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What If? Wizards and Sporting MLS Cup Winners Face Off

What if the 2000 Wizards and 2013 Sporting teams faced off? Who would win?

SOCCER: NOV 29 MLS Western Conference Championship - Portland Timbers at Sporting KC Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What if the two MLS Cup winners in Sporting Kansas City could face off against each other? How would they match up, how would the match go? Here’s a tactical look at how the two teams would match up and a little bit of fantasy play on how a potential match up between the 2000 Kansas City Wizards and the 2013 Sporting KC team would go.

A matchup between the 2000 Wizards and 2013 Sporting teams would be a tight game and there are some very clear similarities between the two teams. You have two strong defensive teams that had their struggles offensively. Defensively you have two teams that were considered two of the best defensive teams in league history. The 2000 Wizards goals against average was .9, allowing 29 goals in 32 games. Meanwhile the 2013 Sporting team allowed 30 goals in 34 games, giving them a lower goals against average, but only just at .88. The Wizards goalkeepers, Tony Meola (31 games) and Bo Oshoniyi (one game) faced 165 shots in 2000, the second fewest in the league. Nielsen (who played all 34 games in 2013) faced just 100 shots. To compare where the 165 shots translated in 2013 MLS, only DC United and Chivas USA faced more shots in 2013 when compared to the 2000 Wizards shots faced.

Offensively both teams finished with 47 goals in their respective seasons, the Wizards finishing with a 1.45 goals per game average compared to Sporting’s 1.38. While it looks like the 2000 Wizards were the more attacking team, the 2013 Sporting team was were more accurate with their shots on target. The 2000 Wizards had 175 shots of goal, the fewest of any team in the league in 2000 (12 of 12), meanwhile Sporting had 155 shots on goal in 2013 which was good for sixth (of 19) in the league.

With some of the similarities between the two teams mentioned, let’s take a look at how the two teams would fair facing off against each other.

First for the match up, you’d have the Wizards lining up in the traditional 3-5-2 that they used during the 2000 season with Tony Meola in goal behind a back three of Nick Garcia, Peter Vermes (Wizards), and Brandon Prideaux. Right in front of them are the two defensive midfielders that coach Bob Gansler played with, Matt McKeon as the destroyer and Kerry Zavagnin as the ball winner. Attacking wise in the midfield the Wizards had Chris Klein and Chris Henderson on the wings with Preki pulling the strings in the center of midfield. Up top KC would have Mo Johnston and Miklos Molnar on the attack.

For Sporting, the 2013 team would line up in Peter Vermes’(SKC) traditional 4-3-3 lineup. In goal Jimmy Nielsen with Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, and Seth Sinovic in front of him. In the midfield Oriol Rosell would be sitting deep in the six position for KC with Paulo Nagamura and Benny Feilhaber in front of him. Up top Sporting would have CJ Sapong and Graham Zusi on the wings with Dom Dwyer in the center forward position.

With the lineups set, let’s look at the match ups on the field.

Wizards Attack vs Sporting Defense

The Wizards attack was focused on forward Miklos Molnar, who led the club in scoring in 2000 scoring 12 goals in league play and another five in the playoffs that year. He scored the 12 goals in less than 1400 minutes of league action giving him the best goals per 90 minutes of any player in club history who played more than 1,000 minutes at .8 goals per 90 minutes. KC’s production was aided by 14 assists from Preki, another 11 from McKeon and 17 combined from KC’s two starting wingers Henderson and Klein. Henderson and Klein were also the club’s second and third leading scorer on the season scoring nine and six goals respectively.

Defensively for Sporting the 2013 season was a minor step back for them from 2012. They went from allowing a record low 27 goals in 2012 to allowing just 30 in 2013. While they didn’t win any league awards in 2013, Nielsen finished third in the voting one year after winning it while Besler finished runner up in Defender of the Year voting after winning it the year before. The MLS Cup 2013 MVP, Collin gave KC the physical presence in the center back position for KC with Myers and Sinovic anchored the wings.

With the Wizards wing play the big matchup here would be between Myers vs Henderson and Klein vs Sinvoic. Henderson and Klein would just run the whole game up and down the field, it’d be an interesting matchup when factored in with how Vermes (SKC) likes to have his wingbacks get forward into the attack. It’d leave the potential for the Wizards to exploit some space behind the Sporting wingbacks if they got caught forward, something that the Portland Timbers were able to expose against Sporting in their 3-2 win in 2013.

In the middle with Johnston and Molnar against Besler and Collin with Molnar’s strike rate he’s someone that could punish Sporting any time he’s in the box, especially from the service in the box. With Johnston you’d have someone willing to go into any 50/50 challenge and win the ball. Defensively you had Besler who by late 2013 had established himself as a regular in the US national team back line and Collin who was setting a single season club record for yellow cards in a season with 13, so he wouldn’t have been afraid to mix things up with Johnston in the box. It may not have been Collin vs Steven Lenhart, but it would have been 90 minutes of them picking at each other.

Behind the two forwards you have Preki pulling the strings in midfield and would require the full attention of Paulo Nagamura who’d likely pull the responsibility of tracking the attacking midfielder for Sporting. Even with the changes of the play in MLS, Preki’s cutback is something that would cause Nagamura and KC’s defense plenty of trouble if he got the space.

The biggest question though for the Wizards attack vs Sporting defense is how they’d deal with Sporting’s high press. The system Peter Vermes (SKC) deployed in 2013 wasn’t the full court press he’d used in 2011 and 2012, but he still put an emphasis on the press that season. Can the defensive midfielders of McKeon and Zavagnin, along with the defensive line handle KC’s first defender push from the front three? The 2000 Wizards didn’t do a lot of playing out of the back compared to how Vermes’ (SKC) had his team play in 2013, but forcing Preki, Henderson, and Klein to come deeper to receive the ball when they did would be something that would play right into Sporting’s hands defensively.

In the end you have an attack led by the all-time leader in goals and assists for the club along with a forward who scored a goal every 113 minutes while on the field in league play against a defense that limited teams to just 100 shots on goal in the season. The Wizards finished last in the league in shots on goal in 2000 with 175 and were fifth on converting those shots on goals to goals, scoring every 3.72 shots on goal. SKC meanwhile was 11th in the league in goals conceded per shots on goal allowed, allowing a goal every 3.33 shots on goal taken. Sporting’s defense didn’t allow a lot of shots, but when they did, they were right around the middle of the league in conceding, which speaks to the defenses’ ability to not allow the space for shots in their defensive third.

Sporting Attack vs Wizards Defense

Sporting’s attack scored the same number of goals in league play as the 2000 Wizards did, scoring 47 goals, but playing two more games than the Wizards, averaging 1.38 goals per game. The KC attack by the end of the 2013 season is led by Dom Dwyer after his successful stint on loan to Orlando City displacing Claudio Bieler as the starting forward. Dwyer only scored two goals in the regular season for KC but fit the model of forward that Vermes (SKC) wanted that would work constantly up top as part of KC’s pressure. The club’s leading scorer, Bieler was relegated to the substitutes bench where he made a difference coming off the bench, scoring the series winner in the playoffs against the New England Revolution. The club’s second leading scorer, Kei Kamara was gone by late summer as he transferred to Middlesbrough in the English Championship.

The strength for Sporting’s attack came from their defense with the high pressure they still utilized at times combined with the club’s three attackers when they had the ball. Sporting has regularly taken advantage of teams that played with a three-man back line under Vermes (Wizards). They’d find space behind the wingers as they drop back covering Myers and Sinovic pushing forward. In the Wizards’ five man defense in front of Meola, the hope for Vermes (Wizards) would be that he’d pull one of Zavagnin or McKeon out wide to help Prideaux/Henderson or Garcia Klein handle KC’s attack down the wing, opening space in the middle where Feilhaber and Dwyer would be isolated with the other defensive midfielder and the defender Vermes (Wizards).

Vermes (SKC) would likely target the left side of the Wizards defense with Prideaux, matching him up against Zusi as that is the biggest potential mismatch for Sporting to take advantage of on the attack. Combine Zusi with Myers getting forward and it’d potentially allow Kansas City to find space around the Wizards back five on defense.

In the attacking midfield position for Sporting, Feilhaber would be facing up with Zavagnin and McKeon in the middle, Feilhaber’s success in the game would be contingent on KC’s wing play pulling one of the defensive midfielders out of position. Crossing play like Zusi and Feilhaber did on the game winning goal against Houston in the Western Conference Final in 2013 would be another way to create space for Feilhaber to run at the midfield and Vermes (Wizards) in the back of the Wizards defense. Next to Preki, Feilhaber is the most successful attacking midfielder in club history and Sporting’s success in the game would likely hinge on how involved he gets in KC’s attack.

While Sporting in 2013 was still doing the high press, they were also starting Vermes’ (SKC) slow transition to the possession dominate team that he instituted in the following years. For the 2013 Sporting team this meant building the attack out of the back, distributing through Besler, Collin, and Rosell in the back. It’s not something teams in MLS really did in 2000 when the Wizards won MLS Cup. Vermes (SKC) would try to force Bob Gansler’s 2000 team to come forward with playing out of the back, and create gaps as they pushed forward to play the ball through opening more lanes for the likes of Sapong, Feilhaber, and Zusi to move into to push the ball up the field. At the same time, Gansler had the 2000 team drilled into their play in the system that he instituted, it was a team with plenty of veteran leadership that would have worked to keep the team focused.

Defensively for the Wizards, center back Vermes (Wizards) proved to be a good organizer of the back line with the inexperience of Garcia and Prideaux next to him. The back line is obviously helped by the two defensive midfielders in front of them with McKeon and Zavagnin. Keeping their shape against Sporting’s attack and getting their help from the wingers is a key for the Wizards. If they start to get pulled out of shape by the attacks down the wing, Sporting will be able to create several chances against Meola.

Sporting Bench vs Wizards Bench

With two extremely strong defenses, the game between the Wizards and Sporting would seem likely to rely on how the game is changed with substitutions by the coaches. Before the jokes about Vermes’ (SKC) substitution policy as a coach, he made 91% of his available subs in all competitions in 2013, with the average substitution coming in the 72nd minute of each game.

In reality it’s probably not incredibly fair to compare the two benches because of the salary and roster restrictions on the Wizards in 2000 vs Sporting in 2013. If Sporting happened to be chasing a goal in the game, they had the likes of Designated Player, Claudio Bieler off the bench along with Teal Bunbury and Jacob Peterson. Combined those three scored 44 league goals for KC during their career. For the Wizards, their bench would include Francisco Gomez, Chris Brown, and either Peter Byaruhanga (who was on the bench for MLS Cup 2000) or Gary Glasgow, combined those four contributed to 31 goals. Attacking wise the talent is there for Sporting if they happened to be searching a goal, there’s less confidence there if the Wizards happen to be searching for a goal.

Defensively on the bench Sporting would have Ike Opara, who was still a couple years away from his big breakout defensively for SKC, Lawrence Olum who played both center back and defensive midfield for KC, one of KC’s wing backs, either Mechack Jerome, Josh Gardner, or Federico Bessone (who was on the bench for MLS Cup 2013), and one could even argue Peterson again here as he was often deployed by Vermes (SKC) as a work horse who would pester the opposing defensive and defensive midfielders in KC’s high pressure. For the Wizards you certainly had more MLS level experience with the likes of Uche Okafor, who played over 100 games for KC, Vicente Figueroa, who’d made 22 appearances in 1999, but only eight in 2000, and Brian Johnson, who led the Wizards in substitute appearances, making 14 in the 2000 season.

Looking at the benches, Sporting’s is certainly the deeper of the two teams, and it shows in the Wizards substitutions during the 2000 season. While Vermes (SKC) used 91% of his subs in 2013, Gansler used just 73% of his substitutions in all competitions in the 2000 season, though he did make his sub a little bit earlier than Vermes (SKC), averaging the 69th minute for his subs. What is means most likely is that if the Wizards were chasing the game against Sporting, they’d be more likely to do it with the players on the field than looking for a real spark off the bench.

So, Who Wins?

It’d be easy to say that Sporting KC wins this match up with the increase in talent and athletic ability of the league over the 13 years between 2000 and 2013 and the easy way just isn’t fun. So, for those out there just passing this off just spend belief a little bit and have some fun with the idea.

I’d expect the game to start exactly like both teams would want, the Wizards would sit back and look for the openings behind on the wings while Sporting would control the ball and high press when not in possession to create chances. In the early going Bob Gansler’s Wizards would be pressure as Sporting’s front three try to pin them deep in their own end. Some pressure gets relieved as they play back to Meola who fires the ball up field allowing some pressure to be released.

Sporting would continue to come back though, attacking mainly through Graham Zusi and Chance Myers on Sporting’s right side, going at Brandon Prideaux, hoping to pull the Wizards out of shape. On the field though Peter Vermes (Wizards) would hold strong in the middle not getting pulled out wide, while Prideaux would get help from Henderson to cut out chances down the Wizards right side.

When the Wizards do get control of the ball, they attack with pace down the wings mainly through Chris Henderson and Chris Klein. As they attack the pair would be looking for Miklos Molnar and Mo Johnston making runs in, getting Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin, and the rest of the Sporting defense running at their own goal and finding those balls into them like Klein did in MLS Cup 2000. Sporting would also give away their fair share of fouls to the Wizards giving Preki free kick opportunities, those most of them would be out away from goal. On the balls that are played into the box Collin would take control and clear the ball away from goal.

The first half would end scoreless with Sporting controlling possession and creating the better of the chances, but like MLS Cup 2000, Tony Meola shows why he was the league MVP that year making saves on Dom Dwyer, CJ Sapong, and Benny Feilhaber.

The second half would continue similarly to the first with Sporting controlling the play and creating more of the chances. Nick Garcia and Sapong would mix things up on the Wizards right side of defense, leading to a few free kicks in dangerous positions for Feilhaber and Zusi to play into the box but they’re unable to pick out Collin or Oriol Rosell with those chances.

Around the hour mark Dwyer will have the best chance of the game up to that point getting on the end of a quick cross by Zusi, beating Vermes (Wizards) to the ball for the first time in the game, but Meola is well positioned and palms the ball up and over the net leading to a corner for Sporting. The Wizards best chance comes shortly after that as Molnar finds some space between Besler and Seth Sinovic on the Wizards right side, but Jimmy Nielsen is up to the shot, collecting the effort from his countryman to keep the score tied 0-0.

In the 71st minute the first substitution of the game takes place as Dwyer makes way for Claudio Bieler, a traditional sub that Vermes (SKC) made during Sporting’s 2013 playoff run. Dwyer would start, wear the opposing center back down and then bring Bieler on. Gansler meanwhile with his shorter bench sticks with the players on the field as the minutes tick by closer to extra time. The Wizards drop a little deeper preserving the tie at this point. Sporting meanwhile is pushing numbers forward more, which does open space on the counter for the Wizards, but Collin and Besler do well cutting out the chances.

Sporting finally break the Wizards in the 81st minute as Zusi and Myers work a 1-2 down SKC’s right side to get Zusi behind Prideaux. Matt McKeon pushes out to pressure Zusi as he makes his way towards the end line. In the box the Wizards defense drops back towards the six yard box, meanwhile, Bieler stalls his run, letting the defenders get by him, as Zusi gets to the end line Bieler makes a sprinting run towards the penalty spot. Zusi plays a ball along the ground right towards Bieler where he meets it with a side footed shot that beats the outstretched hand of Meola and goes into the net to give Sporting a 1-0 lead.

Down a goal, Gansler goes to his bench, bringing on Francisco Gomez for McKeon to give the Wizards more attack for the final few minutes. Now it’s Sporting’s turn to sit a little deeper, they still pressure from the front, but it’s not as high as it was when the score was tied. As the clock reaches the 86th minute Vermes (SKC) goes to his bench again, inserting center back Ike Opara for Feilhaber as Sporting becomes the one sitting back absorbing the pressure from the Wizards. Opara’s height in the back gives Sporting an extra advantage on the set pieces that the Wizards win in SKC’s side of the field.

The fourth official puts five minutes of stoppage time up on the board. The Wizards try to throw more numbers forward, Chris Brown is inserted into the game for Klein as the Wizards push for a goal. Come the fourth minute of stoppage time Vermes (SKC) uses his last sub inserting Jacob Peterson into the game for Zusi to attempt to kill off the rest of the clock. The last chance for the Wizards comes off a corner kick, from Preki where Vermes (Wizards) makes contact in front of Collin, but he heads the ball just over the goal from about eight yards out. When Nielsen plays the ball back up field on the goal kick the referee blows the final whistle ending the game and giving the 2013 Sporting KC side a 1-0 win over the 2000 KC Wizards team.

So, what do you think? Would the game play out like this? Would the Wizards be the ones able to strike first and force Sporting to come to them? Let us know in the comments.