Sporting KC welcome Eastern Conference foe Columbus Crew SC on Sunday so I got with Patrick Murphy from our fellow SB Nation blog, Massive Report, to discuss the match-up.
We ask them...
1) The Blue Testament: Kei Kamara is of course a fan favorite around these parts, but I imagine this is not the case in Ohio. How has Crew SC coped with the hole that Kei left after that debacle? Is he a villain in the eyes of Crew fans?
Patrick Murphy: Let me answer the second question first. I don't believe many Crew SC fans hold any animosity towards Kei. I think most fans think Federico Higuain should have let him take the penalty kick that led to the outburst that eventually led to the trade. Fans also see how much Kamara really meant for Columbus now that he's not up top scoring goals (although he hasn't been finding the net in New England).
As for the coping, it's been difficult. The Black & Gold have scored nine goals in the six MLS matches since Kei left. In his place has been Ola Kamara (no relation) who has now scored as many goals as Kei on the season. With that said, the offense isn't as dangerous, but the group is also missing Federico Higuain which hasn't helped matters. Ola does not possess the saw raw athleticism as Kei, which means Crew SC can no longer send in crosses and hope the forward goes up and heads them home. The tactics have been adjusted to serve lower crosses, but this team has never been the most accurate in their services.
What hasn't happened is a change to build more from the middle. Some of that has to do with opponents' tactics to sit back and stay compact centrally, but very few through balls are coming outside in, but rather inside out for a crosser. When the Black & Gold get it right like they did late in last week's match against the New York Red Bulls, the results are good. It just hasn't happened enough to keep forcing it.
2) TBT: The Crew have struggled mightily this season after an MLS Cup appearance last year. What has been the difference? Is the problem fixable this season? Do you believe they'll be able to sneak into the playoffs?
PT: The problems are multiple and stem from last season to an extent. First, Columbus wasn't the best team in the East last year and the run to the Final only raised expectations too high. This club was hot and rode on the backs of a career year from Kamara. Defensively Crew SC was a mess (although they were improved in the playoffs). When Kei was off, as everyone saw in the Final, the Black & Gold were not a great side.
As for this season, the offense struggled even before Kei was traded. Maybe the team bought into its own hype for the first few games, but they weren't prepared to play with a target on their back. The early season game against the Chicago Fire was one of the biggest snorefests seen in MLS in a while. Ethan Finlay hasn't lived up to his performances the last two seasons and was benched. Higuain is now out, Kei is gone and the team is still adjusting to Ola. Gaston Sauro, who helped improve the defense, tore his PCL. Cedrick Mabwati, who replaced Finlay in the starting 11, is out with malaria. Mohammed Saeid is dealing with a broken back. The injuries go on and on.
All of this adds up to a disjointed season with no rhythm for Crew SC. Can this be fixed? Sure. The team is only one point off the pace last year and four points back of the playoffs. In MLS, all it takes is a run of good results, especially in the East.
3) TBT: Columbus was also eliminated from the USOC this week with a loss to the Fire. How much emphasis do they put on that tournament? Do fans care too much about being knocked out? And do you think the lineup will be affected this weekend against Sporting KC because of the short rest?
PM: According to the players, the Open Cup is important. Justin Meram, Wil Trapp, and Finlay all stressed that heading into Tuesday's match. Berhalter has said any time you have chance to win a trophy, the team wants to do so, but his lineup and change in formation against the Fire said otherwise. As for the fans, I think many hardcore supporters would love to see the team lift the Cup again, but they've seen the effort the team has put into it the last few years. I think that has turned off the more casual fan from the tournament.
In terms of the lineup, I don't think it will have much impact. Crew SC is dealing with a lot of injuries right now so there aren't many options. I think you'll see something similar to what the Black & Gold have rolled out in recent weeks.
Massive Report Predictions
Lineup: Steve Clark
Harrison Afful-Michael Parkhurst-Tyson Wahl-Corey Ashe
Ethan Finlay-Tony Tchani-Wil Trapp-Justin Meram
Score: I'm going to say 2-1 Sporting.
They ask us...
1) Massive Report: Crew SC just dealt with the press of the New York Red Bulls last week and it worked for a portion of the match. Sporting does something similar. Could you explain to Columbus fans who aren't familiar how KC's press works for what Peter Vermes wants accomplished?
Cody Bradley: Vermes requires a lot out of every single player on the field. He can't just get any player to work in his system and if they don't do what is asked of them, they simply do not stick around long. For instance, when Vermes got Feilhaber, he was not the kind of player willing to trek back on defense and make every single tackle. And it literally was not until the playoffs that season that Benny finally started regularly and started having success.
So yes, this team will deploy the high flying press of the 4-3-3. The fullbacks will get forward as often as possible, every player in Sporting Blue will be very physical, and when the ball is lost there will be two guys trying to win it back IMMEDIATELY. They will take a professional foul over giving up an easy chance all day. Dom Dwyer will wear down the centerbacks like a nagging mother-in-law and is waiting for the one hint of a mistake on that back-line to capitalize. Vermes talks a lot about how every player must know his role in every situation and they have to stay focused for every moment. He would rather put a player into a slot that knows his system and what is required in that role, over talent/potential that either isn't familiar yet or not willing to do the work. (i.e. Jacob Peterson) Things like this are why he is so hesitant to switch up his formation and tactics, something that drives many fans crazy.
2) MR: Dom Dwyer has been the model of consistency this year with two goals each month for a total of eight. What makes this guy such a perfect fit for the Kansas City attack?
CB: I touched on it above, and I think the biggest reason is his work ethic and desire. I've heard a story that can help answer this question. One time while watching film, Dwyer had done something either in the room or in the game they were watching that got Vermes going. PV said something along the lines of, "Dom you are a real dick. But you really want to win and that's why you are on the team."
He is absolutely relentless in his work rate and his hold up play. He will chirp all game, be physical all game, and truly frustrate everyone around him. The way this system works, the midfield absolutely has to have somebody to bounce the ball off of up top. Dwyer and his low center of gravity can hold his ground accept a pass and allow somebody to move into space. Most of the time the defender at his back will foul him, which also does the job. But if the ref isn't giving Dom that call where he gets elbows and knees straight to his back and tailbone, it can be a long night for the SKC attack. The other thing that is essential to this system is the willingness to fight to win the ball back right away. Dom never stops running so he is normally in a position to do this when Sporting get forward. He's a true center forward and really is a perfect fit here. That is why he is already 2nd all time in goals scored for this franchise and this will be just his third full season!
3) MR: SKC is second in the league in shots, but near the bottom (and below Crew SC) in goal scored. What is going on with this offense?
CB: They are firing off shots, but they aren't always good ones. This team has definitely gone through spells where they created a million chances and had good shots, but couldn't quite finish. I think that happens to everyone. For me, the real difference has been Benny Feilhaber. The guy is simply not the player he was last year. I hate myself for admitting this because I love Benny. But I mean he has been letting balls go through his legs, he's made terrible mistakes that led directly to goals, and he tries passes that would have worked last year but are way off this year.
Dwyer will score goals if given enough service. I think what this team has been lacking is that one special moment in the attack that Benny supplied last year. Every now and then he will finally be able to send that cheeky pass between the defense or a clever chip, and when he does they score or get the ball on frame! On top of that, Graham Zusi has continued to struggle this season for SKC. He has been unable to contribute to the scoring or service to Dwyer. Brad Davis and Justin Mapp were brought in to help with all of that. Davis has scored a couple big goals but they need much more form him, and Mapp has only played about 22 minutes total.
Something needs to be done, or somebody needs to step up. Because this club promises and this fan base expects to compete for silverware. They just extended Diego Rubio's (Dwyer's backup) loan which is nice, but more needs to be done to really fix the problem.
The Blue Testament Predictions
Lineup: Melia, Medranda, Besler, Opara, Abdul-Salaam, Mustivar, Espinoza, Feilhaber, Davis, Dwyer, Zusi
Score: I'm going to predict this team will score three goals until I simply will it to happen. 3-1 Sporting KC