Oriol Rosell

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)

Premier League Sunday roundup: Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs all draw; Reds win

NORWICH, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 29:  Petr Cech of Arsenal looks dejected as Lewis Grabban of Norwich City (7) scores their first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Norwich City and Arsenal at Carrow Road on November 29, 2015 in Norwich, England.  (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)
Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images
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The Europa League slate helped give us a quartet of Sunday morning Premier League fixtures, but only five goals through those four games.

Only Liverpool seized the chance to make a move up the table, as James Milner‘s penalty conversion moved the Reds closer to the Top Four, while Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal all settled for draws.

[ SUNDAY RUMORS: Vardy, Neymar, Stones all in the headlines ]

And Arsenal is facing a worsening injury crisis

Tottenham Hotspur 0-0 Chelsea — RECAP

The most notable storyline heading into this match was Diego Costa‘s reported feud with Jose Mourinho, and the Chelsea boss opted to use Pedro up top instead of his best center forward. The play was even, and Chelsea probably looked the better for a goal, and Costa remained unused before tossing his bib toward Mourinho. Surely more to come. From the Spurs’ angle, the North London side missed a chance to assert itself as a title contestant. Mauricio Pochettino‘s side remains four points back of first place.

Liverpool 1-0 Swansea CityRECAP

Not much to like here, and Liverpool could’ve scored several times before Swans’ Neil Taylor gave up a penalty by keeping his arms out as he turned away from Jordon Ibe’s cross. James Milner converted, sending Jurgen Klopp‘s side closer to the Top Four (four points back of No. 4 Arsenal).

Norwich City 1-1 Arsenal — RECAP

Speaking of the Gunners, they scored a goal off a John Ruddy gaffe, but lost Laurent Koscielny and Alexis Sanchez to injury, also sacrificing an equalizer when Robbie Brady and Lewis Grabban teamed up to get the better of Gabriel Paulista and Petr Cech. Heady times for title hopes at the Emirates, but Sunderland and Aston Villa are next.

West Ham United 1-1 West Bromwich Albion — RECAP

A simply-gorgeous free kick goal from Mauro Zarate was on of several good bits of work by the home side, but Winston Reid picked up an own goal on his 150th West Ham appearance to leave this one a draw.

Liverpool 1-0 Swansea City: Milner’s PK the difference for Reds

during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Swansea City at Anfield on November 29, 2015 in Liverpool, England.
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Jurgen Klopp‘s resurgent Liverpool is within four points of the Top Four after a second-half penalty helped the Reds to a 1-0 win over Swansea City at Anfield on Sunday.

James Milner converted a Jordon Ibe-won PK to boost Liverpool to 23 points, good for sixth place.

Swansea is in 15th place with just 14 points, having cooled off considerably.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Liverpool nearly opened the scoring in the sixth minute when Adam Lallana slipped Jordon Ibe in on goal, but Kyle Bartley slid to tackle the ball off the goal post.

The opening 20 minutes belonged to the Reds, with timely tackles and deflections saving Swansea on several occasions.

Nothing got through.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Click here for full lineups, stats, box score ]  

Liverpool went ahead on a PK. converted the chance after Ibe’s cross was handled by Neil Taylor.

Swansea looked better from the goal onward, but couldn’t find an equalizer.

Norwich City 1-1 Arsenal: Injuries, weather, Canaries too much for Gunners

NORWICH, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 29:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal evades Jonathan Howson of Norwich City during the Barclays Premier League match between Norwich City and Arsenal at Carrow Road on November 29, 2015 in Norwich, England.  (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)
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Two injuries starters, a wild wind, and a pesky batch of defensive-minded Canaries kept Arsenal from all three points at Carrow Road on Sunday.

Unlikely starter and hero Lewis Grabban scored late in the first half to cancel out Mesut Ozil’s goal, as Norwich and Arsenal drew 1-1 in front of a Carrow Road all-seater record crowd of 27,091.

Norwich moves to 16th with 13 points, while Arsenal is in fourth with 27. Most troubling to Arsenal is that Laurent Koscielny and Alexis Sanchez joined their long list of walking wounded.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

After a couple good saves from John Ruddy, it was a mistake from the Norwich keeper that cost the Canaries. Alexis Sanchez pounced on a bad touch off a worse long ball from Ruddy, and the Chilean’s through ball was calmly finished across goal by Ozil.

Grabban, a surprise start by Alex Neil, turned a slick pass from Robbie Brady in front of Gabriel — who had come on for injured Laurent Koscielny — and pushed the ball past Petr Cech.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Click here for full lineups, stats, box score ]  

Injuries continue to plague the Gunners. Koscielny was lost, as was Alexis Sanchez with a 60th minute apparent hamstring injury.

Alexis Sanchez leaves Arsenal match with apparent right hamstring injury

NORWICH, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 29:  An injured Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal (17) is given assistance during the Barclays Premier League match between Norwich City and Arsenal at Carrow Road on November 29, 2015 in Norwich, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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Alexis Sanchez has joined Arsenal’s long list of walking wounded.

The Chilean subbed off after 60 minutes at Carrow Road after suffering what appeared to be a right hamstring injury.

[ WATCH: Petulant Costa tosses bib at Mourinho ]

Arsene Wenger has been critical of the use of his players on international duty when not at 100 percent, but that didn’t stop him from using Alexis on a hamstring injury.

Alexis was headed for a loose ball when he tried to leap over a defender and instead pulled up with the injury.