- Sporting Kansas City one point behind New York, Portland in Supporters’ Shield race.
- DC looking to avoid record for fewest wins in MLS season.
- Sporting with four points from teams’ two previous 2013 meetings.
The matchup looks lopsided — a Supporters’ Shield contender hosting a team on the verge of a league futility record — but there are ways of looking at Friday’s meeting between Sporting Kansas City and DC United (8 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN) that see a competitive match. And we’re not talking about obscure, acute angles that require as much imagination as incredulity to see United with a chance. We’re talking two very relevant things when considering what could happen at Sporting Park: Recent history; and incentive.
The team’s previous 2013 meetings don’t show a Cup contenders overwhelming an surprising underachiever. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear they were from last year, when United were actually good. In Kansas City on April 5, it look Sporting 89 minutes to breakthrough, Claudio Bieler converting late to give the home side a 1-0 win. Just over a month later at RFK, Ike Opara broke through on the hour only to see Kyle Porter equalize five minutes later. The match ended 1-1. Even though DC have not won in Kansas City since 2007, this year — over two games, two venues, and 180 minutes — the only thing that separates the sides is a late Claudio Bieler goal.
Then there’s incentive, which both teams have, if at opposite ends of the competitive spectrum. Sporting Kansas City has designs on the Supporters Shield, their 52 points leaving them one behind chase leaders New York and Portland. DC, however, are trying to avoid becoming the fifth team in MLS history to go winless on the road. They also need one more win to tie the league record for fewest wins in a season (four, Chivas USA, 2005). As motivating as achievement may be for Sporting, DC’s fear may win out.
That’s assuming DC are in fact scared of that ignominy. Given their surprise win at Rio Tinto to claim the U.S. Open Cup, United are certainly capable of motivating themselves. But did that piece of silverware represent an end point, mentally? Despite that success, United’s been unable to stop a winless run that’s reached 10 games.
The biggest challenge to ending that run will be in defense. Injuries have forced Perry Kitchen to resume a center back’s role we last saw him play in 2012’s Olympic qualifying. Former Montréal defender Dennis Iapichino is also likely to start, leaving D.C. United with a back four with little experience playing together. With Claudio Bieler and Grahama Zusi set to return for Sporting, that lack of familiarity could be exploited.
Kansas City has their own problems in defense, though. Matt Besler will be back from his time with the U.S. national team, but his central defense partner, Aurelien Collin, will be taking another of his periodic, yellow card-induced sabbaticals. Despite an otherwise standout season, Collin has accumulated 12 yellow cards, bringing his total to 28 over the last three seasons.
His absence, along with the national team commitments of Besler, mean former first round pick Ike Opara has made 16 appearances this season, leaving Sporting well-equipped to handle an attack that’s only produced 21 goals this season. But with each game comes new hope D.C. can play beyond this year’s results and find something to build on for 2014.
A win in Kansas City may only be their fourth of the year, but it would give United something to smile about as they try to put 2013 behind them.