The top of the table Vancouver Whitecaps come to town on Saturday night for a very important Western Conference match. Kansas City sits in 4th in the conference at 37 points, five points behind the Whitecaps. But these two teams also have the best Points Per Game in MLS, meaning this match also comes with the weight of the Supporters' Shield.
I talked to Jon Szekeres from the Whitecaps' SB Nation Blog, Eighty Six Forever, about the match and what we can expect.
1) The Blue Testament: Last time we spoke, you weren't yet convinced that Vancouver was a top team in the conference. Still sitting atop the West a month later, are you convinced they are the real deal? Is there some silverware in their future?
Jon Szekeres: It's funny you ask that, because it's a question I've been asking all season long and I still have no idea. I will say this; When the Vancouver Whitecaps are on, they are unstoppable. Real Salt Lake learned that last weekend during a 4-0 thumping. However, the Whitecaps then blew a late two goal lead to Montreal during ACC play a few days later, eventually settling for a 2-2 draw. It was shocking. The 'Caps had scored their goals late in the second half, then watched as Montreal scored goals in the 84th and 85th minutes. To be fair, that Whitecap squad featured far more youth in the starting 11, but there were enough veterans there that it still should not have happened. The Whitecaps are inconsistent, but they have the potential to be the best team in the league. I know that's kind of a cop out answer, but it's the best I've got.
2) TBT: The Whitecaps also played on Wednesday night traveling to Montreal for the first leg of the Canadian Championship. They drew 1-1 and now just have to take care of business at home. How is this title valued among the team and the fans?
JS: It's important, especially because many Whitecap fans drool at the prospect of entering CONCACAF Champions League play. However, history has not been kind to the Whitecaps and they've lost the tournament in seemingly every way possible. If they can find a way to win in front of their home crowd, it would be an absolutely amazing atmosphere. I hope it happens, but history makes me a bit uneasy.
3) TBT: So I know Kendall Watson is suspended so there will be no Dom Dwyer reunion unfortunately. But like Sporting KC, the Whitecaps have been busy. Will Vancouver come to Sporting Park on Saturday at full strength?
JS: Matias Laba, perhaps the Whitecaps most important player, took a knock during the Montreal match and left early, but may be good to go versus SKC. It would be a monumental loss to the 'Caps if he was unable to go. Otherwise, the ever injured CB Diego Rodriguez was injured during the match,so I doubt he'll take over for Waston. Pedro Morales continues to recover from injury and started the ACC match, but may be rested if Carl Robinson decides to go with Nicolas Mezquida instead.
86 Forever Lineup and Sore Predictions...
Ousted, Beitashour, Parker, Kah, Harvey, Laba, Koffie, Mezquida, Techera. Manneh, Rivero
1) Eighty Six Forever: SKC are coming off a 3-1 win over RSL, and have just two outright losses in their last 10 matches. What's fueling the hot streak?
Cody Bradley: Actually, you can go back further. Those are the only two losses since the middle of April and SKC only have 4 losses the whole season! There was a lot of turnover in the off season that needed to be dealt with, a lot of new faces getting acclimated. But once Melia and Mustivar took over their positions, everyone learned their role in the system and it all started clicking.
What is fueling the hot streak is a very difficult question. I am inclined to just say that this is a really solid, and deep lineup. But when you look at it from a far, this team probably shouldn't be this good. Kevin Ellis is not a real CB and has been starting there basically all season for Ike Opara. Three, count em three, rookies have played very real minutes (sometimes all on the field at once). Due to injuries and other absences, Jacob Peterson has had to play more than most people would like. And the "next big thing" keeper who was brought in to take the throne of Jimmy Nielsen left the team, and now KC is playing a guy who was an MLS pool keeper last season.
I have to say that it is Peter Vermes that has fueled this. It is his system, it is the culture he has developed, and it is the confidence he has in his players. He keeps them in the right mindset, even when down a goal, and does a great job of inspiring them. This all just came to fruition on Wednesday night when he became the all time winning-est coach in SKC history.
2) 86F: Benny Feilhaber has been around MLS for a while, but seems to be stepping up his game big time this year, at least according to his stat line. What's your take on his play?
CB: We cannot say enough about the guy here in KC. I don't think there is a positive adjective that exists in the universe that hasn't been used to describe his play this season. He sits at 10 goals and 17 assists across all competitions (though he feels a bit robbed about not getting the credit for assisting Nemeth's final goal against RSL Wednesday) and looks like those numbers will just keep climbing. He's got a goal or an assist (or both) in the last six games. The dude is out of his mind. He himself couldn't even really explain it in an interview.
Giovinco is the bigger name obviously, and has more goals, but for me Benny Feilhaber has been the best player in MLS to this point and deserves MVP. He does everything on the field. Everything. He can create for and make all of his teammates better, he can create a chance and finish it all himself, and yet he will also track back and defend anytime he is needed. Bottom line... the man is insane right now and it is just too much fun to watch!
3) 86F: What strategy would you employ to win the match for SKC?
CB: Well I am admittedly a little scared of this game. I have always really respected Vancouver's play. I love watching Morales and Rivero. I think they are capable of exposing holes in our defense and making some people look bad in the process. Although it does look like the Whitecaps may very well be missing a few key players.
Because of the win SKC was able to get in Vancouver, and because of their MLS best (by far) road goal differential of +5, I don't see any shame in maybe sitting back slightly more than a normal home match. Vermes does often talk about playing an attractive style and putting on a show for fans at home. While I think this team will still do that, I would be emphasizing defensive shape and tracking back far more than if this was another team coming to town. Roger Espinoza is out which means the midfield won't be as tight and we will see Nagamura and/or Amobi Okugo. Plus, Zusi is likely out which means it'll be more difficult to keep possession up top with Jacob Peterson (or rookie Connor Hallisey) filling in.
This could end up being a huge match in the Supporters' Shield race so I would like to see Sporting keep the fullbacks on defense a little more and let Benny pick and choose moments to send in Dom and Nemo on goal. PV has made this a very patient team and I think that is what we will see on Saturday.
The Blue Testament Lineup and Score Predictions...
Tim Melia, Chance Myers, Kevin Ellis, Matt Besler, Amadou Dia, Soni Mustivar, Paolo Nagamura, Benny Feilhaber, Krisztian Nemeth, Dom Dwyer, Jacob Peterson
Sporting Kansas City 2 - 2 Vancouver Whitecaps