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Know Your Enemy: Sporting KC – Meeting the Third

Could Collin possibly look more French in this picture?  He won't be around to be mean to Hassli in this one.
Could Collin possibly look more French in this picture? He won't be around to be mean to Hassli in this one.

Fractious times ahead for Toronto FC and their fans.

What some would call an unlucky and premature end to the Champions League midweek - too early to say with certainty, but prospects are grim - the playoffs once again merely a figment of the imagination, and talk of tactics and ticket prices, old age and front office dyslexia dominates the chatter.

But for all that talk, matches remain.

Toronto returns to the pitch on Saturday night against a familiar foe, Sporting KC. Two weeks to the day have passed since the two last met at BMO Field.

Not much has changed since last TFC got to know KC, much of what was written before still rings true, but a closer look at Sporting is in order.

Recent Form

KC has played only one match, against New York, in the interim between meetings - TFC has played three over that same time period.

Billed as a top of the table clash, the match failed to live up to the hype. New York, strugglers on the road, came in with the intent of keeping it close and leaving with a point, returning home for the remaining pair of matches in the series to press their advantage there.

Sporting came out sharply, with Kei Kamara causing trouble down the left.

Two minutes in his cross-shot sailed towards the far-post, only to find the top of the netting, but two minutes later accuracy did not fail him.

KC's attacking trio combined to open the scoring: Graham Zusi delivered a ball to the top of the box from the right, Teal Bunbury lifted it over the recovering Marcus Holgersson, and Kamara won the footrace with Bill Gaudette, prodding a header over the on-rushing keeper and into the unguarded net.

Kamara again found the back of the net some twenty-four minutes later.

This time however, his slight headed touch on a free kick into the box was met with less rapturous applause.

A deep left-sided delivery from Sebastien Le Toux went dangerously to the edge of the six-yard box, caught Jimmy Nielsen static and found Kamara marking the most dangerous aerial threat on the pitch, Tim Cahill.

Cahill did not get a touch on the ball, but occupied Kamara enough that he could do little other than put it into his own goal.

The rest of the match progressed uneventfully; a few bookings - one of import to Aurelien Collin - a few shots from distance that rose over the bar, a dangerous KC free kick blasted just wide - Zusi touching a dead-ball to the right for Kamara to lash at goal as he did in Toronto, and a Dax McCarty pull back to Le Toux, who could only smash it well over the target.

In the fourth minute of stoppage time, a quick transition up the pitch caught Sporting with numbers committed forward. Le Toux took the ball to the left, threaded a pass to a wide open McCarty in the middle. A heavy touch followed by a woeful dive squandered the chance and the game was over.

KC found themselves in the unusual position of having not conceded a single shot on goal, but tying the match 1-1.

Projected Lineup

Two important ramifications of the match against New York were a season-ending knee injury to Bunbury and the suspension of Collin for yellow card accumulation.

Bunbury planted awkwardly, straining his left knee as he battled with Holgersson at the top of the box before barreling into Gaudette, tearing his left ACL; he will miss the next six-to-eight months of action. Collin received his booking for a high elbow as he battled with Heath Pearce for a header, it was his sixth yellow card of the season.

Neither will be available against Toronto.

Slight tactical shift over the last few matches, Zusi moving wide right, and inversion of the midfield pyramid - ha - with Julio Cesar functioning as the lone shield and Roger Espinoza and Paulo Nagamura both free to move forward regularly.

The projected lineup is as follows: Jimmy Nielsen in goal; the back-line - from right to left - Chance Myers, Lawrence Olum, Matt Besler, and Seth Sinovic; Julio Cesar with Paulo Nagamura and Roger Espinoza ahead in the midfield; and an attacking trio of Graham Zusi, CJ Sapong, and Kei Kamara across the top.

football formations

Zusi and Kamara will switch flanks frequently throughout the match.

Sapong has been struggling for fitness with a nagging groin injury, but should return to the starting lineup. Jacob Peterson and Bobby Convey have returned to training, but are unlikely to be ready for starting roles in time for the weekend.

There are a handful of squad players - Michael Thomas, Peterson Joseph, Michael Harrington and others, who could feature, but given the upcoming international break and the push for the Supporter's Shield and first in the East it is unlikely coach Peter Vermes would be too radical in his selection.

Keep an eye out for Spaniard and former Barcelona product Oriol Rosell, a defensive midfield-type and one of the more interesting recent additions to MLS.

Last Meeting

Kansas City ran out 0-1 winners at Toronto in their previous meeting off the strength of a deflected Kamara free kick.

About twenty-five yards from goal to the left of centre, Zusi rolled the ball in-field for Kamara to strike with his right-boot. The shot deflected off the knee of Andrew Wiedeman, catching Milos Kocic off-balance and bounced over his attempted save into the right-side of the goal.

It all could have been so different.

Just twelve minutes in Collin was booked for pulling down Eric Hassli, who had turned him nicely in an effort to get in on goal. The defender was clearly the last man and even to the surprise of the KC commentators he was only shown a yellow card rather than a justifiable red.

Both sides were largely limited to attempts from distance and dead-ball opportunities: Torsten Frings had an Olimpico attempt scrambled away at the last second; Hassli sent a header from a left-side Ryan Johnson cross inches wide of the far-post after getting himself isolated on Collin - the battle between the two Frenchmen was epic; Bunbury squandered a ball from Zusi that sent him in alone, his weak shot was easily turned aside by Kocic, and Nagamura blasted a few attempts high and wide.

A mystery red card to Quincy Amarikwa - retracted and unexplained - and one final chance for Johnson to find an equalizer in the fourth minute of stoppage time, only for Nielsen to catch it on the line.

Bullet Points

Loss of Collin is important; he is the more combative of their centre-backs - with Besler the more cerebral.

Collin is always good for an ill-planned dive in or to find himself out of position. Olum has done well in matches as a replacement for either first-choice defender, but Hassli could have a field day without his countryman there playing the pest.

The corridor of uncertainty - the space in between the keeper and his back-line - is an area where Toronto should look to exploit. Nielsen can be rooted to his line a little too much and the defense, as with all in MLS, can lose their mark easily. Extremely sound when they keep the play in front of them, the back-line can be troubled when forced to turn and face their own goal.

For some reason Kamara was covering Cahill, a mismatch that led to the New York goal.

If Toronto can attack from wide positions and find that gap, it will make Sporting uncomfortable.

Former Red, Nagamura is a pest and makes a show any time he gets fouled. With the slight reimagining of the midfield three, both he and Espinoza have more license to push forward and get involved in the attack. Watch Wilman Conde have a few choice words at Nagamura after a foul saw him booked.

Toronto must be especially wary of his shots from distance; he hasn't been hitting the target much, but has been finding his range.

Espinoza is reportedly garnering a lot of interest from Europe; though nothing concrete has yet materialized.

Post-match a special screening of the documentary, Kei by Copper Pot Pictures will be held.

Coincidentally it will be his 28th birthday. Kamara has done work for Right to Play and raises funds to build schools in his homeland, Sierra Leone.

You can find more of James Grossi’s insightful ramblings over at Partially Obstructed View and follow him on twitter @Grawsee