MLS preview: Sporting Kansas City at New York Red Bulls

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Mid-week matches in MLS remain a tough sell; weekend contests will be better attended until supporter interest reaches such a critical mass that the “whens” and “wheres” and “whatevers” are irrelevant.  At that point, fans will ignore weather and early mid-week wake-ups and everything else to support their team – a little like what happens in Portland and Seattle but only a little bit everywhere else.

Until then, good tickets can be had for most MLS mid-week matches – especially ones involving middling sides.

All that said, tonight’s MLS mid-week contest, the Round 8 opener, looks like sweet and juicy fruit. If the league is to present mid-week matches, wouldn’t it be great if they were all as inviting as Sporting Kansas City’s visit to the New York Red Bulls tonight in Harrison, N.J.?

Included: the league’s best player in Thierry Henry (pictured); One of the league’s hottest teams in Sporting Kansas City; two confident sides; two favorites to top the East at year’s end.

The results have improved lately but remain something of a mixed bag overall for New York, where rookie coach Mike Petke has seen his team score regularly – but also watched as an alarming number of goals drop on his seemingly experienced back line. At 10 goals allowed in seven matches, the Red Bulls defense is among the worst in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference.

As for the attack, it’s Henry’s world and the rest of the Red Bulls are just living in it. Tim Cahill had a strong match Saturday in a confidence-boosting win at rival D.C. United – but he still doesn’t have a goal in 2013. Fabian Espindola is available again but surely not 100 percent; he was a second-half substitute Saturday following a two-game absence due hamstring problems.

But there’s always Henry, who has just two goals this year but always looks dangerous – and continues to affect contests because he scares the bejeebers out of opposition defenses.

Most defenses anyway; Sporting Kansas City’s might be the exception. Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen and center backs Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin are the backbone of a defense that is inching near club records. Kansas City has not allowed a goal in more than four matches. In fact, the team’s 429-minute shutout streak is second longest in club history.

What Henry said about facing Besler, Collin and SKC’s collective ability to be among the league’s best at tactical fouling. (Something that should be cracked down on … but MLS officiating is still, well, “getting there.”)

It goes without saying that Besler and Collin are, for me, the best partnership at the back in MLS by a distance but you have to give credit to their team. They frustrate teams, if they have to make a professional [foul], they will make a professional foul to make sure you can’t counter on them. [They are a] very tough team, play hard in a good way, but [Besler and Collin] are the masterminds of that operation.

As for the SKC attack, Argentine striker Claudio Bieler may not have Henry’s reputation or resume, but his four goals this year (in six matches) stand among the league’s best. He is exactly what Sporting needed to go get in the offseason, an instinctive striker to complement a midfield with a useful balance of creativity and defensive grit. So, credit the SKC front office for some precision off-season work.