s creativity and (new this year) high work rate, Kansas City’s midfield isn’t very dynamic. (Try as hard as Graham Zusi does, he’s a much better player this year with Feilhaber with him around.)

The good news: Feilhaber (and Juliao) both traveled to New York. Vermes likely needs both to be ready.

Prediction

This isn’t an easy game to pick. New York just got done making Kansas City look silly last weekend. Kansas City is very good on the road and played well in New York back in September — but lost 2-1.

But I have to look at form. Kansas City’s is terrible. New York’s is slightly erratic.

Kansas City has been drifting as the season has closed. If the season had been another week or so longer, it’s doubtful that Sporting KC would’ve even made the playoffs.

To win Kansas City will need an electric game from Dom Dwyer, a vintage Zusi performance, a healthy Feilhaber, Collin-Besler to be near 2013 form and the midfield/defense not to make costly turnovers.

That’s a lot that has to go right. I think a weird, hectic, injury-plagued season ends tonight.

 
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