Hey, remember these? A rough patch of buying one house and selling another sort of cut into my scouting report time, so you had to watch this last month or so of games unscouted. Unless you were getting reports from that Arlo guy, I guess. And for a while there the Sounders were winning every game I wasn't scouting, which was a welcome but slightly concerning trend until that egg in Houston last week. So we're back in the saddle!
Sporting Kansas City's season has been an ongoing testament to the importance of home cooking in MLS. An opening stretch of the season that featured not just 10 away games, but 10 consecutive away games — meaning travel away, then travel back to train, then travel out again during the same week — ended with the newly branded Sporks sitting on 4 points and buried at the bottom of the table. Then they played their first home match on June 9th and haven't lost since. Over the course of two months they've graduated from forgotten season to playoff hopefuls to a force in the East who we now project to have a better chance of making the playoffs than the New York Red Bulls. And with only 3 away games remaining in their final 12, they should continue to rack up points and climb the table. Even an Eastern Conference title isn't out of the question.
While Kansas City's defense is under-appreciated (particularly with the addition of Frenchman Aurélien Collin) the team is driven by its intimidating array of attacking options. My preseason pick of Kei Kamara as league MVP may be a little off (though it's still early!), but that's partly because there's only barely enough ball to go around the Sporting offense. Any two of Kamara, Omar Bravo, Teal Bunbury, and C.J. Sapong would be a strikeforce that most teams would be happy to build around. Add in the emergence of Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza as an attacking midfielder combo and you've got the deepest attacking ensemble in the league.
According to the tacticians KC are playing a 4-3-3, but in practice it's a very fluid system. Both Zusi and Espinoza can comfortably move from the midfield to the wings, the wings are perfectly capable forwards, and the forwards are liable to drop back anywhere to the halfway line. That's the sort of flexibility up front that the Sounders like to employ and which can open up cracks in the defensive midfield and back line. But regardless of where the KC players are drifting, one constant is that they prefer to go around the defensive midfield than through it. They penetrate a defense with overlapping runs up the line and quick balls to the top corners of the box, which will demand a lot from the Seattle fullbacks and will test Osvaldo Alonso' ability to move laterally. And the Sounders defenders will have to be much more reliable cutting out crosses into the box than they were in Houston, where Brian Ching was allowed to wander into dangerous open spaces.
Many are concerned about fatigue being a factor for the Sounders, but fitness is probably a wash. The Sounders just played 120 minutes on Wednesday, but did so with a big advantage in possession and a lot of water breaks while the San Francisco FC players rolled around on the FieldTurf. Sporting Kansas City also played on Wednesday night and had to play the last half hour down a man and with little possession. So the depth of both teams is likely to be tested.
For Seattle, I'm guessing both Mauro Rosales and Erik Friberg start on the bench (if they're on the game roster at all) as they seemed to put in the hardest shifts on Wednesday. Alvaro Fernandez also played well into extra time and might start on the bench. That would mean an overhauled midfield and new wings. My guess would be Lamar Neagle on the left and Pat Noonan on the right (after he played only 70 minutes against SFFC). If Sigi wants to lock down the defensive midfield, you might see Servando Carrasco pairing with Osvaldo Alonso. That would also split the defensive midfield horizontally and make it easier for the two to get help to the fullbacks, who will probably need it.
Kansas City will be without Espinoza after he nearly cut Kyle Beckerman in half with a late tackle from behind. That will be good news for Seattle since the midfielder has emerged as a dynamic attacking playmaker who near-posted Nick Rimando for Sporting's first goal. Both Collin and Chance Myers are out with injuries, which should create better opportunities for Seattle. And the recent match means there will likely be a lot of rotation in the Kansas attack. You could see Sapong start over Bunbury and perhaps there will even be a Soony Saad sighting.
- Tyson Wahl vs Kamara - I have no doubt that this will be the attacking focus of Sporting KC. They like to push the ball into the corners anyway and Wahl has shown over the past couple of months both the benefits and drawbacks of a system in which fullbacks are encouraged to push forward. He will need a ton of help from the centerbacks and defensive midfield to keep his area under control. If it were up to me, I'd bail on Wahl helping out in the attack at all and just have him wander around the back line all match.
- Kasey Keller vs Bravo - Or Bunbury, or Sapong. Or all three. SKC likes to cross it. And Matt Besler's cannon arms mean that any throw in in the last 20 yards is effectively a cross. While they're not quite the dominating physical presence in the box that Houston offers, they're plenty big enough and skilled enough to punish the Sounders for letting someone get a clean ball near the net. It will probably happen at least once and Keller is going to have to make some saves.
- Fredy Montero vs Jimmy Nielsen - It's counter to our nature, but this might be one of those games where the Sounders try to steal a goal on a set piece and then get the heck out of there. Fredy's as good at bending a ball over the wall as anyone in the league. Also, the Danish keeper is big enough that Montero might stop trying to chip every shot in the run of play and could actually drive one in there.