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Seattle Sounders v Sporting KC: Three Questions With The Daily Wiz

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Sporting KC's Peter Vermes is leading the team through a long road trip to start the season.
Sporting KC's Peter Vermes is leading the team through a long road trip to start the season.

They were the Kansas City Wiz and played in Arrowhead Stadium. They then rebranded to the Kansas City Wizards, and played in a converted baseball park. This season they have rebranded again. Now they are Sporting Kansas City and will soon be moving into their own soccer stadium. LIVESTRONG Park will have a roof over all seating, a steep grade and now the club will manage a rugby team. That rebrand and delayed stadium opening was the first question with The Daily Wiz about the upcoming game, but we touch on Jimmy Nielsen, Omar Bravo, Steve Zakuani, the diamond 4-4-2 leading to narrower midfields and James Riley.

SaH - Has Jimmy Nielsen lost his starting job? I notice that he started in the Reserves match earlier this week. 

The Daily Wiz - By all accounts, it was a predetermined plan to give backup goalkeeper Eric Kronberg the start last week against Los Angeles. Kronberg is a guy who is now in his sixth season with the team, yet only made his first league in the season finale of 2010. He is widely thought of as one of the top backup keepers in the league, but has just had bad luck with the team signing more experienced veterans ahead of him.

It looked to be a one game scenario where Kronberg started last week with Nielsen to return as the starter against Seattle, except for when he started the reserve game against Chicago on Tuesday. But alas, it looks as if Nielsen will take back his rightful place as starting keeper this week. And, I say rightful, meaning that he has been stellar and that the already horrid goals conceded number would be much worse if not for him.


SaH - Is the whole goal of this early part of the season just to not fall too far behind until the home games come in droves? Are they meeting that goal?

tDW - That was absolutely the goal coming into the season. And they have absolutely failed that goal thus far.

Basically, the plan was to rack up half the points from the first five games of the road trip, against teams considered to be not very good - Chivas, Chicago, Vancouver, Columbus and New England - and maybe squeak out a point or two from the last five, which include games against four upper-echelon teams - New York, LA, Seattle, Colorado and Toronto. Sporting KC fans would have absolutely taken four points from those last five games, but to have only gotten that many from the first five is, in all honestly, unacceptable.

The ten game road trip was never going to be easy, but the blueprint for successfully navigating it with pride and hope for the season intact was certainly laid out before them. It's been a month and a half since they've picked up a single point, yet still sit very near (14.3%) the league average for road win percentage (16.7%). Everything is just compounded to look so much worse without any home games in between to make up for so many dropped points.


SaH - Does Omar Bravo come back as a starter and how will that effect the 3 forward lineup?

tDW - Had he come back and been able to play any part in the game last week at LA, I would say yes, he probably starts this game, because he has certainly been missed. Seeing as how he was unable to do so, it looks as if he'll probably be on the bench to start the game, but an option for head coach Peter Vermes at some point in the second half. There's no sense in rushing him back from injury. Even fellow forward Ryan Smith, who has been back from offseason knee surgery for three weeks now, has yet to crack the starting lineup, though he probably (hopefully) does so this week.

As for how Bravo returning affects the lineup of forwards, he's easily the most technically gifted forward, if not player on the entire team. He showed just that in the season opener against Chivas when he scored twice and was a constant threat. Rookie forward CJ Sapong looked great in that game, as well, but has tailed off of late. I believe it has more to do with the position in which he has been playing (left winger/forward in the 4-3-3) than his ability or even experience level. Ever since Teal Bunbury came back from injury, Vermes has made it clear that he was the starting center forward, and he will not deviate from that plan. Center forward just so happened to be the position where Sapong had a stellar debut.

Short answer long, Bravo will likely play a part in this one, but likely as a second half difference maker. 

* * *

tDW - With the long-term injury to winger Steve Zakuani, the Sounders have had to severely alter their tactical approach to a much more narrow diamond shape in the midfield. Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes talked in depth about that aspect of their tactical approach. Who is the guy, or guys, who have stepped up in that part of the field in this time of transition and helped to make things run smoothly?

SaH - Seattle has used very wide midfielders in a kind of 4-1-3-1-1 formation for most of their time in MLS. It is a familiar system if you watch Sigi's previous teams, but due to Steve Zakuani and his dynamic ability Seattle has tried to have their wide mids go really wide, and even really high. In some ways they have played a 4-2-3-1. With Zakuani out and no real similar replacement the shift has been to play a more traditional narrow 4-<4>-2 with Alvaro Fernandez and Mauro Rosales being the wide men.
 
The Sounders have a lot more of these more conventional types of wide mids, with Erik Friberg and Brad Evans also suited to the role in a starting capacity. Regardless of who plays though the team now gets more width from the fullbacks and the space just at the top of the 18 may have 3 or 4 bodies in it. It is forcing the team to learn more movements within crowded spaces and better time on goal runs due to the shift. Seattle is shifting its approach and gets better, but they certainly aren't used to it yet.

tDW - How has the change in midfield affected the forwards? With the ball coming through the center of the park more often, it certainly has to change the way they play and where the service comes from.

SaH - Fredy Montero is picking up the ball earlier playing as both withdrawn forward and center attacking mid at the same time. He is quite good at this, but it leaves him with most of his passing options being square rather than through. He is either going to take more shots from distance, or he will have to find ways to one-two off the target man.
 
Right now that target man is Nate Jaqua. Who though much maligned in the Sounder community does have success in that role when healthy. Like many in Rave Green he had some injury issues, and now lingering fitness issues. In 2009 he and Montero were a terrific partnership, and maybe they can work it again. If Seattle looks for more mobility at the other forward you could see Roger Levesque as a pseudo target, or the team could go small and use young Americans like Mike Fucito or Lamar Neagle who are both potent scoring threats in non-MLS play.

tDW - Simple question: why is James Riley still around? As someone who watches Seattle every other week or so, it always seems he is the one making the pivotal mistakes and allowing opponents' goals.

SaH - James Riley is a converted right midfielder, and though he's been a fullback in these league for some time you can see his natural tendency to get forward leaving him out of position a couple times a game. You also note that there are times when he gets turned, and leaves his mark open to cross the ball well.
 
He's on the team though because he does get forward well, better than most even, and certainly better than any on the team. While he doesn't add goals, he has tallied several key assists, and that width forces some honesty from the opposition as well. He will start because Zach Scott is the back-up there. Scott has none of the advantages of Riley, while lacking speed. Fullback is clearly Seattle's weakest position.