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Playoff Preview: Sporting KC v Portland Timbers: Stats, Injuries & Starting XI (Second Leg)

SKC just need to win (or do a 0-0 draw and pull it out in PKs) to book their ticket to a road MLS Cup Final.

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Sporting KC v Portland Timbers (#SKCvPOR)

Thursday, November 29th, 2018 at 8:30 PM CT

How to Watch: ESPN

After a hard fought draw on Sunday in the Rose City and a simultaneous blizzard in KC, Sporting Kansas City will return home to the brutal cold with one game separating them from their fourth MLS Cup Final appearance. Standing in their way are the Portland Timbers, the scrappy fifth seed who just won’t go away in these playoffs. PTFC went on the road to beat FC Dallas in the first round. Then they played a two-leg thriller with the Seattle Sounders before settling for a home draw in the first leg with Sporting.

Both teams are saying they have the other right where they want them. Sporting KC went on the road and shut out the Timbers at home. Portland manage to avoid giving up one of those awful away goals. Basically all the stats favor Sporting. They have a better record against Portland over the last several years. They have a much better record at home. Tim Melia allows an extremely low number of goals against Portland. The only advantage PTFC have is away goals, and that’s only if they manage to score one. But if you want stats, read the last preview. Nothing has really changed because no goals were scored.

Instead, let’s look at tactics. When these teams played earlier this year there were two results. A 0-0 draw in Portland (deja vu...) and a 3-0 win at home. During those games, Portland was playing a much more defensive formation running out the 4-3-2-1 (the “Christmas Tree”) instead of their more positive 4-2-3-1. It’s weird that moving one midfielder up makes such a difference but it does. Portland looked goal dangerous on Sunday. They had quite a few near misses. But that was at home, where they are 4-9-6 (including playoffs) this year.

Sporting on the other hand are 11-2-5 (including playoffs) at home. For the most part, SKC play their game no matter what. They possess the ball, move it around quickly to open up gaps, then attack those gaps with all three forwards and their dual #8 midfielders (Roger Espinoza and Felipe Gutierrez). I have to think playing in front of their home crowd in Portland had an impact on the Timbers and playing in front of The Cauldron and 20,000+ screaming fans will buoy SKC as well.

The key will be that battle in the midfield. On Sunday, Portland marked Ilie closely and really took him out of the game. Look at his pass chart below from the 3-0 win in August versus Sunday’s 0-0 draw (green are complete, yellow are key passes and red are incomplete). Both charts are busy, but Ilie got FAR more touches in the win and that’s the key.

Ilie needs to find space to get on the ball as he’s the link between the defense and the offense. However, all is not lost if he can’t. If Portland shut down Ilie the key will then be for Espinoza and Gutierrez to step up. They were both uncharacteristically bad in the road leg. They both missed on a lot of passes which really made the attack falter before it could get started. Check out the pass chart of the same game but I’m just highlighting the misses from these two.

You can see Espinoza was worse, but it was surprisingly close. Another factor than can help fix this problem will be the holdup play of the striker. Khiry Shelton struggled to maintain possession, one of the traits that his advocates will say he’s good at. I would argue Diego Rubio is far better at hold up, winning headers, passing and of course scoring. The only area Shelton out does him is work rate, which matters, but less so. I expect Sporting to fix these problems and look much more dynamic in the second leg.

Injuries

Sporting KC

OUT: Jimmy Medranda (knee surgery - out for season), Cristian Lobato (knee injury - out for season)

QUESTIONABLE: None (Vermes says everyone is good to go)

Portland

OUT: Roy Miller (right thigh injury), Jake Gleeson (bilateral tibial stress fracture surgery), Larrys Mabiala (ankle injury)

QUESTIONABLE: None

Suspensions

Sporting KC - None

Portland - None (Unbelievable that Chara and Valeri avoided yellows with multiple bad tackles on Sunday)

Statistical Leaders (Regular Season + Playoffs)

Sporting KC

Goals: Daniel Salloi (13), Johnny Russell (10), Diego Rubio (10), Felipe Gutierrez (7), Gerso, Ilie Sanchez (5), Ike Opara, Yohan Croizet, Roger Espinoza (3)

Assists: Johnny Russell (11), Roger Espinoza (9), Daniel Salloi, Graham Zusi (7), Diego Rubio (6), Gerso, Khiry Shelton, Felipe Gutierrez (5), Ilie Sanchez (4), Yohan Croizet, Matt Besler (3)

Portland

Goals: Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco (12), Samuel Armenteros (8), Larrys Mabiala (5), Fanendo Adi, David Guzman, Jeremy Ebobisse, Alvas Powell (3)

Assists: Valeri (14), Blanco (11), Powell (4), Cristhian Paredes, Ebobisse (3)

Recent Performances (Including Playoffs)

Sporting KC - W/W/D/W/D

Portland - L/W/W/L/D

Starting XI Predictions

There is really only one question. Who plays striker? It’s the question that’s been on the tips of the tongues of supporters all season. If you’ve watched any playoff games and you don’t think it should be Diego Rubio, I’d question how much you want to win this game. Shelton struggled in the first leg against RSL until Rubio came on and pulled back a goal immediately and earned a draw.

Rubio was again aces in the second leg, this time as the starter. He scored the first goal and drew the penalty kick that would lead to the third. When he was subbed off for Shelton he again struggled and he nearly aided in giving that game away.

Finally in Sunday’s start against Portland he once against was mostly ineffective. He had an abysmal first half and followed it up with a stronger second half — at least for the first 15 minutes or so — before reverting back to his poor form. Rubio was suspended for that game, but he’ll be back Thursday.

No other position on the field is in question in my eyes. Salloi looked slightly out of sorts Sunday, but the kid just keeps scoring goals so he’s got to start. The bench is deep and it’ll be interesting to see if Vermes uses his subs after essentially not doing so Sunday.

Rest of the 18: Zendejas, Fontas, Shelton, Gerso, Lindsey, Busio, Croizet

Brad Evans was on the bench as the backup fullback for Zusi (I think). Lindsey should be available. But the real question is who is taken off the bench between all the attacking talent? I suspect Shelton will be on the bench which may leave Nemeth as the odd man out. Then again, it could be Busio, but the bench forward depth would just be stupid at that point.

[The fan vote is once again not even close. It’s 100% the same as above. It was such a blowout that no backup got more than three votes. Voting was way down. There was basically no debate. Interestingly Shelton got less votes than Salloi to start at center forward. I’d be interested to know who would win to be the backup CF on Sunday. Shelton? Nemeth? Or is it Salloi?]

Refusing to make predictions has worked out pretty good so far. We’ve written a lot of words about these two teams over the last couple of weeks. We all can’t wait until Thursday. Dress warm!

Prediction: Refusing to Make

Who do you think will start? Who do you think should start? And what is your prediction for an outcome? Let us know in the comments.