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Sounders vs. Sporting KC: Three Questions

In a meeting of the best of the West, the focus is as much on who isn’t available as who is.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

There’s little doubt to the top of the Western Conference this year. Looking down at everyone is Seattle Sounders FC, and the first face they see below is Sporting Kansas City. Sporting is the only team in the West within six points of the Sounders, and they have a game in hand. Sunday’s match (6 PM PT, JOEtv/Prime Video) is the biggest contest in the league this weekend.

Marring the hype will be a list of absences for both sides that includes Covid-19 protocols, the Gold Cup, a pending sale, and injuries that rate from routine nuisance to season-ending. Both squads have weathered those storms to dominate the league. Both are among the top 3 offenses of 2021, with Seattle having the #1 defense and Sporting KC in the top half of the league defensively.

Even with the piecemeal XIs the match should be one with two teams that force the action and force the league to know that to win trophies in 2021 you have to beat both the green and the blue.

For The Blue Testament, Thad answers Three Questions.

SaH: With Peter Vermes expected to be out, assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin will likely lead the team again. Who is Zavagnin and how much do matchday tactics change?

tBT: Zavagnin has been an assistant coach since he retired in 2008 after playing over 200 matches with the Wizards and 20 or so for the USMNT. Kerry was a midfielder that would not wow you with physical ability. Not big or fast, but he rarely made mistakes in the midfield, was always a smart player that knew where to be, and rarely turned the ball over. He brings that mentality to coaching. He is smart and tactical with a good eye for talent and is always prepared. With the way Vermes and his staff work together, matchday should change very little. In the last game they had preplanned subs based on fitness and tactics they expected, and went with exactly those. The biggest change will be on the sideline, where the fourth official’s ears will not be blistered nearly as much as when Vermes is there.

SaH: International duty, Covid-19, short rest, and an away match against the league leaders — does Sporting go for the win or do they try to kill the game for a 0-0?

tBT: They pretty much always go for the win by plan. The plan may fail and they play out a bad day looking for a point, but the original intent will be to get three with the backup plan of a draw. Short rest, injuries, etc... may force a plan to keep it level for a while and then go for it or to come out hot and heavy and then lay back a bit if they get a lead. Vermes typically prides himself on having his teams “come to play”. Only when they have been in bad form and struggling really bad have they resorted to a bunker/counter for the whole game (see last half of 2019).

Sporting does tend to play more poorly on turf — their passes seem off and it takes half the game or more to get the passes weighted properly consistently.

SaH: Gianluca Busio is off with the US and may not return to KC. What will the club do to replace him in the short term?

tBT: I do not expect to see him in a Sporting KC jersey again unless it is playing a video game. There’s not an easy answer because there are some unknowns. The simplest answer is move Ilie out from centerback and return him to the d-mid role where he was very good for a while. Remi Walter has played there and was not bad for a half in the last game, but with injuries we have not seen him enough yet. There are a couple younger players who could fill in, but it would change the role a lot. When Busio played there, he pulled strings, slid passes all around and was getting better defensively, but was no destroyer. Fellow Academy graduate Felipe Hernandez has played there a little bit, is a good passer and much more willing to hammer someone (think younger Roger Espinoza with better passing and less cards). Hernandez is better as one of the other center mid/8 types but could be groomed into the role. A couple other crazy possibilities are Andreu Fontas and Graham Zusi. Fontas has played there before in Spain, but he has for the first time since he has been here stayed healthy and is impressing people. Zusi moved from right back to d-mid when Walter subbed off and did okay. Could another position change be in the cards for Zusi? Probably not, but he is another shorter-term option with his veteran experience. Whichever player Vermes slides into that role will be expected to be good with ball and capable of spraying it wherever needed.

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