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Know Your Enemy: Sporting Kansas City

The season opener in Vancouver was a bit of a surprise with Ryan Nelsen’s short time in charge instilling a structural solidity seldom seen in Toronto Red, but now it’s time to bring the party home – not to BMO Field, to the SkyDome (Rogers Centre). With the home opener, comes a difficult opponent: Sporting Kansas City.

Claudio Bieler. Argentine Pat-a-cake champion.
Claudio Bieler. Argentine Pat-a-cake champion.
Al Messerschmidt

Under the iron will of Peter Vermes, Sporting, since their rebranding, have become one of the premier sides in MLS and despite losing two key pieces to the English Premier League in the offseason, they look to challenge the higher reaches of the league once more.

Despite a valiant performance on the West Coast, Toronto lost 1-0, the worry come Saturday is that a second-straight loss will begin talk of last season's nine-game losing start - not to mention inching closer to Salt Lake's record winless run of eighteen matches over the 2005 and 2006 seasons.

Toronto's fourteen-match run without a win to end last season sees them currently sitting on fifteen and given the difficulty of their opening month - away trips to both Canadian rivals, as well as visits from Kansas City and Los Angeles - it could be a rough, record-breaking start to the campaign.

Fret not, however bleak times may be, a closer look at this weekend's opponent is in order and will perhaps soothe some of those worries.

The Lineup

The departures of Kei Kamara and Roger Espinoza - to Norwich City and Wigan Athletic, respectively - left coach Vermes with a job on his hands. Replacing two such integral pieces of a functional unit is never an easy task, but, one match into the season, Kansas City appears to have not skipped a beat.

Still plying their 4-3-3, in comes Benny Feilhaber - sometimes American International midfielder - from New England, to play at the tip of the three-man midfield, shuttling Graham Zusi out to the right, a position he took up at times last season - more on him later.

Long-term ACL injury to Teal Bunbury - and a general lack of production from the centre-forward position - prompted the club to search out a new designated player, enter Argentine-born Claudio Bieler.

A veteran of the South American leagues, including stops in Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador, Bieler joined KC before the turn of the year and has already added something that Sporting was lacking, a true target centre-forward, but one mobile and flexible enough to compliment the system in place.

Gone too is defensive midfielder Julio Cesar - now with TFC; deemed surplus to requirements, in part to make space for Oriol (Uri) Rosell, a twenty-year old Barcelona product that joined the club midway through 2012 showing his potential with a handful of matches with the club.

Their projected lineup for Saturday is as follows: returning in goal, 2012 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, Jimmy Nielsen; from right to left - Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler - 2012 MLS Defender of the Year, and Seth Sinovic, across the back; Uri Rosell and Paulo Nagamura sitting in the midfield behind Benny Feilhaber; up top, the forward three of Graham Zusi, Claudio Bieler, and CJ Sapong.

football formations

A few caveats before progressing. Bobby Convey could very likely feature on the left-side of the attacking trident, as he did against Philadelphia in their season opener. Despite playing a key role in Sporting's first goal, he was largely ineffectual and Sapong's added physicality could prove useful against TFC's robust defence.

Nagamura picked up a slight knock, reportedly suffering a gash on his leg that required attention post-match. It is possible that, considering the awful turf on offer, he makes way for some younger legs in the form of Haitian, Peterson Joseph or even Michael Thomas, a defender who saw some minutes in the position last season.

Much to the chagrin of folks in Toronto - and Canada in general, neither Teal Bunbury, nor Jacob Peterson will be available as both are currently listed as ‘Out' on the injury report, due to ACL and shoulder issues - and reparatory surgeries - respectively.

Striker Soony Saad was impressive in preseason, as was new right-back signing Mechack Jerome, but neither is likely to start, especially given their inclusion in a midweek reserve match against Minnesota United FK - a 2-1 win on Wednesday.

Superdraft pick - fourteenth overall - Mikey Lopez has returned from international duty with the American U-20 side that lost to Mexico in the final of the CONCACAF Championship, but is unlikely to be rushed into the first team.

The Form

Following another early and disappointing departure from the MLS Cup Playoffs at the hands of eventual finalists, Houston, Kansas City ended their preseason schedule with a record of four wins, two losses and two draws, but now that the season is here, those results - as they always were - are inconsequential.

Their First Kick - apparently now called March to the Match - task involved a visit to the Philadelphia Union; Sporting won 1-3.

The first half saw Philadelphia come flying out of the gates, dominating the possession and using Sporting's high-pressing style against them. The Union were at their most dangerous playing balls into space left behind the full-backs - caught up-field in transition - with Michael Farfan and Keon Daniel feeding the cunning runs of Sebastien Le Toux.

Le Toux took the lead on return to his old stomping grounds after a year in the wilderness spent between Vancouver and New York, collecting a sweetly-struck inch-perfect left-sided cross from Daniel towards the back-post. Despite the ball getting tangled in his feet he was able to poke a quick shot goal-ward and past Nielsen.

The Frenchman should have had a second, this time finding himself in tons of space when Sheanon Williams surged up the right onto a Marfan ball behind the full-back, but he placed his shot agonizingly wide of the left-post.

Sporting sprung to life in the final five minutes of the half when Convey beat Amobi Okugo to a header, then touched over Brian Carroll down the left. His cross into the box was nodded down and back by Bieler to Feilhaber. That initial attempt was saved by Zac MacMath, but Zusi was on hand to place the rebound into the top right corner of the goal.

Kansas City took the lead fifteen minutes into the second half after Williams was deemed to have fouled the recently-introduced Sapong on the left-side of the pitch. Zusi stepped up to the dead-ball and delivered an inviting offering into the heart of the box. Rosell, streaking across the spot from the right after breaking free of his marker, Ray Gaddis, beat MacMath to the ball; his redirection found the back of the unguarded net.

Bieler, having played provider, got one for himself - on his league debut for the club - after an intelligent cross-field movement from Zusi, moving from the right to find space on the left as the ball cycled out to Sinovic. The left-back played Zusi down that flank, though tracked by Carroll, he cut back onto his right-foot and sent a pass to the far-post end-line area, where Myers was attacking.

Bieler, now screaming for the ball at the top of the box, having dropped off the collapsing Philadelphia defenders, took one-touch to settle Myers ball, before striking a low, right-footed shot across the keeper.

The Tactics

Tactically Kansas City will provide a similar challenge to Vancouver, especially as comprised in the second half with the addition of Nigel Reo-Coker.

Having shifted to the 4-3-3 with Reo-Coker, Daigo Kobayashi and Kenny Miller free to drift wherever they found space, Vancouver caused Toronto much more trouble than their pure speed-down-the-wings approach had in the first half.

Zusi, as evidenced by his movement on Kansas City's third goal, is free to roam as he pleases, finding those pockets to cause damage.

He must be watched at all times, it would not be a surprise if man-marking Zusi will be the key to stopping KC this season.

Bieler brings to the club a true centre-forward, big enough to battle and play the role of a target-man, while smart enough to find the necessary yard of space with some clever movement as he did with the goal above.

His ability to occupy centre-backs was on display in Philadelphia, with his physicality setting up the opening goal by winning a header and deftly knocking it down to Feilhaber at the top of the box.

Sporting's main method of attack will still rely on their play on the wings, with both wide attackers - and overlapping full-backs - looking to expose the space in wide positions. Convey's work down the left to find space and hit a cross into the box for Bieler led to the goal above, while the strong play of Sapong in the second half - again down the left - won the free kick that led to the eventual game-winner.

Set-pieces, as delivered by Zusi, will always be a concern, whether free kicks or corner ones. Collin and Besler provide sizeable options, but it was Rosell who got on the end of his service in Philadelphia.


Toronto, with long passes out of the back, should find space behind the outside backs as they press forward. Watch for Kyle Bekker to spray balls into those areas for the wide midfielders or Robert Earnshaw to run onto.

KC were also troubled by long balls out of the back that isolated defenders in one-on-one situations with Le Toux. Sporting's aggressive pressing up-field can leave their centre-backs alone and chasing to regain position. Earnshaw will feast on these situations once acclimated and fully fit.

The coverage by Besler and Sinovic - with neither actually marking Le Toux, provided a channel through which he struck - was poor and Earnshaw could find some joy in a similar position.

Neither Besler, nor Collin are especially fast and are troubled by lateral movement from the attackers.

Jack McInerney, upon his inclusion, nearly found a goal with a slashing near-post run that caught Collin flat-footed to a right-sided Le Toux cross.

Points of Interest

Sporting won all three meetings last season: 2-0 in KC on June 16th - Paul Mariner's first game as head coach on goals from Sapong and Cesar (recall that volley at the back-post); 0-1 in Toronto on August 18th via Kamara's deflected free-kick and 2-1 again in Kansas City on September 1st - on goals from Nagamura (his shot into the ground looped over the unlamented Freddy Hall) and Rosell.

Toronto has lost the last four meetings, their last win coming back in 2009 - a stretch of seven matches. Vermes has never lost to TFC.

TFC's all-time record is a dismal three wins, eight losses and four draws; though they are two, two and three at home.

The two have each ruined the other's home openers: KC, then The Wizards, won Toronto's first-ever home opener in 2007 when Eddie Johnson scored the lone goal in the eighty-first minute, spoiling the afternoon; while TFC won the 2009 home opener in KC 2-3 on a brace from Amado Guevara and a Jim Brennen opener, Davy Arnaud scored a pair for Sporting that day.

Of some interest, is that only a few weeks ago - actually, exactly fourteen days on matchday - Toronto and Sporting met in their final matches in Orlando, with KC winning 1-0 when Bieler latched onto a Saad ball into the box. Reports do not indicate much about how the ball was turned in.

Darren O'Dea was sent off in that match after a confrontation with opposition centre-back, Besler; any bad blood could spill over onto set-pieces in this match.

Toronto was afforded an up-close glimpse at a largely first-choice KC that day, with Josh Gardner's inclusion at left-back - and Sapong in for Convey - the only alterations from Sporting's opening day eleven.

The two also met three days earlier in a scrimmage that ended 3-3 featuring sides entirely comprised of trialists and fringe players.

Neither of the matches was broadcast and details made available were minimal.

There are two former Reds on Sporting's books - Paulo Nagamura and Jacob Peterson.

The clubs will meet two more times this season: July 13th in KC and Sept 21st again in Toronto.

Hopefully the Curse of the SkyDome does not strike once more.

For further reading, this profile on Rosell is recommended or have a look over Waking the Red's final scouting report from last season.