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Proud programs in need of points meet as Columbus Crew SC heads to Kansas City

Sporting KC and Columbus could both use some good midseason mojo.

MLS: Sporting KC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Both Columbus Crew SC and Sporting Kansas City bowed out of the U.S. Open Cup in the middle of the week. Now both get to focus solely on the Major League Soccer season, for better or worse. Both clubs could use a little more "better."

Columbus still hasn’t clicked in 2016, and SKC has struggled since a fast start to the season. Both clubs could desperately use a victory midway through the season with both looking like they could be on the postseason fence as the campaign progresses.

Here are some things to keep an eye on when the two sides hit the field on Sunday at Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Park.

How they play

I’ve always been a fan of Peter Vermes — he’s got a system, he gets the right players to fit it and he builds consistency that way. So we know what Kansas City is going to do.

Sporting will play out its typical 4-3-3. The team is known for its high press, but has been implementing it less than it has in the past. There’s also been much made of the team tweaking its ball movement with a more short-pass oriented approach, but SKC is still third in the league in long balls, getting the ball into the attacking third quickly — the club is tied for second in MLS with 31 percent of its play coming in the attacking third.

Although Kansas City plays touchline to touchline, it’s an inside-out team with the engines in the center of the park — when it comes down to it, first-year center back Nuno Coehlo, defensive midfielder Sonny Mustivar and box-to-box guy Roger Espinoza touch the ball more than anyone else on the team.

Benny Feilhaber isn’t having the season he had a year ago, but he’s still the playmaker when he’s healthy and on the field, while Graham Zusi is back from Copa America to provide lots of work and crossing from the wing (he’s been the team’s best chance creator thus far).

What’s wrong with SKC?

With just two wins in their last 13 MLS matches, much has been made of SKC’s sputtering campaign (even if they are still mid-pack out west). But Sporting is still doing some things well.

It is tied for second (with Columbus) in shots per game, and is the best team in the league on the flip side, allowing just 9.7 shots per contest. Sporting’s total shot ratio of .607 (shots taken to shots allowed) is the best in MLS. That’s an improvement on 2015, when its TSR of .536 was still second best in the Western Conference.

More telling is a mediocre PDO of 990, sixth in the conference. That stat measures finishing rate and save percentage, with 1000 being average. So even at just below average, there’s a discrepancy between PDO and an excellent TSR, which points to two things — mediocre finishing and mediocre goalkeeping.

Something’s got to give

Both of these teams find ways to get off shots, but both have struggled at times to convert that into goals and then into points in the standings.

In fact, Crew SC’s expected goal differential minus its actual goal differential is -7.52, the highest in the league. Kansas City’s is fifth highest at -3.87. That means both teams are creating opportunities where the ball should be in the back of the net, but it’s not. That means both teams have room to return to a baseline and score more goals.

These are also two clubs that like possession. We know what the Black & Gold do in attack, and Sporting is also top four in possession. Both teams can’t control the majority of the ball, so adapting on the fly will be key.

Creating goals

Playmaking has seen a drop-off for SKC this season, which sounds crazy considering Benny Feilhaber is on the field. But Feilhaber hasn’t matched what he did last season, when he was an MLS MVP candidate. He’s on pace for about 15 less key passes than last season (he’s currently averaging 2.2 per 96 minutes, which is just below his 2.3 a year ago, but he’s played less minutes). His two-way play hasn’t been quite the same.

Graham Zusi is leading the team in KPp96 with 2.94, ahead of his 2.6 last season, but he’s missed time with the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Goal scoring has also taken a hit. Last season Sporting had three double-digit goal scorers — Feilhaber (10), Dwyer (12) and Krisztian Nemeth (10). Dwyer is on pace to eclipse that mark with about 16 or 17 goals, but Feilhaber is far behind the pace and there is no one else who, short of a miracle and a Didier Drogba-like second-half tear, will come near double digits. That’s what the departure of Nemeth has done in a pure numbers sense, not even taking into account how his presence on the field helped others.

There’s also no one who is a threat to create their own goals right now. Dwyer’s 15% unassisted rate is actually better than last year, but he’s still a finisher, not a 1v1 guy. Nemeth was better than last year, but not tremendously great (18 percent). The difference is Feilhaber. Only two players who scored 10 or more goals last year did so with a higher unassisted rate than Sporting’s attacking midfielder — MVP Sebastian Giovinco and Chris Rolfe.

If Kansas City continues to score at a similar rate the rest of the way, that’s easily a loss of 6-8 points in the standings, and SKC was a playoff team by only four points a year ago.

Of course, Sporting has four goals in its last two games against quality opponents — Montreal and FC Dallas. Two goals, especially at home, might very well be enough to beat the Black & Gold.

Oh-la

Much has been made of Ola Kamara’s continued jelling in the Crew SC attack, and there’s plenty of reason to think it can work. Only one player in the league (Philadelphia Union’s Roland Alberg) has scored as many goals as Kamara in a similar number of minutes, and the Columbus striker is second in MLS in expected goals per 96 minutes at .99.

Obviously some of that is skewed by a hat trick, but there are still reasons to believe in Ola. He’s currently fourth in the league among starters in shots per 96 minutes with 4.61. That’s an important stat and the reason his xG are high.

Although the club’s entire season is the antithesis of the idea, statistics dictates that there is a baseline finishing rate, and getting a lot of shots means Kamara is getting into positions to get those shots. Now, quality of shot is another story, but at least attack is getting their guy the ball and he has shown the confidence to go for goal.

Against a KC defense that doesn’t allow many shots, the quality of shot will matter a lot for Kamara.

About getting him the ball...

For an attack that hasn’t quite gotten the results consistently this season, losing it’s No. 10 was a blow. But what has the difference been with Mohammed Saeid filling in for Federico Higuain, and what does it mean on Sunday against Sporting?

The pure passing numbers are actually quite similar for both.

In the last two games played as an "attacking" midfielder, Saied completed 84.4 percent of his passes. Of 65 completed passes, 23 percent were backward while 44.6 percent were forward. He attempted 39 forward passes (50.6 percent of his pass attempts) He attempted 13 square passes (completing 84.6 percent) for 16.9 percent.

In his final two games before getting hurt, Pipa completed 80.6 percent of his passes. Of 69 completed passes, 27 (39.1 percent) were backward while 44.9 percent were forward. He attempted 45 forward passes (51.1 percent of his total pass attempts). He attempted 13 square passes (completing all) for 18.8 percent.

Opponents have to be taken into account, as not all players and tactics are created equal and all have an effect on the above numbers. But a lot of those numbers are very similar.

The biggest difference is this: 56.6 percent of Higuain’s pass attempts came in the attacking third, compared to 41.5 percent of Saeid’s. Pipa is more often putting himself in position to try to make his teammates dangerous.

Here are heat maps of the two midfielders in each of their last two games...

Higuain vs. RSL
Higuain vs. PHL
Saeid vs. MTL
Saeid vs. NYRB

It’s evident here that Said is touching the ball in deeper positions than Higuain. Pipa put in a characteristic roaming game against Real Salt Lake, but you’re still seeing a lot of touches at the midfield stripe or higher. Against Philadelphia he was heavily central and heavily attacking.

Saied, meanwhile, continues to look like a defensive midfielder against the Montreal Impact. Against the New York Red Bulls he gets forward more, but vacates that central attacking area almost entirely.

This, in turn, affects striker play. It’s hard to judge against Montreal, when Ethan Finlay started up top but still tended to play in a similar way to his normal right-sided role.

But Kamara was a full participant in the other three games. Against Salt Lake he was heavily involved inside the 18-yard box. Versus Philly he was dropping into the midfield pretty regularly, but also touching the ball inside the penalty area.

Without Higuain on the field, Kamara popped up in similar places, but was more heavily involved in midfield and although he got on the ball a lot at the top of the box, didn’t penetrate it as much as he had previously.

It seems pretty apparent that the Saeid-for-Higuain swap often leaves a hole in the central attacking area, and while Kamara is capable of coming on to the ball there, it’s not playing to his strengths when he’s away from goal-scoring spaces. Combined with Finlay staying very wide against New York, and it leaves a void in dangerous spots in front of goal.

Against Sporting Kansas City, Crew SC will either have to find a way to free up Kamara to stay higher or get more from Finlay cutting in from the right to actually attack the box.