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12 Random Thoughts from Sporting KC Versus Phoenix Rising

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Just two more weeks until the game start counting, so we point out some things that stuck out from the 150 minute scrimmage.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Sporting KC
No, the man bun has not returned.
Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The first four weeks of preseason are in the books and there is just one more game day left. Sporting Kansas City will travel to Tucson, Arizona for two 90-minute games to be played simultaneously next Wednesday. But before we get to that, it’s time to look back on observations from the preseason so far as well as specific thoughts from Thursday’s “double game” against Phoenix Rising FC of the USL Championship that SKC won 3-2 on aggregate.

The Starting XI

Team officials and Peter Vermes himself have stressed over and over that it doesn’t matter who is starting or who is playing with who. That said, it’s very hard to look at these lineups and not think we have it pinned down who starts against Toluca FC. Just look at the First XI from the first four games.

GAME #1 - Melia, Zusi, Fontas, Besler, Wallace, Ilie, Rowe, Gutierrez, Russell, Hurtado, Gerso

GAME #2 - Melia, Zusi, Fontas, Besler, Wallace, Ilie, Rowe, Gutierrez, Russell, Nemeth, Gerso

GAME #3 - Melia, Zusi, Fontas, Besler, Wallace, Ilie, Rowe, Gutierrez, Russell, Nemeth, Salloi

GAME #4 - Melia, Zusi, Fontas, Besler, Wallace, Ilie, Rowe, Gutierrez, Russell, Nemeth, Salloi

Eric Hurtado got a single start because Nemeth wasn’t quite ready off his injury. The only other position in flux was Daniel Salloi and Gerso Fernandes at the left winger spot. Everyone else started every single game. Chemistry is important and I have to think this is the lineup. I’m willing to say whoever plays Houston next Wednesday are the starters barring injury. I suspect it’ll be Salloi over Gerso, who’s speed would be great as a sub.

The Second XI

Continuing with the lineup trends, there wasn’t much variance in these lineups either.

GAME #1 - Zendejas, Lindsey, Smith, Abualnadi, Sinovic, Kuzain, Espinoza, Busio, Croizet, Harris, Salloi

GAME #2 - Dick, Lindsey, Barath, Smith, Sinovic, Kuzain, Espinoza, Busio, Croizet, Hurtado, Salloi

GAME #3 - Zendejas, Lindsey, Barath, Smith, Sinovic, Kuzain, Espinoza, Busio, Croizet, Hurtado, Gerso

GAME #4 - Zendejas, Lindsey, Barath, Smith, Sinovic, Kuzain, Espinoza, Busio, Croizet, Freeman, Gerso

This lineup did sway a bit more than the First XI though. Hurtado was up a line the first game for Krisztian Nemeth. Mo Abualnadi (SKC Academy) was in for the injured Botond Barath for a single game. Eric Dick got a single start with this group compared to three for Adrian Zendejas. And 16-year-old Tyler Freeman played for an injured Hurtado in the fourth game.

If Vermes really does rotate his squads heavily because of CONCACAF Champions League, then I suspect this is the lineup we’ll see, though I suspect players like Besler might play in both groups over Graham Smith. Player form could see players go up or down, but no one on this line killed it anymore than anyone on the first line, with maybe a slight nod to Seth Sinovic who is always so stable in defense and he even showed off some offense.

It was Cold in Scottsdale

I know you Kansas City people are thinking us Arizonians are soft (and we are) but even the Sporting KC bench and coaches were bundled up tight. When the game ended it was just 44 degrees and in AZ, even in the winter, that’s quite cold. The Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex is in the middle of an empty space of land and it for some reason is always colder there. Even in the awful Arizona summers, it’s always a bit cooler on the stadium spot.

It was so cold we struggled to type during the game. Also, players were warming up in giant jackets during the 3rd intermission (it was a long game) and I couldn’t identify a single player. Their heads barely stuck out of their coats and not enough to identify them.

Weird Format

This fourth match day brought about quite the weird format. It was billed as two 75 minute games but with Sporting KC and Phoenix Rising at two different stages of the preseason, it didn’t always play out like that. SKC seemed to score it as two seperate games but Phoenix Rising scored it cumulatively while still using two seperate 75 minute clocks.

Basically, this is how it went. 45 minute. 10 minute break. 30 minutes, short break. 30 more minutes, 10 minute break. Then the final 45 minutes. Weird. Preseason is nearly over so that bizzare timekeeping should be gone by next week.

Zusi on the Attack

Graham Zusi has scored twice in the preseason so far. He scored an absolute golazo that reminded me of Yohan Croizet in the US Open Cup last year. Then on Thursday he scored a free kick goal.

Outside of that, he’s been even further into the attack than last year. He has made runs from his right back spot all the way up and past the center forward at times. We are familiar with full backs doing overlapping runs on their winger or even with Zusi drifting into the midfield, but this felt even more aggressive. Zusi being in the box has created overloads and led to goals, especially against lesser competition. It will be interesting to see if it works against better teams and if being so far forward, bites SKC in the butt defensively.

Fontas versus Opara

With the massive trade of Ike Opara recently, a lot of us at The Blue Testament wondered if Andreu Fontas could replace Ike, considering Opara is such an athlete and Fontas appears to be quite a bit slower. When we asked Vermes, he wasn’t concerned at all. He talked about Fontas’ play being different, since he can’t match how athletic Ike is (and few can). He even said it may be different in a better way and may change the way the team plays.

While that’s entirely possible, what we’ve seen in preseason is Fontas making deep runs into the midfield, just like Opara has always done. What he hasn’t shown, is the raw speed Ike had to get back on defense. Now it’s possible that Fontas is just getting forward because the competition has been of lower quality so far. But last night, Phoenix put him under pressure with their raw speed. Most of that speed came from the wings, where Phoenix is just really stacked offensively.

Thankfully for Fontas the center forwards he faced where of good quality, both former MLS players Adam Jahn and trialist Lamar Neagle, but they weren’t crazy fast. Fontas did a good job of using his body to shield away attackers and cut off their runs. It was actually his center back partner Matt Besler who got beat last night by the speedy winger and 2018 Phoenix Rising MVP Solomon Asante. Though, that may have been more because Rodney Wallace was out of position.

Rodney Wallace on Defense

There is no question about the qualities that Rodney Wallace adds to the attack. He is very fast, he crosses the ball quite well, and he is generally a threat to score or assist when he’s forward.

Up until this point of the preseason, he hadn’t really been tested defensively. For the first 60 minutes he faced off against the speedy Jamaican Junior Flemmings. Multiple times Flemmings got in behind Wallace. In Rodney’s defense, the pitch was a bit torn up and he slipped a little bit. The last 15 minutes Wallace faced the aforementioned MVP Asante and he got out of position forcing Besler to cover. Asante sent in a cross that led to the first PRFC goal. No doubt in my mind the Toluca FC wingers will be just as fast and they’ll probably be better finishers. This is something to watch and I wouldn’t be stunned to see Sinovic steal this spot, despite working with the “second team” all preseason.

It’s Not Just Wallace and Zusi

The Second XI has seen Seth Sinovic getting shockingly far forward and Jaylin Lindsey has joined into the attack as well. Seth has looked pretty dangerous in preseason. He has a goal and an assist and even against Phoenix Rising he was in the 18-yard-box quite frequently. Lindsey was doing the same thing, making Zusi-esk runs (and boy is that kid fast).

The concern comes with the fullbacks being out of position. For the last 30 minutes or so the defense was getting very stretched and if Sporting were playing against a MLS team or Toluca FC it is hard to imagine that there wouldn’t have been some goals given up with all the odd man rushes. Fantastic center back play from Botond Barath and Mo Abualnadi and goalkeepers Adrian Zendejas and Eric Dick is all that kept Phoenix from adding to their tally.

Inverted Wingers

For huge portions of the game(s) Thursday night the wingers for both lineups for Sporting played inverted. It may have just been an experiment but honestly, most of them looked uncomfortable. Gerso probably looked the best on both sides (which makes sense as he’s played both LW and RW extensively) but players like Johnny Russell, Daniel Salloi and Yohan Croizet seem to have a preferred side. When they were back on the “proper” side, they were much more dangerous.

We are okay with short stretches where the players switch, but these were prolonged stretches and the team was relatively ineffective during them. Of note, Krisztian Nemeth drifted to the right wing for Johnny Russell a couple times and Russell took up the CF spot. That seems it would be more effect if Nemeth got to get to the left wing, where he was very effective during his 2015 stint with SKC.

Yohan Croizet

Thursday was probably Yohan’s best game of the preseason. He honestly seemed like he wasn’t that into some of the prior games. He did well on the stat sheet, but he was being coached a lot by players and coaches alike about being out of position. Yohan is still clearly learning his winger role and he can’t stop himself from wanting to drift to the center of the field (where many of his goals/assists have come from).

As for why Thursday was a good game for Yohan, his effort was through the roof. He pressed at the right time. He forced several turnovers. And he was just generally a pest to the defenders and midfielders alike.

Tyler Freeman at Center Forward

After the game I talked to Freeman about where he wants to play. His response, “just as long as I get on the field,” shows the kid just wants to play. It’s interesting that he played center forward as he is likely a winger or an attacking midfielder (which are the roles he’s played in preseason before this game). He’s also a bit undersized for the center forward role, though Sporting have shown a propensity to play a bit small all over the field outside of center back.

Watching the game, you could clearly see Freeman wasn’t as accustomed to being in that role. He drifted way back into the midfield at times, a bit more like a false 9. Roger Espinoza kept giving him direction on positioning and to get forward. Despite this, he scored a goal in under a minute. The kid is just a natural goal scorer. He puts himself in dangerous spots and he’s already scored twice in the preseason.

Draft Picks Missing

With only two groups of 11 players getting on the field, the three unsigned draft picks for SKC were nowhere to be seen. There were a few players warming up in huge jackets (as mentioned above) that I couldn’t identify. What I could clearly see is none of them had the fiery red hair of second round pick Camden Riley. Since there was very little information about the Swope Park Rangers preseason, I can’t help but wonder if the draft picks might appear there. They did all say early in the preseason they are open to signing second team contracts.

[Update: Leave it to Thad to get this confirmed for me.]

Next Week

There are two more games in the preseason, both of them are next Wednesday, February 13th. They will happen simultaneously. I suspect the above First XI will play the Houston Dynamo and the Second XI will play FC Tucson (Peter Vermes misspoke to TBT earlier in the preseason that the club would play two MLS squads on this date, but as of now, they will not).

It sounds like the game against Houston will be streamed! So finally fans will get the chance to watch some Sporting Kansas City action. It will clearly be their toughest challenge to date as they’ll play a fellow CCL team. The Blue Testament will cover the FC Tucson game, which won’t be streamed (based on the information we have at this time). That way you can watch one game and at least read about the other one.