The Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City meet for their first of two meetings this season on Sunday in a battle for the top of the Eastern Conference. The Crew come in unbeaten in their last three matches, but they have not won in their last four games.
Kansas City fell on opening day to the Seattle Sounders, but went on a five match unbeaten run to climb to the top of the Eastern Conference. Last week, Sporting gave up two stoppage time goals to the New England Revolution for their second loss of the season and will look to rebound against the Black and Gold.
Ben Gartland and I exchanged questions to give fans an inside perspective heading into Sunday's clash.
Questions for The Blue Testament
Massive Report: Sporting Kansas City has dealt with a bit of an injury crisis recently. How has the roster been affected and what players are stepping up to contribute?
The Blue Testament: The starting roster itself has not been affected yet. The key word there is yet because Ike Opara's season-ending injury is going to become a very big problem for Sporting Kansas City when Matt Besler gets called up to the World Cup roster. This will force Lawrence Olum to start for a few games alongside Aurelien Collin. If Collin or Olum gets hurt or suspended from a card, the next man up is 17-year-old Erik Palmer-Brown. While Palmer-Brown has great potential, that's still a lanky 17-year-old going up against some of the best forwards in the league. Hopefully it never comes to that point but if it does, Palmer-Brown is going to get a baptism by fire and Sporting KC is going to have a month or so where they do not have a reliable middle defense. After so many years of having such a strong back line, not being able to defend well, as well as not having Graham Zusi because of World Cup duties is a scary thought.
MR: What is the feeling in Kansas City about this year's team coming off an MLS Cup winning season? Is there optimism of a repeat or are there concerns this team won't live up to last year?
TBT: With the way that they have been playing to start the year I believe there is optimism about this year. Jimmy Nielsen was the biggest loss from last year and the only one from the starting lineup. All of that turnover from the past year can only help and they've been able to string together enough points this year that they look like they did last year. The defense is still strong, Benny Feilhaber is playing out of his mind, Graham Zusi is solid as always and the high-pressure attack is scoring goals.
The biggest concern this year has been the time without Besler mentioned in question one and Eric Kronberg. Kronberg has been a serviceable replacement for Jimmy Nielsen but has definitely shown some signs this year that he may not have a level above serviceable. There's a sentiment growing to put former Crew man Andy Gruenebaum in the net but it doesn't look like Kronberg will lose his spot anytime soon.
MR: Gregg Berhalter recently mentioned Dom Dwyer's loan spell with Orlando City SC last year as what he hopes for the Crew's Ryan Finley in his time with the Dayton Dutch Lions right now. How did the loan spell help Dwyer last year and is he someone SKC believes they can rely on this season as their main goal scorer?
TBT: The loan spell in Dom Dwyer's case really gave him a shot to show off just what he can do. He scored so many goals, setting a league record, that he caught the eye of Peter Vermes and the fans around. He forced himself onto the scene and earned his opportunity by not giving Vermes and Co. an option. They had to give him a shot after his magnificent performance in Orlando and he started to translate it to MLS. He was trusted in spots and even scored in the playoffs to send us to the MLS Cup. He proved himself last year and now he's getting the playing time to show for it.
As for this year, he's done very well so far, scoring four goals in seven games. He seems to work very well with Sal Zizzo on the wing and is able to track down balls in the box sent in from either Graham Zusi or Benny Feilhaber. If he can keep this pace up and score 15+ goals this year I'll be very happy with him.
Questions for Massive Report
The Blue Testament: After such a hot start to 2014, the Crew have flustered a bit with a loss and three ties in their past four matches. What's changed since the first few games and how do they get back on track?
Massive Report: I think the hot start was indicative of teams not knowing what to expect from the Crew with a new coaching staff and some new faces. Head coach Gregg Berhalter's style was something new from the Crew and it took a bit for teams to combat it. Toronto FC laid out a blue print of sorts in their 2-0 win in Crew Stadium. By scoring early and then parking the bus, they forced Columbus wide and were able to use their size on the back line to clear away any crosses.
In terms of getting back on track, I think the players are confident wins will come. They were disappointed to not get a win last week against the New York Red Bulls and talked about finishing the chances they create post game. There is a belief they can get a result in any game, but they also know this is a process and they are still learning.
TBT: Aurelien Collin is going to be out Saturday for Sporting KC on red card suspension. How do you expect the Crew to attack this vulnerability?
MR: I don't expect the Black and Gold to do anything differently to be honest. One of the most uttered sentences from the team to the media is, "We're just going to play our style." The Crew will look to possess the ball and attack Kansas City with their movement and quickness and would do the same with Collin in the lineup. Obviously taking a player of Collin's caliber out of the lineup makes things easier on paper, but I don't see Berhalter focusing in on spot all that much. If anything, it will make it a little easier on Columbus' striker.
TBT: How would you rate Gregg Berhalter's performance so far? What are the biggest differences between him and Robert Warzycha?
MR: I think Berhalter, along with new owner Anthony Precourt, has been the breath of fresh air this team needed. Many believed the talent was there to be in the playoffs last year, but something wasn't right. The players seem to enjoy every day at training this season and there is a sense that this job is fun for them again. I think pressure built for Warzycha and everyone involved with the team felt it.
Berhalter has adopted a style of play that is hard work, but fun for the players. The team bought in to his philosophies right away and they have seen results on the field. It is apparent to anyone around the team that there is a sense of confidence in the system and the players that didn't seem to be there last year. That perhaps is the biggest difference.