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Familiar foes Sporting KC & Columbus make for “good game”

Play between the lines may determine match

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps at Sporting KC Peter G. Aiken

Sporting Kansas City hosts a familiar foe in fellow MLS original club Columbus Crew SC on Retro Night at Children’s Mercy Park come Sunday.

Columbus’ striker production the last five years:

2014: Ethan Finley – 11 goals, 7 assists

2015: Kei Kamara – 22, 8

2016: Ola Kamara – 16, 2 (Kei five in nine games)

2017: Ola Kamara – 18, 3

2018: Gyasi Zardes – 8 goals in 13 games

“It’s the system of play” say pundits when explaining how Head Coach Gregg Berhalter’s Crew always gets high production out of their strikers. The players around Finley, Kamara, Kamara – all departed – and, now, Zardes make good plays and the striker gets into good positions and finishes.

“For me, they are the best team in this league. I respect them so much,” stated Kansas City holding midfielder Ilie Sanchez.

Three of the four years under Berhalter, Columbus has made the playoffs. Two years they made it to the Eastern Conference Final and once to MLS Cup. Currently, the Crew are unbeaten in six (4-0-2) with four straight shutouts in that streak and have joined Sporting Kansas City tied in second in the Supporters’ Shield standings with New York City FC at 24 points apiece. Earlier this season, Sporting ran off seven unbeaten and currently are unbeaten in three, with five shutouts on the season.

Columbus Crew SC - A proven effective system of play, including attacking wing backs. A sound defense. Sound results. The facts should sound familiar to Sporting Kansas City fans.

Furthermore, Columbus has been effective on set pieces. The match-winner at New England Revolution last Saturday came on an 85th minute goal by Lalas Abubakar off a Federico Higuain corner. Kansas City has made corners and free kicks an emphasis more this season, now totaling three set piece goals on the season.

“They are doing different things that we can see normally in this league from the other teams in the way that they value the ball until the end…” elaborated Ilie. “They build from the back, starting with the goalkeeper, who is pretty good at making saves and [distributing] the ball. They have brave defenders that can build the game; they are not afraid of taking the ball wherever they are. They have quality midfielders and offensive players. When you put all of these kinds of players together, the center forward has more options to score goals if he has the right movements.”

However, Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes was quick to point out a key part of Columbus’ attacking scheme.

“One of the things you can’t negate, is Higuain. Higuain is a very important player to who they are – the way they build up the field, the way they can slow or speed up the game, the chances that he helps create…” Vermes said of the Argentine playmaker who has racked up 35 goals and 38 assists from 2014 to now. “A lot of other things have changed for them over the years, but he is one of the common denominators in the attack and the way that he plays within their system.”

Two Columbus goals from their 3-0 home win over Chicago Fire on May 12:

Two takeaways – Notice both goals came from the right side. Perhaps Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes will insert defensive stalwart Seth Sinovic on the left side of the backline if Jimmy Medranda, who Sinovic subbed in for in the first half of last week’s 1-1 draw at Minnesota United FC reportably due to injury, is unavailable. Secondly, Sporting will surely look to keep the ball no matter, but that will aid to neutralize Higuain’s impact, and Sanchez and fellow midfielder Roger Espinoza will pressure Higuain immediately when he does receive the ball.

And Columbus – 2-2-2 with 3-2 goal on the road this season – is no one-trick pony. Under the heat of New England Revolution’s high press away last week, Berhalter’s adaptable side repeatedly hit long balls over the top, many from goalkeeper Zack Steffen, and then won the second balls between the Revolution’s back and midfield lines.

Although pundits also say that Sporting KC no longer is the high-intensity high-press side of a few years ago, the press is still a key ingredient in Vermes’ system. It’s just a smarter press.

“We don’t want to lose this high-intensity press, but we also know that we have to be compact. So sometimes it’s difficult to go and press high when you want to be compact,” Ilie stated. “We try to start our press [2/3rds of the way] up the field.”

That press and immediate determination to get the ball back once it is lost will always be a Vermes’ staple. Yet the attack has added more versatility as well, while being predicated on fast movement of the ball.

“Everything starts from our center backs. They do a really good job with [taking pressure] on the ball as they come to midfield. Then we midfielders try to find our space to take the ball. If it’s behind their midfield line, it is better,” said Barcelona product Ilie. “If not, we know, especially at Children’s Mercy Park, that teams come to defend with eight guys around the ball, and we have to find space in front of them to then try and break them with passes between the lines. Our style is to play with our teammates as fast as we can with the ball, trying to go to goal with the best probability to score…”

In its last four matches – three away – Sporting’s attack has, despite 80 shots (24 on goal), settled into a goal-a-game pace (2-1-1, 4-2 goal differential). Clearly, finishing those chances has been the absent ingredient. That is where Columbus and Sporting Kansas City may vary the most. However, striker Khiry Shelton finally got off the snide last week, scoring the opening goal at Minnesota. Yet, no matter who is there to finish, it’s the system for Sporting Kansas City as well as backs Graham Zusi and Medranda push the attack while wingers Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell combine with them, attacking midfielder Yohan Croizet, and Shelton to pry open defenses.

But as Ilie pointed out, in the spaces between the back and midfield lines (or behind the backline) is where Sporting would like to live. Much of achieving that is the runs players make, as well as the ball being delivered. For himself, Ilie, a key deep-lying defensive midfielder who also excels at playmaking, feels he needs to improve in both facets as he feels he has not been on the ball enough in the last few contests.

“We’ve had different games. But, no, [I have] not [been on the ball] as much as I’ve wanted. But I’m also conscious that some teams try to [mark] me,” he said while stating that injured attacking midfielder Felipe Gutierrez excels at finding and exploiting space between the lines. “But I want to learn how to beat this and try to find my space, maybe be quicker in my actions in the way that I ask for the ball. I can do better.”

“Sometimes teams are going to try and take certain things away, and you have to be prepared for that,” said Vermes. “The fact that other teams have tried to [mark Ilie] this early on is really good for us because we’ve had to find other ways to do things, which is great.”

If Sporting Kansas City’s attackers can find the space between Columbus’ lines, more will get into the attack. As a player sees the ball reach that between space, he instinctually moves forward in anticipation. More numbers in the box often means a higher rate of success in finishing.

Sporting Kansas City and Columbus Crew SC – familiar foes. The last trait the two sides share is a desire to go away and play, not bunker.

“No matter where they go, they try to play. When Gregg took over, you could see that he was trying to build a style of play, and he wants to play. It’s entertaining, and the right way to do it,” Vermes stated. “His teams are good; they are good on both sides of the ball; they are good in transition; and they are pragmatic in building something that they know how to do. It will make for a good game on the weekend.”