It’s been a long time since DC has had success against Sporting Kansas City, but with KC perhaps tired and a little banged up after their midweek penalty kick win over Seattle for the US Open Cup, DC just might find some very valuable points in the playoff hunt.
SKC had to go the full 120 minutes and PKs to garner their first US Open Cup trophy, and it was quite a physical match to boot, with injuries to left back Seth Sinovic and Paulo Nagamura as well as numerous bumps and bruises. So, while KC welcomes back All Star center back Aurelien Collin and has the home field advantage, how motivated and able they are to cash in on that remains to be seen.
DC, on the other hand has lost their left back too as Daniel Woolard suffered a concussion in the win over the Crew and defending league MVP Dwayne De Rosario has a bit of a banged up shoulder. But, they welcome back former rookie of the year, Andy Najar from his successful and possibly lucrative Olympic sojourn, as well as traded for young veteran left back Mike Chabala from the Portland Timbers.
DC trails SKC by four points in the Eastern Conference but has two games in hand, so a win especially on the road would go a long way toward United’s playoff aspirations. Kansas might have a bit of a Cup hangover heading into this game as this season is already a success with that Open Cup win and subsequent automatic entrance into the CONCACAF Champions League next year.
Tough to tell who Vermes lines up in this match as SKC given the situation above as well as the fact that with their Open Cup run, SKC has had a pretty full schedule of late. Going on the expectation that neither Sinovic, Nagamura (facial laceration), or Roger Espinoza (played 120 min a day after returning from Olympics with a banged up shoulder) play in this one at all, and that it’s doubtful either former DC midfielder Bobby Convey (hamstring), CJ Sapong (groin) or Jacob Peterson (shoulder) start, although they may see minutes, I think Vermes goes with a mixed lineup.
Almost certainly Kei Kamara and Teal Bunbury will start as two of the three forwards in their 4-3-3, the other could be Convey, but I don’t think so as he wasn’t even in the 18 for the Open Cup. I think Soony Saad gets the start as he played well coming on for Convey early in the win over NE in their last league match.
In midfield, there’s no question Grahma Zusi will be the playmaker in the center, and if Nagamura and Espinoza are out, I think Brazilian antique Julio Cesar moves up into one of the holding roles alongside young bruiser Michael Thomas, who also played well as a reserve in that NE match.
Without Sinovic, Vermes has a bit of a dilemma as the young American has started 20 of 22 matches and is third on the team in minutes played; however, Michael Harrington could easily replace him and has had success there against DC in his past having scored a goal in his first MLS match against DC in the 2007 opener. Obviously Collin alongside Matt Besler has been as good as any central pairing in MLS this year, and former number one pick Chance Myers on the right completes a pretty solid defense in front of the White Puma, Jimmy Nielsen in the nets.
As for DC, Olsen’s biggest decisions obviously are who plays for the concussed Woolard and who starts at the forward positions now that DC media is reporting that Maicon Santos (toe), Hamdi Salihi (viral infection) are out, and DeRo has only practiced once since injuring his shoulder against the Crew.
Looking at the defense first as is prudent entering a road match in a place you haven’t won since 2007, the obvious choice is Chabala as he’s a natural left back and quite familiar with SKC and MLS, albeit only familiar with DC’s game plans since Thursday. Also considering SKC’s three forward system, I think Olsen goes with a hybrid formation to maximize DC’s strengths and minimize DC’s weaknesses. I think he starts Dejan Jakovic as the left back and pretty much goes man on man along with Brandon McDonald,and Emiliano Dudar against KC’s three forwards.
Further, considering the key to taking KC out of their high pressure game and breaking down their defense is to get your outside players well forward into the attack, I think Andy Najar plays the “right back” position but really is almost a midfielder only concerned with helping McDonald and Perry Kitchen as necessary or when Harrington gets forward, but really is expected to fly forward any chance he gets.
At forward, clearly Long Tan is going to get another chance to keep his surprising starting slot, but with DeRo now doubtful, I think Olsen has to tap Chris Pontius as the other starter up top to give DC a more serious scoring threat to go along with the slasher, Tan.
Taking Pontius out of midfield is no problem as Nick Deleon is back to playing well, and Danny Cruz is easily capable of battling with anyone on his side of the field and covering for Najar when he overlaps. In the center, Boskovic is going to get thrown to the wolves a bit as he faces Cesar and Thomas or Espinoza, so he needs to make sure his contributions on set pieces are a lot better than the dismal efforts that bounced away hideously.
So, looking at them matchups, DC is in dire straits of course, but has a glimmer of hope. Kamara has played the most minutes of any KC player and will flat out be tired, as will Bunbury who has played a ton of minutes lately after not playing very many earlier on. If they are the least bit off and DC’s defense plays as they are capable, that’s a net gain for DC. I also like Kitchen against Zusi as the KC midfielder has been slumping a bit of late and Kitchen is playing light’s out good as the midfield anchor for DC. If KC’s main attackers are contained reasonably well, DC is in good shape for at least a respectable tie.
DC’s attack without DeRo will be hard pressed to manage much against the best defense in the Eastern conference, but DC has actually outscored KC quite considerably this season (35 goals for to 27 in 2 less games) and could shock a tired team with a sparkling FK or a capitalize on a mistake such as say, the over-rated Chance Myers getting over run by Pontius and Deleon.
Plus, if DC keeps the game tight, DeRo off the bench has to be about the scariest player outside of Chris Wondolowski for KC to see coming into a tight match.
However, all of that is pie in the sky unless DC decides to show some gumption on the road this season which they really have not done this year. DC has a mere 3 wins on the road this year, all against the dregs of the East (TFC, Philly, NE) and worse has gone paws up against almost all upper middle class opponents (LA, SJ, Houston twice, NY, and throw the Crew in there too), going a combined 0-6, outscored a whopping 17-5 being shutout 3 times.
Obviously, DC can’t go into KC with all guns blazing or they will likely lose 5-2 like they did in SJ, but they can’t go in twitchy and tentative like they did in LA (3-1 loss)or the second trip to Houston (4-0), but a solid performance like the first trip into Houston (1-0 loss in Houston’s stadium opener) would give DC a chance to get out of KC with some huge points both in the standings and in the old confidence department which will be crucial heading down the stretch.
Of course, DC has some wicked Karma to overcome too. KC has never been a kind place for DC. Plenty of ugly ghosts for DC to remember from the past. As mentioned Dc hasn’t won there since 2007, but further than that, DC has only 4 wins there in their last 17 matches since the turn of the century. But, United does have a handful of draws out there, 5 in the last matches there. True, some were wrenching draws like the season ender in 2009, but draws nonetheless and a point in this match would be just fine.
And KC hasn’t been lighting it up at home this summer, either. Sporting has been hardly inspiring lately with a 0-2-2 record since mid June, including two 0-0 draws sandwiched between a 1-0 loss to the Fire and a 2-1 loss to the Crew in their last hoe match. That’s a whole lot of not scoring at home to go with that dismal record as well. Of course, DC has been even worse than that on the road lately, so perhaps recent trends are not the right comparison to make.
Obviously, DC should not be favored in this match, but given KC’s banged up and tired team, recent form at home, and perhaps overconfidence given their recent record against DC, maybe DC could sneak away with a point or more. Without their biggest guns might be a good thing for DC to rally behind, forcing an emphasis on tight defense and grinding a result on the road would be a good step in the right direction for a team with playoff aspirations. Winning at home is mandatory for a contender, but having a winning attitude on the road, even if you don’t actually win, is crucial to any kind of decent playoff success.
DC needs to take the next step.