Safe to say that March didn’t get served up as ordered for Sporting Kansas City or for D.C. United, two favorites to claim this year’s Eastern Conference crown.
Sporting KC, whose flag flew high through the last two regular seasons but kept losing wind in the playoffs, took a fresh tactical approach. Minus two of his high-pressure energizers (who left for greener EPL pastures), manager Peter Vermes took his foot off the schematic gas pedal. They now prefer a little more patient possession, a little less go-go-go pressure all over the field.
But the early returns were marginal, just two wins for SKC over five games in March.
That was double D.C. United’s win total (although United played one fewer match.) Still, three wins in nine matches between them is not what anyone expected – and then some. (The MLS standings are here.)
That makes tonight’s match at Sporting Park (a fairly rare Friday kickoff, set for 8:30 p.m. ET) fairly important – as important as April contests can be, considering we are only now at that point where an increasingly early-starting MLS season would have begun in years past.
So, we’ll mark both clubs down as “Works in progress.” And surprisingly so.
D.C. United’s chances didn’t look awesome in this one based on recent trips into the heartland. The Black and Red have not won in Kansas City since 2007, 0-4-3 since then. Yesterday’s news that Dwayne De Rosario will miss the match – yes “De Ro” has been tame in two appearances this year … but still – won’t help a bit. Somewhere in there lurks the 2011 league MVP; the breakout won’t happen in this one, as De Rosario is out with an adductor strain.
Ben Olsen’s team is having trouble scoring goals, with just two so far. Like De Rosario, Chris Pontius has had trouble releasing the hand brake this year (not just unfortunate for United, but for the young attackers ability to get onto Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. national team radar.)
A night against one of Major League Soccer’s top defenses (guided by newly minted national team man Matt Besler, but strong all the way around), is hardly an opportunity to invigorate an offense. Olsen is likely to add an extra defensive midfielder alongside Perry Kitchen, sitting back in a 4-2-3-1 the way United has in other road matches, looking for a slower, lower-scoring match.
It’s also something Vermes’ teams have found difficult to break down; the SKC manager has even complained about the “bus parking” recently. (Seriously, coach Peter … more “figuring it out,” less belly-aching about it, please.)
It would surely help if Benny Feilhaber can rise the way he did in last week’s two-assist night, as Sporting upended previously unbeaten Montreal. Graham Zusi has been, well, Graham Zusi so far in 2013, looking much like the man who led MLS in assists last year. If Feilhaber can gain the consistency, giving defenses that much more to deal with, SKC should be off and running.
In a lot of ways, this game will be about the clubs’ off-season choices on striker.
United chose to stick with the continually underwhelming Lionard Pajoy, who works hard but has ultimately failed in accomplishing a striker’s main mission, scoring doggone goals! Pajoy has nine in 36 matches with Philadelphia and United over two years. It’s just not good enough; and yet, there he is.
SKC, meanwhile, went out and collected Claudio Bieler. The sample of evidence remains small, but so far so good. The Argentine veteran (pictured above) has three goals in five contests and looks like exactly the right fit – a nice package of skill bundled up with a real strikers’ instinct – to increase the output around teeming Sporting Park.