MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on Sporting Kansas City ahead of Saturday’s match at New England

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Ahead of Saturdays’ first-leg of this conference semifinal series, here are the must-knows about Sporting Kansas City (Tonight’s match kicks off at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN):

  • Benny Feilhaber or Paulo Nagamura … or neither?

The big choice for Sporting manager Peter Vermes isn’t just about his midfield personnel options – it’s more about how he wants to approach this first leg, the away leg for his team. And that will dictate his most pressing midfield personnel decision.

If the visitors want to defend-and-counter, Vermes could go with veteran Paulo Nagamura, who is back to full training. (Vermes says a second-leg appearance is more likely; but who could put a little lineup gamesmanship past any MLS manager?) Nagamura, a tough tackler who isn’t afraid of taking a few fouls, will make things even harder on New England, a team that tilts more toward the technical and less toward the tenacious as it is.

If Vermes senses any defensive vulnerability and the chance to really seize control of this series before it heads back to the Midwest, he might insert Benny Feilhaber into the starting lineup. Feilhaber adds more sophistication to the SKC’s passing, especially as it concerns finding chief playmaker Graham Zusi faster, and in better spots.

Of course, the manager could also just leave things be: that’s having Oriol Rosell (pictured) and Lawrence Olum line up as dual holding mids, with Zusi playing ahead of them in the central midfield arrangement. That’s how the team lined up last week in a 1-0 win at Philadelphia, a match where Sporting needed to retain Supporters Shield hopes.

Zusi has been asked to man central roles at time this year and flank roles at other times, which is where he plays for the national team.

(MORE: Previewing Sporting KC at New England)

  • Contrast in styles

New England just doesn’t really do flank play.

Well, they do … kind of. The preferred route (with its 4-1-4-1 formation) is always through the middle, on the ground. They’ll work through target play and combination play, often involving the quick feet of Lee Nguyen or Diego Fagundez. The Revs had the fewest crosses from the wings of an MLS side this year.

Sporting Kansas City, meanwhile, scores goals with a balance of flank play and counter attacking through selectively applied high pressure. Vermes’ team, always in a 4-3-3, isn’t the hell-bent constant high-pressure beast of the last two years, but they do understand when to press as a unit – and it can be devastating to the opponent who is careless with the ball in midfield.

  • Dom Dwyer’s recent rise … and what of Claudio Bieler?

Hard to say why the club’s Argentine Designated Player, who started so well but faded through the summer, isn’t playing lately. Is it a groin strain … or is the guy just not in the manager’s good graces right now.

Either way, he has been left to languish recently, stuck to the bench – and providing young striker Dom Dwyer the chance he needed to rise.

The team certainly gets more pressure and pursuit from Dwyer, perhaps less skillful and less instinctive about finding the ball inside the penalty area – but easily the more active in terms of trying to immediately regain the ball in the first third of the field.

Dwyer’s year has certainly been memorable. The second year forward went on loan to Orlando City, where he helped lead the Lions to their second USL PRO title in three years. Then, back in place at Sporting Park, Dwyer has done good things lately, including a huge game-winning goal at D.C. United late in the year as SKC pressed for Supporters Shield.

  • Jimmy Nielsen, still dominating MLS stats

No MLS goalkeeper has dominated statistically over the last three years the way KC’s Jimmy Nielsen has.

Obviously, a lot of this is about a tremendous defense in front of him. Still, we love stats in this country. Plus, the guy is good.

Nielsen matched New York’s Luis Robles in league wins (17) and finished second in the league in goals-against average (0.88) and shutouts (13).

His 546-minute shutout streak early in the year held up all season, easily the longest of anyone in the league through the entire campaign.

As mentioned, this is absolutely nothing new for the Dane, nicknamed the “White Puma.”  Nielsen was named 2012 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and was named a Best XI selection after finishing second in goals against average with one of the best numbers in league history (0.79).

Nielsen, in his fourth year with the club, has already set a number of club records.

(MORE: Notes on New England ahead of Saturday’s match)

(MORE: ProSoccerTalk’s MLS post-season picks and predictions)

Report: American teenager linked with Manchester United

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The U.S. Men’s National Team is always looking for more Christian Pulisic-like players, and another star-in-the-making could be on his way to Old Trafford.

[ MORE: Three keys for USMNT ahead of Panama clash ]

American teenager Will Vint is reportedly being pursued by Premier League giants Manchester United after previously having trialed with Fulham and Everton.

Vint, the 15-year-old son Everton academy director Peter Vint, has reportedly impressed the Red Devils while on trial as of late. Additionally, the teen’s Instagram page describes him as a “Footballer at Manchester United.”

The number of Americans in England’s top flight have dwindled down over recent years, however, USMNT mainstays like Geoff Cameron and Brad Guzan (moving to Atlanta United) still reside in the PL.

Chapecoense announces match against Colombia’s Nacional

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SAO PAULO (AP) Brazilian club Chapecoense will play Colombia’s Atletico Nacional on April 4 in what will be an emotional home match.

[ MORE: Aguero left out of Argentina XI to face Bolivia ]

In November, 19 members of the Brazilian team died in an air crash outside Medellin as they travelled to play Nacional in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final. Out of 77 passengers, 71 died in the incident, including players, journalists, and club officials.

Chapecoense says they will play at 22,000-seat Arena Conda in southern Brazil in the first leg of the Recopa Sudamericana.

The tragedy made Atletico Nacional pronounce Chapecoense as champions, and the South American confederation agreed.

The Recopa Sudamericana is between the champions of the Copa Sudamericana and the Copa Libertadores.

Aguero left off Argentina starting XI to face Bolivia

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Sao Paolo striker Lucas Pratto will receive a fantastic opportunity on Tuesday when Argentina faces Bolivia in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT travels to Panama in CONCACAF WCQ ]

It just so happens that Pratto’s gain is a major letdown for one of the Premier League’s top strikers. The 28-year-old is tied for second this qualifying campaign for Argentina with two goals.

La Albiceleste have announced their starting lineup ahead of tomorrow’s clash in Bolivia, which features mainstays Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria and goalkeeper Sergio Romero.

Meanwhile, Aguero — who started in Argentina’s 1-0 win over Chile on Thursday — is the lone change from manager Edgardo Bauza.

The Copa America runners’ up are currently depleted with a combination of injuries and suspensions. Four players will miss Tuesday’s meeting in La Paz due to suspension, including Gonzalo Higuain, Nicolas Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia.

Elsewhere, Gabriel Mercado and Emmanuel Mas will each miss the match after sustaining respective hamstring and knee injuries.

Argentina currently sits third in the CONMEBOL table while Bolivia is in danger of elimination with a loss on Tuesday. La Verde have managed just seven points in the first 13 rounds of World Cup qualifying.

Three keys for USMNT against Panama

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Coming off of Friday night’s dominating effort against Honduras, the U.S. Men’s National Team looks for their second win in five nights when Bruce Arena and co. head to Panama.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT goes for second win in Hex on Tuesday ]

Strong performances from players like Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic have USMNT fans buzzing ahead of Tuesday’s clash in Panama City, but there are several questions that lie ahead for Arena as the U.S. goes for its second win in the Hexagonal.

How does Arena cope with injuries?

The only downside of the team’s 6-0 win over Panama on Friday was the aftereffects if the match. John Brooks, Sebastian Lletget, Michael Orozco and Jordan Morris are no longer with the USMNT after sustaining injuries/illnesses, leaving Arena shorthanded as the Stars and Stripes head into the Estadio Rommel Fernández.

While Clint Dempsey’s emphatic national team return will provide Arena with some assurances up front, along with the emergence of Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic, there are some questions in the midfield and defense for the U.S.

Jermaine Jones is available to return from his one-match suspension and could potentially fill the void left by Sebastian Lletget after his injury on Friday. While, Alejandro Bedoya — who replaced Lletget in the Honduras match — will also be in line for a starting spot.

Defensively is where it gets a bit tricky though, as Arena has to make up for an already-depleted backline. There was no DeAndre Yedlin or Fabian Johnson coming into this round of qualifiers, and John Brooks’ release from camp leaves the defense even thinner. Tim Ream appears to be Arena’s next choice to start at centerback with Brooks unavailable, but will he stick with Omar Gonzalez in the center or slide Geoff Cameron back into the middle?

It seems like the latter choice, especially given Cameron’s experience in the central defense, but that would mean Arena has to slot somebody else into the right back position. Graham Zusi has had slight experience in that role as of late, but it could be a bit of a gamble for Arena in another high-stakes match.

Bradley must control the middle once again

Forget Michael Bradley’s superb goal, which lifted the U.S. lead to 2-0 on Friday, it was the captain’s overall performance that is exactly what should be expected from the center midfielder.

Bradley completions/MLSSoccer

In 90 minutes of play against Los Catrachos, Bradley only missed on six passes while also making several successful tackles and recoveries to limit the Honduras attack.

The loss of Lletget is definitely a significant one for the Americans, given his lively movement going both ways. However, LA Galaxy teammate will likely be in line to replace the vibrant midfielder on Tuesday as he returns from a one-match suspension.

In regards to Bradley though, the U.S. veteran is at his best when he is able to move freely throughout the midfield, but Jones’ inclusion could present more of a burden for the Toronto FC player.

Jones is still a very capable midfielder, but he simply doesn’t have the pace to match that of a Lletget, which leaves Bradley more liable for covering ground defensively in front of the backline.

On top of that, the back four will see more changes on Tuesday after Brooks’ exit from the USMNT, making Bradley’s role all the more critical when facing players like Luis Tejada and Gabriel Torres.

[ MORE: CONCACAF qualifiers resume Tuesday afternoon ]

Dempsey/Pulisic bond continues to evolve

It couldn’t have gone much better for the pair on Friday night as Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic were directly involved in five of the game’s six goals.

The budding relationship between the two key attackers though is an intriguing one, and will likely determine just how successful this USMNT can be down the road. At 34, Dempsey is certainly on the back end of his career, however, his effort against Honduras shows just how dangerous the Seattle Sounders man can be, even after missing significant time due to a heart problem.

Meanwhile, Pulisic continues to shine in European with giants Dortmund, appearing both in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League. The two likely won’t be together on the international scene for long, perhaps only until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but the partnership is something to monitor over the next year-plus.

Not only does the duo represent a dangerous one-two punch in the attack but also a changing of the guard. Dempsey has been one of the most talented USMNT players in the nation’s history, and many believe Pulisic has the talent to match or even surpass that of the 55-time goalscorer.

We’ve seen it before when Landon Donovan was phased out of the U.S. squad and Dempsey was essentially handed the reigns of the attack, and this time Pulisic will be doing so with much more time to make an impact. The 18-year-old already has four international goals in 12 appearances, and if he improves on that goalscoring pace the U.S. will be enjoying his presence for many years to come.