Sporting KC have opened the season with two big wins against Western Conference foes. On MLS Matchday 3 however, they will face a very tough Toronto FC side. I sat down with James Grossi from our sister blog, Waking the Red, to discuss the upcoming match-up. I asked him about Jozy Altidore, how to stop Giovinco, and about the stadium renovations currently going on at BMO Field.
We ask them...
1) The Blue Testament: Jozy Altidore has yet to make his debut this season. What is the status of his hamstring injury? How has Toronto FC been dealing with his absence this season? Also he is listed as questionable at the moment, do you have any word on his availability?
James Grossi: There was indeed some updated news from training today (Friday) on Altidore's status heading into the weekend. Greg Vanney said that they 'expect Altidore to be available' for the match, while Jozy himself appeared eager and ready to get out there for his first taste of league action this season. Whether that will come from the start or off the bench, is yet to be determined.
Altidore also mentioned that his absence, missing the first two matches, was in part a precautionary one. He picked up a hamstring issue, a tweak rather than a serious one, which forced him out of the opening day eleven. He seemed to indicate he could have gone in Week Two, but that the club preferred to give him an extra week of training before risking it – no sense in rushing him out onto that pitch at Yankee Stadium.
He has been in training since last week, but Altidore himself admitted he may not be 90-fit yet, but that he was more than willing to try.
As to what his absence has meant, it can be summed up in one image: the isolated figure cut by Sebastian Giovinco as he tried to top the formation as the lone striker with Altidore unavailable.
With the team opting for a defense-first approach to these road matches, Giovinco has been forced to confront opposing back-lines on his own, attempting to corral long balls out of the back under pressure from three-plus defenders. It has been a frustrating few matches for him, though he has still found moments of joy.
Reconstituting the back-line has been key for TFC in approaching this season, and starting on the road has meant that they have sat a little deep, opting to punt forward in moments of risk, rather than attempt to play a little more pretty. Comically, this has meant that Giovinco is the one battling for aerial balls – to be fair, he more often tries to get body position, rather than going up for any headers.
Should Altidore return, it will give Toronto that central option to aim for, and his hold-up, back-to-goal play, should both allow more attackers to get involved in the action and provide a pressure release-valve, while also opening up some space for Giovinco to exploit.
It is expected that the partnership between the two designated players reaches a new level this season – and there would be no better place for that to get started than in KC this weekend.
2) TBT: Giovinco has two assists and two goals in two games after being named MVP last season. If he is to be stopped or contained, what would that look like? How would YOU deal with him?
JG: If I had the answer to that question, I'd have a much better job.
In general, there are two approaches that one could pursue: either do not allow him to get on the ball or foul him at every turn.
Addressing the latter first, that is something that NYC FC did on two occasions last season to some success – he was held scoreless in two matches, both of which were won 2-0 by NYC. That said, in the other match, a wild 4-4 draw, Giovinco scored a hat-trick, had a penalty go wide, and set up Toronto's other goal, so it's a mixed bag.
In the successful shutdowns, Jason Hernandez, Andrew Jacobson, Shea Facey, and RJ Allen (and others) each took every opportunity to put the boot into Giovinco. Two of them, along with Chris Wingert another defender, were booked for their troubles, and with a different referee in charge, their fates may have been different.
That is the inherent risk with such a strategy: it requires a complict official in charge of the match, or else the strategy can back-fire. If Giovinco troubles a team with eleven on the pitch, the extra space of being down a man complicates the balance of risk-reward further.
Alternatively, by shutting down service to Giovinco, one could theoretically prevent him from even causing trouble in the first place; a task easier said than done.
Giovinco is incredibly adept at making his own space by dropping deep, and as has been proven repeatedly, he is a threat running at goal, catching teams in transition. Soccer is a sport of conceding defensive positioning in order to gain an attacking advantage. If a team were willing to not pursue their own chances, he could be marked, or starved, out of a game.
But still, he will find his moments.
Linking back to the first response, with Altidore out, Giovinco has been incredibly isolated, to a frustrating degree, yet, he still has two goals and two assists through two matches.
Expect the two holding midfielders in Sporting's formation to attempt to limit those chances, by keeping a close eye on the machinations of the Italian. Roger Espinoza, in particular, has proven his nous, as has Paulo Nagamura. Soni Mustivar, on the other hand, is a little less-proven in MLS.
Whatever they do, he will find his chances. The key is to limit them.
All I can offer by way of advice to Sporting as they try to prevent him padding those figures is... good luck.
3) TBT: Toronto FC is currently expanding BMO Field and are opening the season on a string of eight away matches, much like Sporting KC did when building their stadium. With 4 points so far, The Reds could set themselves up really nicely if they can survive the away spell. Are you confident in their ability to succeed on the road? Also, how many seats are being added to the stadium and what else are you looking forward to from the expansion?
JG: One can never be too confident when it comes to playing away in MLS.
Though, through a mere two matches it must be remembered, Toronto has done very well in limiting the opposition's chances and seizing upon their own.
Four points is an amazing start, especially considering the only goal that has been mused has been roughly a pace of one point-per-match, or eight in total. They are well ahead of that schedule, albeit far too early for celebration.
One aspect that has not been fully considered is just how difficult this eight game stretch is, in terms of the quality of the opposition.
It began against the Supporters Shield champs in New York, then proceeded to that awkward pitch at Yankee Stadium. This weekend sees the club in KC, never an easy place to play, while they begin April with an away trip to the altitude in Colorado.
A run of three straight tough Eastern Confernece foes then follows, with trips to New England, DC, and Montreal – the cream of the Eastern crop – before one final away trip, to the defending MLS Cup champs Portland no less, before the home opener against Dallas; themselves no slouches.
It will be difficult.
From what has been seen so far, there is an air of confidence surrounding this club. They have the experience of last season's seven-game trip to lean on, and have wisely spent the off-season addressing their defensive shortcoming – key to any solid away performance – recruiting MLS veterans at the back.
Players like Drew Moor, Steven Beitashour, Will Johnson, and Clint Irwin, all know what it takes to succeed in this league. They know that the primary goal on the road is to be difficult to beat. That solidity provides the platform for TFC's offensive weapons to do their thing.
That confidence was evident against the Red Bulls, shutting them down and then hitting twice late for the surprise result. As was the spirit it embodies in the comeback against NYC FC, having conceded twice in quick succession, only to fight back for the draw.
There is reason for optimism, but regardless, this season will not be determined by these eight games.
As for BMO Field, capacity has steadily increased over the seasons. It was originally listed as 20 000, but subtle changes in configuration – the addition of the North stand and sideline seating – has seen it add 2500 additional spaces up to 2014.
Pior to 2015, the expansion of the East Stand – the cause of last season's road trip – saw the capacity jump up to just shy of 31 000, which is where it is expected to remain for this season and beyond.
That expansion was completed last year and it is mainly the addition of a canopied-roof, as well as, some reconfigurations to accomodate the arrival of the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts, that is responsible for this season's travels.
They ask us...
Waking the Red: Question the First
Peter Vermes has done a fine job of building a competitive roster year over year. He's used a mix of continuity and continual turnover in putting together a team that has to be considered a contender. There is a solid, long serving core – Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, and Dom Dwyer, to name but a few – while Vermes adds in key veterans when available – Brad Davis and Benny Feilhaber in particular, but within that mix, there is some concern that consistency is difficult to find when players are constantly cycled in and out. MLS is a middling league, for now, and players will move on, but are there any worries regarding the inability to hold onto to those who could have made the team better? Names like Krisztian Nemeth and Uri Rosell come to mind. And how do some of the longer shots that Vermes takes fit with the team ethos? He's fond of the occasional left-field moonshot – Soni Mustivar and Sunil Chhteri, come to mind.
Cody Bradley: Sporting KC have definitely done a good job of keeping the core players around. Half of the starting lineup right now including Feilhaber, Besler, Zusi, Dwyer, and Myers have been together since winning MLS Cup in 2013. And then you have other key guys who have been here since then like Ike Opara, Seth Sinovic, Paulo Nagamura, and even Jacob Peterson. Roger Espinoza also feels like he should fall in there despite leaving for a brief spell over seas.
As far as guys leaving for bigger teams abroad, some of have really been tough. Uri and Nemo, as you said, but also Kamara leaving was hard for many fans to swallow. This is definitely the scope of MLS currently and with the business model of the club, a good business move is a good business move.
They buy low and they sell high.
I would not say there is anymore concern with this club about losing players than with other MLS clubs. They have shown that they are willing to keep players with DP contracts to Zusi and Besler after the World Cup. Dwyer earned a new contract after his breakout season as well.
I also don't think it is a bad thing for this club to be seen by eyes overseas as a club who brings players in, makes something more of them, and then also gives them a chance to pursue what they want. That makes this team an appealing option for real talent to test the waters in MLS.
One thing thing that must be said here is that yes, it does suck losing those players. It is bad for the league to lose young talent.
But the current track record of Vermes and this FO in finding talent is truly outstanding. Knowing that another diamond in the rough is coming soon.... or possibly here already allows me to move past tough losses pretty easily.
We will not see, any time soon at least, this club go out and find the guy who is already worth millions like Toronto FC. They operate with a sound business model and find players who WILL BE worth millions.
Therefore, it is likely this could all happen again. Dwyer, Quintilla, Mustivar all come to mind when I think about that.
However, Sporting KC has been building up a lot of money over the years through some of these moves. Plus, it's not like the ownership group doesn't have really deep pockets if push came to shove. They have proved repeatedly they can give the fans what they want. So it is definitely possible whenever Europe comes calling again, Sporting could dish out the really big bucks.
WTR: Question the Second
The growth of Sporting KC since moving to their new ground has been immense. It may sound harsh, but SKC were rather clearly one of the have-not clubs before the new ownership group came into place, playing on that awkward pitch fashioned out of a baseball diamond. While purely speculation to say they could have faced a fate such as that suffered by Chivas USA, there is a reckoning coming for teams that prevent the league from progressing... How is it that Kansas City have made this turnaround and what lessons should be learned by other clubs looking to improve their situation? Was it all in the new stadium? Did the club take a new approach towards the fans? And how have the first generation supporters welcomed the newcomers to the fold? Is there any tension there?
CB: This team was closer to leaving KC than many people probably realize. It was absolutely the efforts of a few that kept the team around. People here do love the sport and always have, but it isn't exactly a crazy environment playing the cavernous Arrowhead Stadium, or the awkward Community America Baseball Park. Once this ownership group came into the picture, the rest is history.
You asked the right question about the approach towards the fans. That is basically everything right there. The relationship with the ownership and the fans is amazing. The Cauldron literally had an impact in the design of the stadium. Building the crown jewel of stadiums in MLS is obviously a huge part of it as well.
These owners have everything the right way. They are a better business all around. They know their market and how to give it what it wants. They are at the forefront of technology. They have an impressive office building downtown. They do it right behind the scenes as well as providing a great product on the field that wins trophies.
There is absolutely no tension between fans at all. Cauldronites consider a personal duty to bring someone new to the sport (or team or stadium) every single chance they get. If you are a soccer fan in this city, you are a soccer fan. That is the community. The camaraderie is great.
That being said, there is a pride among those who have been around for the long haul. The term True96er is for people who there for the KC WIZ in the inaugural season. I myself was a bright eyed, bowl cut, 7 year old watching that first game in Arrowhead. Admittedly, I was a casual fan in the early years and it has been an amazing transformation. The passion of those who helped keep the team around during the dark days is a passion for the sport that still exists and is apparent when you come to this city.
WTR: Question the Third
Sporting have started out the season with a pair of solid results, snatching a victory in Seattle and then impressively dispatching a struggling Vancouver side. Points at this time of year are as valuable as any, but there is a risk of reading too much into early victories. What are the prospects for SKC this season and what are the expectations?
CB: I have to admit that I am probably looking way too much into the first two games.
They stole 3 points in Seattle which is perhaps the toughest match of the season, and also got another big 3 points against a Western Conference foe. They did this without their MVP. They did it with Connor Hallisey starting on the wing in stead of Justin Mapp or Brad Davis. Sporting KC looked really solid last week and gave reason to believe they will compete for trophies again this season. There is so much depth that you can feel confident about whoever is next in line.
Dom Dwyer is confident and in form. Graham Zusi is finally healthy and looking like his old self again. Roger Espinoza is healthy and playing some amazing (SERIOUSLY) soccer in the midfield. Chance Myers is healthy and flying down the right flank again. The new guy, Nuno Coelho, is showing he is a threat on set pieces and fitting in very nicely next to Matt Besler in the defense.
Last season, SKC was in prime position to take the Supporter's Shield late in the season. If not for one of the craziest things I've ever seen in the sport my entire life.... they feel they could have won MLS Cup again.
The talent is here, the veteran presence is here, the coaching is here, and Sporting KC have their eye on 4 trophies.
WTR: Barbed Question
Since winning the cup a few seasons ago, Sporting has not progressed past the Knockout Round in the past two years – losing to the Red Bulls and the Timbers, respectively. As Toronto well knows, getting to the playoffs at all is the first hurdle, but to fall flat two years in a row has to have some asking questions. What would it take for dramatic changes to be made?
CB: Some are asking questions, some.
But not many.
It is hard to feel like last season was that bad when they won the US Open Cup and qualified for CCL. There is also a sense that if they would have survived that first tough match in the Knockout Round in Portland last season, that they could have really done big things by bringing playoff soccer to KC. And not to dwell on it, no matter how hard it might be...NO REALLY I'M FINE... but to be eliminated after having the winning PK bounce of the inside of both posts and then out, is just incredibly unlucky. I understand this is a huge part of sports, but DAMN.
As far as dramatic changes being made, they are not even remotely close to that. Peter Vermes is basically everything to this FO as well as for many of the players, so honestly I don't even know what it would take. A last place finish perhaps? A couple or few consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs? It is hard to say.
There are a few people out there who don't like Vermes and will complain about him. But there are also a few people who think the Earth is flat.
Waking the Red:
Clint Irwin; Steven Beitashour, Damien Perquis, Drew Moor, Justin Morrow; Will Johnson, Michael Bradley, Marky Delgado; Jonathan Osorio, Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco.
2-2 sounds about right, but it could go either way. Toronto will be solid, but KC, as they proved against Vancouver last week, can be very dangerous going forward and will have the crowd on their side. A clean-sheet for either side would be a surprise.
The Blue Testament:
(4-3-3) Tim Melia, Chance Myers, Nuno Coelho, Matt Besler, Amadou Dia, Soni Mustivar, Roger Espinoza, Jordi Quintilla, Graham Zusi, Dom Dwyer, Brad Davis
Sporting Kansas City 2 - 2 Toronto FC