Sporting KC had a roller coaster evening, one that finished level on the road in Trinidad & Tobago.
In their first CONCACAF Champions League group stage match of the competition, KC visited Central FC, a team that lost 1-0 to the Vancouver Whitecaps two weeks ago.
After a scoreless first 45, the goals began to pepper in. The visitors went 1-0 up thanks to Seth Sinovic…sort of. The Kansas City native burst into the left side of the box and was recipient of a fortuitous touch off a Central defender.
Jones joined Atlanta United a month ago, but with the club not playing MLS fixtures until next season, he returned to his home country with Central FC on loan to keep sharp, and continues to terrorize other MLS teams in the process.
With a pair of goals in three minutes, Central was suddenly on top, but that lead wouldn’t last long either. Kevin Ellis would bring the visitors back level, earning KC a road point in their group stage opener.
Early this year, when assessing and comparing the Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake defenses, any analyst worth his or her weight in Brazuca match balls would have handed the check mark to SKC and happily moved on.
Not that Real Salt Lake’s back line wasn’t worthy; Sporting KC’s tough and talented bunch was just that good. Sporting led the league in fewest goals allowed in 2013, a fact that surprised absolutely no one.
But after watching the playoff performance of RSL center backs Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler, absolutely dominant in series wins over Los Angeles and (especially) Portland, this should now be considered about as close as it can be. Both of the back lines to be showcased Saturday at ridiculously cold Sporting Park are MLS Cup worthy units, and then some.
It’s not just the center backs, either. For Kansas City, fullbacks Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic are tough, talented and always happy to scoot forward in support of the attack. Witness Sinovic’s big run up the left side and mighty finish that supplied his team the conference semifinal series game-winner against New England.
But those two have nothing on Tony Beltran (right) or Chris Wingert (left). Neither is quite national team material, but like Myers and Sinovic, they are just a small notch below international status, certainly blessed sufficiently in all the areas that make an upper echelon MLS outside back: one-on-one defending, passing out of the back, crossing and speed to move up and down the flank (in systems that demand it).
But both defenses revolve around those imposing center backs. (Well, and goalkeepers that provide good information to keep the elements linked.) Aurelien Colilin is something close to unbeatable at times, setting his team’s physical tone with an edge that frequently walks the line. Central partner Matt Besler (pictured above) provides the balance, accomplishing his defensive mention with a sharp read and a savvy ability to slip into the right spots, and then distribute sensibly out of them. His gradual rise to U.S. national team starter has been inspirational.
Speaking of rises: Schuler’s terrific work on the back half of RSL’s surprisingly bright 2013 campaign has made the Rio Tinto faithful more or less forget how much they miss Jamison Olave, who was traded to New York a year back. Alongside Borchers (pictured above and to the left) the pair helped limit Portland to just two shots on goal in the second leg in Oregon, in a match where the Timbers were determined to attack with abandon. It was truly one of the best paired performances of the 2013 MLS post-season.
Weaknesses along the back lines? Not many. If we are picking nits, perhaps Collin’s volatile nature could get him in early yellow card trouble, forcing him to drag around the booking and recalibrate accordingly. Or perhaps the collective SKC desire to press high and get the outside backs forward when playing at home could leave the flanks vulnerable to a sharp-eyed playmaker and a fast forward. (Javier Morales and Robbie Findley, anyone?)
Ahead of Saturday’s second leg of this Eastern Conference finals series, here are the must-knows about Peter Vermes’ Sporting KC. A trip to MLS Cup 2013 is on the line. (Saturday’s match kicks off at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, and can also been seen on NBC Sports Live Extra)
Seth Sinovic as KC’s key man?
Sporting Kansas City has so many talented types who gobble up most of the acclaim. There are U.S. internationals Graham Zusi and Matt Besler, All-Star center back Aurelien Collin, former MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Jimmy Nielsen and U.S. World Cup veteran man Benny Feilhaber. Even right back Chance Myers is a former No. 1 overall MLS draft choice.
But might left back Seth Sinovic (pictured) be the team’s key man on Saturday?
It will be on Sinovic to contain Boniek Garcia, Houston’s most dangerous attacking threat. (It will, that is, unless the potential injury absence of Ricardo Clark means some kind of a tactical shift for the Dynamo, one that brings Garcia to the inside.)
Sinovic rarely gets mentioned, but he’s a tough defender who also manages to add something to Sporting KC’s attack. Heck, he’s even become a mini-Mr. November, having struck his first career goal last year in the playoffs against … wait for it … Houston! And then just more than two weeks ago, Sinovic’s wonderful, powerfully struck shot against New England was a swell to watch as it was absolutely vital; his goal in the 79th minute from Zusi’s flicked-on header sent the team’s second-leg Eastern Conference semifinal into extra time.
Now, how much he’ll feel comfortable getting forward against Houston, knowing it’s on him to protect against Garcia’s ability on the counter-attack, we’ll have to see. Here is what Vermes says about Garcia: “I think he’s a great addition to our league. He’s definitely a dangerous player and somebody you have to keep your eye on that can turn the game on its head by one of his actions. Houston has a lot of players that we have to take account for during a game. He’s definitely one of the guys that is high on the list.”
Besler and Zusi are fresh
Sporting Kansas City fans, who would typically relish seeing their men on the international stage, exhaled deeply almost two weeks ago when U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann declined to call Graham Zusi and Matt Besler for a pair of friendlies in Europe.
Both men are in good places when it comes to those highly sought World Cup roster spots – pure gold in any soccer players’ career. If Klinsmann had called them for the exhibitions against Scotland and Austria, they would have been in a very awkward spot. So … no awkwardness needed.
Besler will be in his usual spot along the back line, as the stabilizer arm for the more volatile Aurelien Collin. And Zusi will be in the midfield or (more likely) in a slightly more advanced spot along the right in his team’s 4-3-3.
The team has reason to be confident, having more or less done the business in Houston (navigating a 0-0 draw). But there is a legacy of, well, not getting the business done at home.
Other than the two post-season crash-out (both to Houston) at Sporting Park, the team fell to a lower-tier club at home this year in the U.S. Open Cup.
Overall in 2013, the picture at home doesn’t look much better: Kansas City’s record at home in the regular season this year (9-5-3) was 9th among 10 MLS playoff teams.
On the other hand, Kansas City has been nearly unbeatable on defense against Houston – pretty much wherever the clubs have met. Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen has posted four shutouts against Houston the last five times these teams have played. That includes three games in Texas this year (two in the regular season and the playoff contest two weeks ago.)
MLS Playoff Preview: Sporting KC at New England Revolution
Kickoff from Gillette Stadium outside Boston is set for 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN
Saturday is the first of two legs in the aggregate goals series
The Revolution is playing its firsts playoff match since 2009
Sporting Kansas City was the league’s best road team this year, an 8-5-4 record, and also the best defensive team
Young scoring sensation Diego Fagundez, just 18, led the Revolution with 13 goals this year
In Saturday’s Eastern Conference semifinal opener, we have a textbook instance of a playoff newbie in terms of the current roster and team makeup (New England) against an old hand at this MLS playoff business.
New England, a team with so much MLS playoff success in the previous decade, is back into the post-season swing for the first time since 2009.
Meanwhile, not only has Sporting Kansas City made the playoffs for the third consecutive season, but Peter Vermes’ team delivered relatively strong post-season accounts the last two years. Sporting trounced Colorado in the 2011 conference semifinal before falling to Houston in a tight conference final.
And came the downfall from Houston again in 2012, although Vermes’ team was strong in the return leg in the Midwest, dominating the Dynamo at Sporting Park (out-shooting the visitors 20-3) but falling a goal short on aggregate.
So a big edge in playoff experience goes to the visitors Saturday, a team that certainly doesn’t mind playing on the road. Sporting KC’s 28 points earned away from home this year (an 8-5-3 record) was best in MLS by some distance.
Kansas City is also the league’s top defensive team, with just 30 goals allowed.
Plus, Sporting KC went undefeated in Group Stage of Champions League – in fact, only allowing two goals in four matches while advancing to next year’s quarterfinals – while adding even more “big-game” largesse to this year’s checklist of achievement. Mostly though, it’s that feeling of being close to accomplishing something special the last two years, taking hardy sides into the playoffs but coming up short, that is providing all the drive to this year’s post-season bid.
“We’ve got a good, core group of guys that have been through this the last three years,” Vermes said this week. “That gives us, not comparing us to anyone else in the league, that just gives us a much better foundation as we move through the playoffs.”
The “foundation” includes what is probably the top back five in the playoffs (back four plus goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, that is). Center back Matt Besler, a U.S. starter, provides the stabilizing arm alongside the more volatile side the duo, Frenchman Aurélien Collin. In fact, we talk so much about those two that we probably don’t spend enough time commenting on right back Chance Myers and left back Seth Sinovic, both of whom are tough one-on-one defenders who can contribute a little punch to the attack, too.
Sporting KC’s offense mostly goes through U.S. international Graham Zusi (pictured above), whose assist total was down this year (from 15 to 8), but who did drop a career-best in goals, with six. Zusi’s recent return from a minor fall injury setback was among the reasons Sporting Kansas City finished on a four-game undefeated streak. Vermes’ team also won six of its last eight matches – and that was all after Kei Kamara left for England in a summer transfer.
New England has a little momentum of its own, however. Jay Heaps’ team from outside Boston looked a bit dead in the Back Bay about a month ago, staring at a tough schedule of road games, in need of a bunch of points to punch its way into the post-season. Well, punch they did, gathering up huge road wins at Montreal and Columbus, in addition to a draw at Supporters Shield winners New York, all in the month of October.
Heaps’ team clinched its playoff spot just last weekend, in fact, with that 1-0 win at Crew Stadium.
One of the great things about having New England back in the playoffs is another chance to see Diego Fagundez, the Revs’ 18-year-old scoring sensation. Fagundez, finished tied for fifth in league scoring – and imagine what he could have done had he been the Revs’ PK taker, as league scoring leaders so frequently are.
He usually lines up wide (left lately) in the Revs’ 4-1-4-1 arrangement.
At the other end of the experience spectrum is goalkeeper Matt Reis, who lost his place this year – a difficult year that included unfortunate family involvement in the Boston Marathon bombings. Reis got things together and will be big part of this playoff push. So will center back Jose Goncalves, one of the real finds of the Major League’s Soccer’s off-season.
Another intriguing figure in a team full of them is Juan Agudelo, a young U.S. international (a bit farther back in the pool) who shook off some late-season injury struggles to make the Revs’ last four starts. In fact, his first goal since Aug. 25 was the playoff clincher last weekend against Columbus. Agudelo has already signed to play for Stoke City in January.
As a contest of fan enthusiasm, this would be a real doozy. Both clubs enjoy tremendous home support, boisterous and knowledgeable, and the houses are always packed.
As a soccer game, it doesn’t look bad either.
Portland has found its way recently under Caleb Porter (pictured). Meanwhile, Sporting KC was unbeaten in five consecutively before running into the LA Galaxy buzz saw (in a pretty unfavorable situation) last weekend.
Peter Vermes’ team from the Midwest was rolling until last weekend, a real tour du force in defense through most of April. Then came the Round 8 visit to the Home Depot Center, where a well-rested Galaxy took advantage of a team traveling in from the East Coast. SKC had just dusted off New York in mid-week, so the trip into Southern California just three nights later was always asking a lot.
Honestly, we should just write that one off. The Matt Besler- and Aurelien Collin-led back line, backstopped by goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen and bracketed by two of the league’s underrated defenders (outside backs Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic) will still be tough to penetrate.
But the Timbers will have a chance, especially if playmaker Diego Valeri is on his game. The Timbers are undefeated in their last five and have scooped up 7 of a possible 9 points in April. During the five-game run, Porter’s team has managed draws in Seattle, Colorado and (most recently) San Jose. In fact, the Timbers were a minute away from collecting their initial road win under Porter until a stoppage time goal for the Earthquakes meant another set of split points.
Still, not bad for a team that was a perfectly yukky 1-12-5 away from Jeld-Wen Field last year.
Said Porter of last week’s result: “We knew it would be really difficult to go into San Jose and get another win. … In the end, the perspective is positive that we get a point, but we were a minute away from getting three points.
“What’s even more impressive is we’re not happy with the draws. That means that you genuinely have belief in your group. These guys, no matter if we’re home or away or who we’re playing, they believe we can get a result.”
One bad issue for the Timbers: midfield engine Will Johnson may miss due to some family issues, and that would be a big loss for the visitors.
Both teams play a possession game. Sporting Kansas City has tamed the go-go, high-pressure ways that served to keep opponents pinned in – but a style that wasn’t translating into playoff success. So they are keeping the ball more patiently now, playing through Oriol Rossell and Benny Feilhaber in midfield. That deliberate, ball-on-the-ground style was always the plan for Portland under Porter.
With patient possession so valued for both sides, don’t look for a high-scoring contest. Especially not considering the teams’ defensive form. Prior to conceding last weekend, the Timbers had gone “clean sheet” for 312 consecutive minutes, thanks in some part to former Manchester United center back Mikael Silvestre, who has recovered from those early MLS wobbles to become a trusted figure around Jeld-Wen. Which looked impressive enough until you noticed SKC’s own defensive streak.