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Massive Scouting Report: Sporting Kansas City

Two original MLS clubs will battle to make amends for troublesome 2019 seasons.

MLS: Sporting KC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Sporting Kansas City has been a perennial power in Major League Soccer for much of the last decade, but winning results have been a tough task in recent months. A rash of injuries and international call-ups have left SKC shorthanded in recent weeks, and the team has descended to 10th place in the Western Conference standings. Sporting currently sits three points shy of a playoff spot. Sound familiar, Columbus Crew SC fans?

Managed by MLS veteran coach, Peter Vermes, SKC is always a threat. Vermes is one of the more astute man-managers in MLS history. On paper, Kansas City is very talented, so a turnaround would be no surprise to anyone. The fact that the club hasn’t registered a shutout since the home opener on March 10 is perplexing. And be it that they have only won once since they thrashed Montreal 7-1 on March 30 is shocking.

Uncharacteristically, Sporting has won a mere three of the team’s first eight home games. To find themselves back in the playoff picture, they will need to play catch-up on the road. Given the Crew’s struggles, SKC must be chomping at the bit to earn points away from their home pitch.

The negative results have reached such unprecedented levels, team captain Matt Besler constructed a message on social media, vowing to prove the frustrated fan base wrong. He emphasized that the team still believes in one another and Vermes. He implored the supporters to continue rooting for the club as they attempt to play their way out of the slump.

Sporting Kansas City at a glance:

Form: D-W-L-D-D
Leading Scorer: Johnny Russel & Krisztian Nemeth (7)
Assists Leader: Johnny Russell (3)

Expected Starting Lineup

How SKC Attack

Vermes is masterful at putting his players in positions and schemes that emphasize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Offensively, Vermes prefers to possess the ball and work methodically through each third of the field to create goal-scoring opportunities. He wants his players to play free and make decisions on the field with and without the ball at their feet. He wants and expects his attackers to move throughout the offensive third of the pitch and create opportunities through combination play and unyielding attacks that come in waves.

Johnny Russell has been electric for Kansas City since joining the club in 2018, accumulating 17 goals in 43 matches. In only 13 matches this season, he has scored seven goals. When he and striker Krisztian Nemeth are in-synch, they are a treat to watch for the neutral fan and problematic for opposing defenders.

How SKC Defend

Just two seasons ago, Sporting’s defense was tops in all of MLS. The spine of their team consisted of Ike Opara and Besler at center back, along with Tim Melia at goalkeeper and Roger Espinoza at defensive midfield. Opara is no longer with the club, while Besler and Espinoza have battled injuries. With an older and weaker lineup in front of him, Melia has relinquished an inordinate amount of goals. Besler is expected to return on Sunday, however. Andreu Fontas and Botond Barath have both been earning minutes in Besler’s absence. Who will start along with Besler is anyone’s guess. Fontas has a big contract (for MLS standards) but Barath has outplayed him recently.

What is with Graham Zusi?

The unprecedented switch in 2017 from an attacking midfielder/winger to an attacking fullback by Vermes was panned by some soccer pundits. However, the move showed the intuitiveness of Vermes, as Zusi played the role flawlessly from the start, all the way through the 2018 campaign. However, Zusi has struggled mightily in 2019. The question becomes, can he play his way out of it or is being on the wrong side of 30 catching up to the U.S. Men’s National Team veteran? Nico Hasler has seen regular minutes at right back, so don’t be surprised to see such a player swap occur.

How the Crew win?

The Crew’s anemic scoring prowess has been well documented at this point, so I won’t beat that dead horse. But a makeshift Crew lineup this past Tuesday against Atlanta united scored not one, but two goals. Granted one tally was credited as an own goal by Brad Guzan. Regardless, a positive feat given the recent track record.

Pedro Santos has been the lone bright spot during this tumultuous season, so the Black & Gold will likely need to rely on him to continue to facilitate and score from his newly appointed attacking midfield role. If Santos and David Accam can continue to connect so pristinely as they have over the last couple of matches, the Crew may be able to muster some traction offensively. Beyond that, Columbus will need to rely on set-piece goals to supplement their agonizing run-of-play attack.