The Crew are in the middle of a terrible slump where they are unable to get out of their own way. After beginning the season 3-0 - for the best start in team history - the Black and Gold have won just one game in their last 16, including the 2-0 loss at Kansas City on May 4.
SKC meanwhile has survived a tough stretch where they were without several key players due to injuries, World Cup call ups, and player transfers. After returning from MLS' World Cup break, Sporting has has a 2-0-1 record, including a 2-1 win over the Montreal Impact on Saturday, and are in second place in the Eastern Conference.
Ben Gartland and I exchanged some questions about the teams in order to give fans an insider perspective into what's been going on with them before they meet on the pitch.
Questions for The Blue Testament
Massive Report: Dom Dwyer has had quite the breakout season in 2014 with 14 goals - after just two last season in just two more games. What do you see different from the player of the last two years?
The Blue Testament: A lot of it has been just maturing as a player. This is the first season where he's getting a full chance to be the starting center forward and he is carrying on what he started last year. When he went down to Orlando to develop, he ended up setting the USL scoring record and earning his way back up to Kansas City. From there, he made his way into the starting lineup when Claudio Bieler started to slump and he's played well enough to keep himself there ever since. I don't necessarily notice anything different. He's always been aggressive on the ball, he's always had good finishing ability and he's always had good positioning off the ball. I think now it's just a matter of him getting the full time starting job at center forward, although having Benny Feilhaber, Graham Zusi and Toni Dovale providing him service doesn't hurt either.
MR: Between players leaving for the World Cup and injuries, Sporting Kansas City has had to make quite a few lineup changes this season, yet remain two points behind D.C. United for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. How deep is this team and who are some of the players that emerged during what could have been a very difficult stretch?
TBT: This team is deeper than I imagined at the beginning of the season. No one thought Sporting KC would be put through the injury hell that they were in May and June (We started a 17 year old at center back!) but Sporting KC managed to survive. A couple of players that have really stepped up through this whole ordeal have been Igor Juliao, Lawrence Olum and Kevin Ellis. When Chance Myers went down for the season, the 19 year old Juliao has shown to be a very serviceable backup. While his defense leaves a bit to be desired at points, his offensive contributions have been remarkable. Kevin Ellis went from being a fullback in Oklahoma City, our other affiliate, to starting at center back and holding his own against some quality offense. Lawrence Olum has had to step in for Uri Rosell after Rosell was transferred to Sporting Lisbon and while he doesn't have the passing abilities that Rosell had, he has held his own defensively and is right now the most important reserve for Sporting KC. If Sporting KC gets a starting defensive midfielder during the transfer window, Olum goes back to being the number one backup at both defensive midfielder and center back, which Sporting KC has needed all season long.
MR: Both teams are dealing with match congestion this week with three games in seven days. How do you expect that to impact how Kansas City approaches the game in Columbus?
TBT: Sporting Kansas City is still at the point where they cannot sacrifice many reserves simply out of injury concerns. Peter Vermes has really never been one to scale back a game because of match congestion and I really don't expect him to for Wednesday or Saturday. I can possibly see the wingers change over the course of the two games since they have a healthy supply in Graham Zusi, Toni Dovale, CJ Sapong, Sal Zizzo, Soony Saad and Jacob Peterson. All six of them are willing and able to start on any given day so rotation amongst those six is likely. Once we get to the midfield and back lines, however, there really is not all that much depth due to transfers and injuries. I expect to see the same back four and three in the midfield on Wednesday that we do on Saturday unless something happens and it forces Graham Zusi into the midfield instead of on the wing.
Questions for Massive Report
The Blue Testament: Ever since the first three games of the season where the Crew won all three, Columbus has only won one game. Why is that and how do they go about fixing that?
Massive Report: That is the question surrounding the Black and Gold. The 4-1 defeat to the New York Red Bulls on Saturday aside, the coaches and players have been happy with their style of play in many of the games. The Crew have tied multiple times when they felt they should have won, but that's soccer.
Their biggest issue of late has been an inability to score. This is something the coaching staff is well aware of and I would expect them to address the need in the transfer window. Of course, the team was exposed defensively Saturday, albeit against one of the league's most dynamic attacks. The return of Giancarlo Gonzalez and Waylon Francis from the World Cup should help on that side of the ball, but the Black and Gold desperately need to find a consistent goal scorer or else they cannot possibly turn these ties into wins.
TBT: How does the release of Alvaro Rey change the tactics and lineup for the Crew?
Honestly, Rey only made two appearances for the team, logging just 32 minutes. He did have one very nice ball to Jairo Arrieta for what should have been his first assist in a Crew uniform, but he didn't play enough for anything to change much. The biggest downside of Rey's departure is it leaves Columbus a little thin on the wings with Hector Jimenez out with an MCL tear. Fortunately, Justin Meram, Bernardo Anor, the emergence of Ethan Finlay, and a few players who could play out of position on the outside if needed, give the Crew decent rotational depth on the wings.
Berhalter admitted today they were disappointed to see Rey go. He was someone they felt could contribute once he adjusts to the style of play and got to know those around him. This may be coach talk or it may be true, but Crew fans will never know because he didn't have enough time to demonstrate that on the pitch.
TBT: How would you rate the performance of Gregg Berhalter so far?
B+ so far. That probably sounds high for a coach who has one win in 16 games, and it may be, but I think he has this team moving in the right direction long term. Rome wasn't built in a day and neither is a successful small market soccer team (as I'm sure your fans know). Berhalter wants his team to play attractive soccer and attack home or away. For the most part this year, they have accomplished that. He does not have all his personnel yet, but this team has an identity they didn't before.
Also, the players still believe in this system. Just today I asked defender Chad Barson about the feeling around the team and he told me they don't want to change anything. They know they have done some good things this year and trust the coaching staff and their methods. Getting a team to buy in like that may be one of the hardest things for a coach to do and Berhalter has done that in just half of a season.