Both teams met only a week and a half ago on a hot Kansas City afternoon. Sporting KC grabbed three goals and three points against a drastically undermanned and outplayed Minnesota team. Earlier in the year, with Minnesota at full strength and SKC playing a substitute side, the Loons beat Kansas City at TCF Bank Stadium with a resounding 2-0 performance. As is always the case in MLS, home field advantage matters and so does depth.
In U.S. Open Cup play, Sporting Kansas City traveled to Blaine for the 2016 competition, emerging with a 2-1 victory. Two years earlier, Minnesota lost in Kansas City after a harsh red card to Cristiano Dias reduced the Loons to 10 men. In 2009, the then-Wizards played the then-Thunder in a thrilling 3-3 U.S. Open Cup draw that ended with Kansas City winning 4-2 on penalties. Finally, the Wizards were felled by the Thunder 3-1 in Kansas City during Minnesota’s glorious 2005 U.S. Open Cup run. This year will be the first version of the tournament in which the two teams compete as peers of the same league.
Sporting Kansas City
F Diego Rubio (ACL injury) – Out
D Erik Palmer-Brown (thigh injury) – Questionable
D Francisco Calvo (international duty) – Out
M Kevin Molino (international duty) – Out
M Johan Venegas (international duty) – Out
D Jermaine Taylor (international duty) – Out
M Bernardo Añor (hamstring injury) – Out
D Thomas de Villardi (left Achilles) – Out
D Vadim Demidov (knee injury) – Out
So, so much is dependent on personnel in this match. Sporting KC will, more or less, be able to play whom it wants, with even its international team players rested after seeing limited action this weekend. Minnesota, however, will have very little flexibility. The absences of Francisco Calvo, Jermaine Taylor, and Vadim Demidov all but guarantee a Brent Kallman/Joe Greenspan pairing in central defense. Marc Burch and Jérôme Thiesson at least have back ups on the depth chart, but there is little impetus to interrupt an already compromised lineup except to give new guys minutes. The good news at least is that defensive midfielder Sam Cronin will be available, as will winger Miguel Ibarra, whose defensive abilities are easy to underappreciate until you see them missing.
We’ll spare the passing charts and all that from the previous SKC game (they look like what you think they look like). Instead, let’s focus on the root cause of those heat maps and passing charts looking the way they did: a lack of pressure by Minnesota at almost any place on the field.
Alex Schieferdecker completed a good analysis of what happens when the Loons stack three No. 8s in the center of the midfield without clear differentiation of roles. One of the effects is that no one in the midfield plays the role of interrupter, pressuring the opponent and making it difficult for them to connect the right passes to the right players. This allowed Sporting KC to play on the front foot and to take the time to find its moment.
The other issue that comes with a lack of pressure from the defense is that it necessarily forces the back line to play compact. To passively sit back and defend with wide seams between defenders invites incisive runs that split the defense (that no one in midfield played to pick up these runs did no one any favors, either). So the back line bunches in and absorbs pressure, but that leaves a mile of room on the wings, and SKC exploited it easily. Particularly when Ibarra left the game and his defensive presence along the sideline disappeared, Sporting KC spent the entire first half sending through balls down its right flank and barely broke a sweat in the hot Kansas sun.
With Minnesota similarly short-handed this week and Sporting Kansas City even deeper than before, how do the Loons turn the tide on Wednesday night? By following the exact recipe prescribed by this column the last time Minnesota played SKC: allow the offense to be the team’s best defense. Play the full-court press this column has advocated ever since the road point at Colorado and make the game sloppy for Sporting Kansas City. Minnesota has a much higher chance of winning this match 3-2 than it does of winning 1-0.
Sporting Kansas City should come out with confidence for days. Expect more attacking presence from their full backs Saad Abdul-Salaam and Seth Sinovic, which will further test the limits of Minnesota’s willingness to give up the flanks. For Minnesota, the wingers should be more involved defensively, and the presence of Cronin above the back line will be impossible not to notice.
If SKC takes this competition seriously, it should win. That does not necessarily even mean playing a full compliment of starters, but means playing bright, attacking soccer with the squad it does utilize. Sporting KC has the depth and the talent to win with a half replacement lineup.
If Sporting Kansas City does not prioritize this match and has one eye on San Jose this weekend, the Loons might be able to drop a road upset. The team will need to be aggressive and disruptive to keep SKC from establishing a rhythm, then take its opportunities well on the counter attack. But counterattacking is so much more effective when the ball is stolen in the midfield than when it’s passively received by the defense that the possibility of a couple of goals should not feel that elusive for the visitors.
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Tags: Brent Kallman, Francisco Calvo, Graham Zusi, Jermaine Taylor, Jerome Thiesson, Joe Greenspan, Marc Burch, Match Preview, Miguel Ibarra, Minnesota United FC, MLS, Saad Abdul-Salaam, Sam Cronin, Seth Sinovic, sporting Kansas City, us open cup, Vadim Demidov