Three questions, nine answers ahead of Sporting-Union finale

Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE

Clean sheets, a sore ankle and That Really Important Point are all at the forefront for Wednesday's match at Livestrong Sporting Park.

Several things are already long-settled going into Sporting Kansas City's final game of the regular season. Sporting are in the playoffs, the Philadelphia Union aren't and won't be, and Kansas City has guaranteed homefield advantage for at least the first postseason series.

But there are also enough question marks to keep observers buzzing right up to kickoff. And so, in the grand tradition exemplified by Eric Wynalda, The Daily Wiz will delve deep to get the opinions of someone who follows the team pretty darn closely.

Let's meet our panelists -- for the sake of their privacy, let's call them "Optimistic Steve," "Pessimistic Steve" and "Realistic Steve" -- and turn the issues over to them.

Needing only a draw to clinch first place in the East, will Sporting deliver?

OS: You're serious? It's Philadelphia. It's okay to say it like Kurt Russell in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes: "Phi ... la ... del ... phi ... a ...," followed by a faceplant into the table. Eighth-place, 24-points-off-the-lead, nothing-to-play-for Philadelphia. Forget one point. Go ahead and put three in the books.

PS: Eleven straight without a loss? Someone's way past due for a letdown. And which teams have Sporting stumbled hard against? The have-nots. The Portlands (okay, that one comes with an own-goal asterisk), the Montreals, the Philadelphias. Or does nobody else remember that 4-0 embarrassment from late June? Someone's going to be cheering hard for Chicago come Saturday.

RS: There's enough parity in the league that an upset always has to be a concern. But this is not the same Sporting side that lost its way for a while at midseason. A big reason they haven't lost over the last 11? They've been focused on the task at hand. There's no reason to think that will change. They'll get the point.

Any chance Roger Espinoza is back for this one, after sitting out on Saturday?

OS: Just try keeping him off the pitch. Espinoza wants to play, even if he's not at 100 percent with a right ankle sprain. And if he tells Peter Vermes he can play, Vermes is going to let him. Besides, he has to play. He's due for a goal, right?

PS: No way. Why risk aggravating the injury? No one's questioning Espinoza's heart, but you have to think of the postseason and let him watch this one from a suite.

RS: If he can go, he'll be in there. Vermes won't make that decision lightly, though -- or early. He does trust Espinoza to make the call, but he also trusts the rest of his midfield corps to get the job done. Bottom line: We won't know until an hour before game time. If I had to pick? I'd lean toward "yes."

Will Jimmy Nielsen get that 16th shutout and join Tony Meola in the league's record books?

OS: Four shutouts in the last five matches, and one late lapse away from a fifth? An intact back line of Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic in front of him? A Union attack that's tied for worst in the East with 14 away goals? It's a lock.

PS: It would be a lock, but for one thing: Jack McInerney. The kid has scored in Philadelphia's last four games, something nobody else has ever done for the Union. That sort of hot streak builds confidence, and confidence leads to more goals.

RS: There's no way to answer this question with any certainty. On paper, Nielsen looks like a shoo-in for a spot alongside Meola. So many things could go wrong, though: a foul in the area, a goofy deflection, a misdirected clearance. One thing's not in dispute,though: Nielsen might not be all that concerned with the record, but he deserves to celebrate it if it comes.

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