Down four starters. Playing three matches in eight days just prior to the playoffs. Going into a place where success has been a challenge, facing perhaps the best team at home in Major League Soccer.
“[Houston is] a very hungry counterattacking team that is relentless,” said Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes on Monday. “And you better be able to deal with that.”
Dealing with challenges is life. A professional sports team, if it wants to survive, just can’t afford to turn tail and run like individuals can if they so choose. And Sporting KC will likely find themselves doing quite a bit of running if they allow Houston’s playmakers (and they have two that can kill you) and athletic wingers freedom.
Alex, the 28-year-old Brazilian playmaker, can weave through multiple defenders to link or score himself, while 37-year-old Vicente Sanchez, a glory-filled veteran of top leagues in Mexico, Germany, and his native Uruguay, lingers on the bench awaiting a star role. On the wings, Honduran Internationals Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto bear down on defenses with speed, size (6’”0 and 5’11” respectively), and skill. And that foursome doesn’t even include leading scorer Erick “Cubo” Torres, who has rippled the net 14 times and second forward Mauro Manotas, scorer of nine. Fortunately, Elis and Quioto will be on international duty Tuesday night and unlikely to be in the 18 for Houston. Manotas and MLS vet Andrew Wenger are their likely replacements.
Houston is hungry – currently tied for 4th, but just one point above two other teams who are fighting for the playoffs – and very successful at home; they are 10-1-4 at BBVA Compass Stadium in 2017 and their +22 home-goal-differential is the best in MLS’s Western Conference.
In contrast, Sporting Kansas City sits in 2nd place in the West with 48 points in 31 games, just three points and one match behind top-sitting Vancouver Whitecaps. Their 14 road goals allowed is least in MLS, but they have tallied just eight in 15 road games, the second lowest in the league. Lastly, Sporting KC is winless in its last six regular-season matches versus Houston, going 0-3-3 since a June 2014, 2-0 win.
Yet the situation, pragmatically or not, is very beneficial for Sporting Kansas City.
“We have some guys who have never played in the playoffs, so it’s a good prelude to, hopefully, when we make it in and have a good spot,” stated Vermes.
Indeed, Sporting hopes to host a two-game, away-and-home series in the playoffs via a top-two finish in the conference, and Wednesday (a rescheduled match due to Hurricane Harvey) and Sunday (a return home match versus Houston) provide a perfect preparation scenario. The stakes being high add to the playoff prep.
Convention may dictate that Vermes and his charges will look to hold serve in Houston and win at home. But this rescheduled match is the game-in-hand that Sporting has had for a while. A win means separation from the pack and a tie with Vancouver at the top.
“They are huge games. Houston is not too far behind us, and results will dictate whether we can separate ourselves,” said left back Seth Sinovic who played in his 200th MLS match last Saturday. “We go into every game looking to get the win; we’re not going into a game looking to tie a team.”
Sporting will be short standout goalkeeper Tim Melia due to injury (see related story here), backs Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, and playmaker Benny Feilhaber as they are with the U.S. National team in Trinidad and Tobago Tuesday night. Even that is a benefit. Whichever backup starts – Andrew Dykstra or Adrian Zendejas – will gain experience and coordination with the starting squad; depending on playing time, Besler, Zusi, and Feilhaber are getting rest (only Besler played Friday night against Panama); and their replacements are getting time that will serve them well if called upon in the playoffs.
The final benefit is a Vermes focus, rhythm. The three games in eight days helps the team stay focused and in game mode. Sure, that can be mentally taxing. But who isn’t in a better rhythm and better at their job when on task more often than not?
The hope is that Melia’s sub finds that rhythm soon as Houston throws numbers and dangers into the attack. When Houston can’t counter, they tend to whip crosses into the box.
“So the backline will have to work this week on being sharp - keeping the line together, when we are dropping, when we are staying up. I have to be aware of crosses and what I can get too,” said possible starting goalkeeper Dykstra.
A consistent rhythm, er, success rate, is what Sporting needs in goal production. Chances in the last two matches, a 1-0 home loss to Vancouver and a 1-1 draw at Minnesota United, have been bountiful (38 shots, 11 on goal) but goals have not.
“The important thing is the amount of chances we are creating as a team. The last few games we should have had quite a few goals, but that’s how the ball bounces sometimes,” said Sinovic. “Whether it’s just missing it or the goalie making a spectacular save, it doesn’t seem to be falling for us right now… eventually they are going to go in.”
Wednesday night in Houston would be the perfect moment in time for karma to even out. That would be the ideal benefit.