Thursday’s 2nd Leg of MLS’s Western Conference Final versus Portland Timbers is what the gradual tactical transformation and roster overhaul (and gaining of the top seed in the West) for Sporting Kansas City has been all about. Thus, a look at five players (in no particular order) who can push Kansas City into their fourth MLS Cup all-time and second in six years after winning MLS Cup in 2013.
“The situation for us is simple: win the game. If we win the game, we advance to MLS Cup. That’s our goal,” said Team Captain Matt Besler on Tuesday. Amen. (Caveat – it is expected that all other players will play their usual game.)
Forward Diego Rubio
Sporting Kansas City’s best striker (a goal or assist every 55.79 minutes during regular season, plus two goals in 98 playoff minutes) missed leg one due to yellow card accumulation in the Western Conference Semifinal series. And he was missed in Portland. The 25-year-old Chilean excels at combining with his midfielders and wingers, as well as finding advantageous space in and around the box.
And can he do any worse than Khiry Shelton did with hold up play in the 1st leg? No. Hold up play is done by playing the way one is facing and playing usable balls to those in support, or drawing a foul (another Rubio talent — Shelton drew none on the road), not just by shielding an opponent with a big body. Rubio should get the start. This is a final. Put the most-talented lineup out there.
“Diego has been very important to the team in all kinds of scenarios. Starting. Off the bench. Coming in the last few minutes. Starting the 2nd half. He’s been ready for all of them,” stated Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes. “He will definitely play a role in this game. What that is, I’m not sure yet. But he has had a huge impact on results, and on his teammates because there is no doubt in my mind that they have confidence in him when he’s on the field.”
Vermes, too, focused on the importance of defensive play in the role of the striker, and the role of cutting off Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco, stating that shutting out the Timbers in leg one was no small feat. Assumedly, that’s a big check mark in the support box for Shelton.
Winger Daniel Salloi
Even though the Hungarian Homegrown can finish some remarkable shots, the 22-year-old is inconsistent, often finishing the spectacular but failing to get other shots even on goal. But it’s tough to sniff at 13 goals in all competitions, plus two in the playoffs thus far. But, Daniel, finish more of those, please.
Salloi is also a strong combiner in and around the box. Yet, his hold up play on the wing is often not up to snuff. And it is especially important when he plays with the talented Felipe Gutierrez on the left side of the attack. In addition, Salloi’s ability to get around a defender wide on the wing to then penetrate the box is lacking. He doesn’t have the speed. He should look to cut inside with his quickness (as he often does) or hold the ball up and combine with Gutierrez and others more often.
Goalkeeper Tim Melia
For any goalkeeper in a big match it is expected that he makes the saves he should and makes one or two he shouldn’t. Fortunately, that is Melia’s MO. However, keep a keen eye on his distribution. The more he puts his field players in position to turn freely into space, the better.
Midfielder Ilie Sanchez
It’s a no-brainer. Ilie on the ball is better than Ilie not on the ball. His accurate distribution is wide, short, far, and insightful. And when the ball is hurriedly dumped to him because of pressure (even when he is under pressure), he makes a touch to keep possession and calm the situation. Ilie can control the ebb and flow of the match. However, two things about his play need to stand out Thursday evening: he needs to be more active off the ball to find spaces to receive the ball than he was in the first half last Sunday at Portland Timbers.
“If you are a team that is going against us, it makes sense to try and take him out of the game… For us it’s important to not put too much focus on that and try to get him out of position to get him the ball,” said Besler. “We are going to play how we normally play. We are still going to try and get him as many touches as possible. If they want to try and completely take him out of the game, that is going to open-up spaces for other guys on the field. Then it comes down to those guys taking advantage of that space.”
Secondly, his defensive intensity and positioning needs an uptick. With Portland’s 4-2-3-1 formation, and their most dangerous players in 2017 MLS MVP Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco in that three, Ilie needs to be a more vehement part of the cutting off of service to them and the lessening of their time and space.
Midfielder Felipe Gutierrez
See points made in Salloi and Sanchez. The more influential the most-talented Sporting KC player is, the better. ‘Nuff said.
Game Plan = None
When asked what the main message would be to his team in the lead up to Thursday’s match, Vermes said the following: “We need to be the best version of us on Thursday night. It’s pretty simple. There’s no incredible game plan that we as a coaching staff are going to put together. We’ve played more than enough games. There is nothing new that we are going to come out with in this game. There is nothing new that they are going to come out with in this game. It’s going to come down to being very disciplined, very organized, at the same time taking advantages of their chances and trying to minimize the ones that we give up.”
Wise words, but perhaps not fully forthcoming from Vermes. Overall, Vermes, of course, knows what a final is:
“You are going to see two teams that are going to be playing at a much different intensity, and the game is going to have some ebbs and flows in it that, if you can survive those, that’s where the difference in the game is going to be.”