Know Your Enemy: Sporting Club Kansas City

Collin: “Dire quoi? Chicago’s beat us twice already this season? Sacrebleu!” (Photo: soccerbyives.net)

On The Fire’s resident fotbal genius and MLS expert Domnul Stephen Mangat brings you the goods once again.

Let the hype fest commence! The Chicago Fire head to top-of-the-table Kansas City (55 points, 16-7-7) to take on Sporting for the third time this season in a blockbuster Friday night nationally-televised Eastern Conference matchup. Chicago came away victorious in both previous matches this season vs. SKC, but these battles occurred prior to Chicago’s new-look lineup and their recent rampant form. So let’s take a look at SKC and see what’s the dillio…

PLAY OUR MUSIC!!

Vermes: “If I wasn’t hand-cuffed right now, I’d choke you out.” (Photo: pitch.com)

After a rough late June and early July (8 points from 9 matches with losses to Philly, Montreal, and a draw with New England), Kansas City has rediscovered its dominant early season form and is unbeaten in its last eight (18 points, with wins vs. RBNY and DC). Head Coach (and former US international) Peter Vermes has the team hitting its stride at the right time – perhaps preventing him from hitting the bars, which is a good thing for SKC fans, the wife and kids, etc. Plus, several of his starters were on the bench during last Saturday’s draw at Montreal, so Sporting will be well-rested, feeling good, and ready for the Fire.

Tactics

Vermes has the team set up in a high-pressure 4-3-3. Smart passers in the midfield are complemented by speed and strength up top, with Graham Zusi roaming and pulling the strings. The other forwards CJ Sapong and Kei Kamara are big, fast, strong, and offer a handful for any defense, while the midfield trio is well-positioned, maintains posession, and keeps the ball moving. It’s also worth noting that Sporting lead the league with 180 corner kicks, from which defender Aurelien Collin poses an additional scoring threat to that of Sapong and Kemara on set pieces.

Goalkeeper

Sporting goalie Jimmy Nielsen is one of the league’s best. The MLS All-Star game starter and SKC captain, Nielsen combines often fantastic shot-stopping with an ability to effectively organize the defense in front of him. The Dane’s on-field leadership is the foundation of what is arguably the league’s best defense.

Defense

In this case, numbers don’t lie. Having conceded a mere 25 goals in 30 matches of league play, Sporting’s strength lies in their defense. From left to right, the back four is settled with Seth Sinovic, Matt Besler, all-star Aurelien Collin and Chance Myers. SKC is 23-2-7 all-time with this back line starting (great stat courtesy of sportingkc.com). Frenchman Collin is the guy who gets all the attention, but KC natives Besler and Sinovic have been impressive for the past couple of seasons.

Sinovic and Myers have license to get up and down the flanks. Against weaker opponents they really press forward, but if you check out their heatmaps from the Opta chalkboard vs. NYRB, you’ll see that the fullback duo plays far more conservatively against top teams. Some of this is natural, as SKC won’t dominate possession and they won’t be able to get forward, but it also demonstrates they’re not one-trick ponies who just bomb up and down the wings and are unable to play disciplined, smart defense.


Midfield

I went over a few Opta chalkboards, checked stats, and read some blogs, but I couldn’t find any solid insight on the SKC midfield trio of Roger Espinoza, Julio Cesar, and Paulo Nagamura. But, I can certainly tell you this: they’re all solid veterans who play smart and make deliberate passes. The trio is well-organized defensively, gets behind the ball, and wins it back with regularity. They support and get the ball to the attackers quite well.

Yet that said, not one of the three really stands out. Not one scores goals or makes the killer pass. And as a group, they don’t dominate games and boss the midfield. Bottom Line: Espinoza, Cesar, and Nagamura know their respective roles and do their jobs very well. The trio controls and manages the game, and provides a foundation upon which their teammates can build a victory.

NOTE: Nagamura has a right foot contusion and is questionable for Friday’s match. If Nagamura can’t go, Graham Zusi may drop back into midfield. If this happens, look for either Englishman Dom Dwyer or 20 year-old Soony Saad to move into the trio up top. However, if Zusi remains at forward, look for the Spainard Oriol Rosell to replace the ailing Nagamura. [Thanks to Ji Shuheng and Sombra Ala for the inside dope.]

Forwards

Kei Kamara leads MLS with 125 shots and 46 shots on goal this season. CJ Sapong, MLS 2011 Rookie of the Year, started hot then experienced a rough patch due to nagging minor injuries. Not coincidentally, when Sapong wasn’t 100% healthy, SKC was in a bit of a rut. But, the young man from JMU now looks to be back at his best with two goals in his last three outings. Kamara and Sapong are big and strong, thus the perfect foil for Zusi’s quick, sharp passing and accurate crosses. Taken as a whole, they’re a dangerous unit and can score goals in several different ways.

What should Chicago’s tactical approach be during this hugely important match?

Looking up and down the roster, it’s easy to see why Sporting is at the top of the Eastern Conference – they have really good players at every position. Save for a midsummer run of poor form, SKC’s been pretty damn impressive this season. They’re defensively disciplined and offensively dangerous. That said, KC hasn’t been all sunshine this season and Chicago can take heart that Sporting isn’t invincible. So what’s Frank Klopas to do?

1. Stay the course. Chicago’s formation and personnel match up well with SKC’s. Wingers Patrick Nyarko and Alvaro Fernandez have proven they can defend. Against Columbus, Chicago showed they can neutralize a sneaky playmaker (Federico Higuain) who roames a la Graham Zusi. The midfield matchup is 3 vs. 3, as Chris Rolfe will demand the attention of a holding midfielder and a defender. Basically, Klopas has to trust his players in this game.

2. Prevent Graham Zusi from operating. Zusi is the man that makes things happen for SKC. Just like Higuain for Columbus last week, Chicago’s defenders need to be on their toes and be aware of where Zusi is at all times. To underscore his importance to his team, Zusi’s 14 assists lead the league and he’s had an assist in six of his last eight matches.

3. Sit back off the midfielders. While all solid pros, the Sporting midfield trio doesn’t pose a great danger on the ball. All combined, Nagamura, Espinoza, and Julio Cesar have 3 assists this season. Plus, SKC has scored 35 of their 37 goals from inside the penalty area, so they’re not going to start dropping bombs from outside. Consequently, the Fire can afford to be patient and smart on defense. That said, playing patient defense is fine, but it’ll backfire and blow up in their face if the Men in Red let Sinovic and Myers (especially Myers) launch crosses into the box and don’t put enough pressure on Zusi when he goes looking for the ball.

4. Play quickly in transition. By sitting back, Chicago will have opportunties to counter, but they must do so quickly. This sounds like a Pardo (or Alex) to Nyarko to Rolfe special on the break waiting to happen. The speed of their passing will determine whether or not quality scoring chances happen for the Fire.

Going into KC and playing straight up isn’t exactly sexy and doesn’t make for tactical wizardry, yet it’ll be helpful for Frank Klopas to see how the two teams fare when going toe-to-toe with one another. It can’t be ignored that it’s likely that these clubs will meet in the playoffs. As such, there’s no point in Klopas tipping his hand and unveiling some genius tactical plan earlier than needed.

So, good luck to all and enjoy the trip if you’re going. I’m looking forward to catching this one on TV – and on the #FireBus too…

– On The Fire’s Stephen Mangat is sad he can’t make the road trip to KC. He really wanted to stop to pee in Mark Twain’s cave on the way.

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