After an uninspiring midweek draw with New York City FC, Sporting Kansas City would probably not be on Columbus Crew SC's list of teams it wants to see this weekend. But as the Black & Gold approach a Saturday meeting with SKC at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Kansas City is looking vulnerable.
Sporting took a 5-0 drubbing from the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday, a result nobody saw coming (and, honestly, it should have been about 8-0). The club is bogged down in some scheduling congestion as its drive for a U.S. Open Cup continues, and injuries and suspensions have created some obvious holes on the roster at the moment.
That said, Sporting has just five losses on the season and sits third in the Western Conference with the division lead in reach and a few games in hand. There's a reason for all of that.
Here's a look at some key aspects of Saturday's upcoming matchup between two teams with very different styles
Good news, everyone!
There's a reason Benny Feilhaber has played nearly every minute of this MLS season — SKC needs him. He has found the consistency that's just slipped out of his grasp for much of his career, and has become maybe the premier chance creator in Major League Soccer in 2015. He's a pure No. 10 and his inability to garner attention from the U.S. Men's National Team and Jurgen Klinsmann has created much consternation.
But on Saturday he won't be on the field. A red card against San Jose means the Sporting talisman will miss the match, and that's good news for Crew SC. There is no other player like Feilhaber on the SKC roster. Not even a poor man's imitation. That means the Kansas City offense will be without its creator and will be forced to change its attacking approach. Most likely that means Graham Zusi's re-insertion into the starting 11 (which likely would have happened anyway for lineup rotation during a congested fixture schedule), allowing him to be the spark on the wing, rather than centrally. If he isn't ready to go, SKC will likely need to muck things up even more than usual and rely on its front three to capitalize on Columbus mistakes.
If Zusi is the guy, the Black & Gold will have to be ready to defend down that wing, and Waylon Francis can't get caught up the field and give Zusi time and space to provide service.
A wounded dog
The popular saying is that a wounded dog is dangerous. After getting embarrassed in front of its home crowd on Wednesday, SKC will very likely come out with a purpose on Saturday. Whether they have enough horses to finish the job will be seen, but Columbus won't be able to afford more energy let down.
An interesting tactical battle
Sporting Kansas City is a standout franchise in MLS because it, as much as any club, has a unique identity. Peter Vermes brought a high-press 4-3-3 to the league, used it to win an MLS Cup and has stuck with it. At the time, nobody else in MLS was playing anything like it, although others have since adopted aspects.
That creates an interesting matchup this weekend. Sporting don't look for possession, while Columbus does. SKC is all about the press and shot limiting (something it does better than any other team in MLS). It leads the league in interceptions per game. It does this with a high press and a high defensive line.
It's the polar opposite of a Crew SC side that does not press and builds its attack around possession. Additionally, the Black & Gold have generally been poor against a high press. The defense has struggled to deal with the pressure and coughed the ball up for opportunities. Maybe the introduction of Harrison Afful can help with that issue, but there are still other pieces of the puzzle, and mistakes will be punished.
Something is going to have to give.
When things are clicking for Sporting, a lot of teams don't even get the ball into the attacking third. If CCSC is too methodical in its buildup, there's a good chance that Sporting will be able to funnel the ball where it wants to. The key will be quick movement that catches the fullbacks high and opens up space on the wing for Ethan Finlay to run into. This might be a game where Cedrick can have a major impact on the other side because of that.
San Jose ravaged the SKC fullbacks, spread out the Kansas City defense and took advantage of that space. Columbus will want to do the same thing. That means the always-popular right-side build with Ethan Finlay and (now) Afful will play a key role.
There is no Feilhaber. There is no Roger Espinoza, who is injured. Because of those absences, veteran Paulo Nagamura seems unlikely to get a rest and offers a box-to-box presence. Soni Mustivar is likely back in the lineup as a No. 6. Amobi Okugo fills a similar role and struggled in his SKC debut on Wednesday, but there aren't a lot of other options and he could be inserted as the third man. Whatever the combination, it will be a defensive-leaning unit.
That could make attacking centrally more difficult. The attack has to go wide, praying on question marks at fullback for SKC and creating space for Federico Higuain to find. And it has to happen relatively quickly.
This is the only meeting between the two teams this season. It's also the first time Kei Kamara will play his former team since returning to MLS. Kamara may have originally been in Black & Gold, but he made his career in Kansas City and was beloved by the fans there. It would probably be a bigger storyline if the game was in Kansas City, but it will be interesting to see how Kamara responds to playing against his old club.