KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Sporting Kansas City want action. They want an up-and-down game, turnovers in strategic areas of the field and plenty of open space to exploit them.
“Our game,” Kei Kamara said, “[is] we want to go.”
Visitors to Livestrong Sporting Park, however, are quickly learning the most effective way to slow down Sporting’s vaunted attack (currently tied for third in MLS with 44 goals this season). The key to success against Sporting is to put numbers behind the ball and force Peter Vermes’ team to play at a pace with which they aren’t quite so comfortable.
The Philadelphia Union were the latest side to come to LSP and leave with a result, scratching out a 1-1 draw by playing with three central midfielders camped in front of the back line, closing down passing lanes and searching for scattered opportunities on the counterattack.
All indications are the quickly fading Columbus Crew may take a page out of Peter Nowak’s book when they come to Kansas City on Wednesday for a match that could move either side into first place in the log-jammed Eastern Conference (8:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online).
The Union’s tactics were especially effective in the first half in last Friday's 1-1 draw, when Sporting held the majority of possession but Jéferson struggled to open up the game from his central playmaker role. Philadelphia also limited Roger Espinoza and Graham Zusi from making their customary impact going forward.
“I thought we were a little unorganized, just in our shape,” Zusi said. “We allowed them to play to their strengths, play to their ability, and they got a lot of counterattacks against us. We were recovering a lot of the first half.”
Needing a shield against Philadelphia’s counterattack and shift from simply possessing the ball to possessing in dangerous areas, Vermes plucked Júlio César from the back line and replaced Jéferson with Aurélien Collin at halftime.
The change paid immediate dividends. Sporting scored the opening goal 10 minutes into the second half, which opened the game up considerably, and put the Union under enough pressure to create a second but simply couldn’t finish.
“I thought tactically it solved all of the issues we needed,” Vermes said. “Júlio brings experience and calmness and when he gets the ball it is very easy for us to build out through that central channel. I think at that point, it really brought their players in and we were able to find the outside channels a lot and get great service into the box.”
It’s a tactic Vermes is likely to replicate against a Crew side with four losses in their last five games but he is sure to approach Wednesday’s meeting at Livestrong Sporting Park with a fair amount of caution.
With the Brazilian Júlio César manning the gap between midfield and defense, Sporting can turn up the pressure in the midfield, giving Zusi and Espinoza more free rein to roam without becoming more susceptible to the counterattack.
Considering Columbus are struggling mightily in front of goal – they are especially toothless in the first half – it's likely Sporting will see a rehashing of the Philadelphia game plan from Robert Warzycha’s side.
That means Júlio César is likely to start in midfield from the start, helping create the midfield pressure that Kansas City hopes will result in the kind of fast-paced game they want to play and force the Crew out of their shell.
That’s the theory, at least.
“We’re back to where we started,” Matt Besler said. “We get to do it again on Wednesday night.”