VANCOUVER WHITECAPS vs. SPORTING KANSAS CITY
VANCOUVER: 25pts (7W-5L-4D); 4th in Western Conference, 8th in MLS
KANSAS CITY: 26pts (7W-5L-5D); 4th in Eastern Conference, 7th in MLS
Right off the bat, let's get the important information out there: the referee for this match is Ricardo Salazar. Enough said; let's move on.
If you'll glance up slightly at the overall league records to this point, you will see two teams separated only by a single point, though Vancouver does have a game in hand. Even without that basic visual aid, it nearly goes without saying that Sporting KC will be far stiffer opposition than the three previous opponents the Whitecaps have faced. This is a team that won the Eastern Conference and the U.S. Open Cup last year, is headed to CONCACAF Champions League this year, is a bona fide playoff team and title contender, and are reaping all the benefits of a recently returned loanee by the name of Kei Kamara. You may have heard of him. So, yeah, this won't be another Chivas USA-esque foregone conclusion.
Looking at the recent form for both teams, Vancouver's been trending in the right direction: five wins in seven matches, including three in a row, is a great way to enter the second half of the regular season. However, and I can't stress this enough, those three recent wins were games the 'Caps should be winning. Home against Chivas USA, home against the New England Revolution and away against D.C. United should net a team of Vancouver's calibre no less than seven points; thankfully, the Whitecaps reeled in all nine to keep themselves afloat in the dogfight that is the Western Conference's second tier.
(As an aside, please note the current MLS standings. As of this writing, there are three clear tiers in the west: teams 1-3, teams 4-8 and Chivas USA. The first tier teams are separated by three points, the second tier teams by four. I think we can safely categorize that as a "dogfight".)
Against serious, playoff-level opposition, the 'Caps look pretty good in their recent form: wins against the New York Red Bulls and the Los Angeles Galaxy are no small feats. The same could also be said for a 2-2 draw against the Portland Timbers.
On the other side of the ledger, Sporting Kansas City's seven-match summary is a pedestrian 2W-2L-3D; not exactly the dominating performance one might expect from last year's Eastern Conference champion. Wins against the Columbus Crew and Houston Dynamo are fair enough, as are respectable draws against FC Dallas and the same Dynamo. The one-goal loss to Montreal is where questions start to be asked. A draw against D.C. and a loss to the Seattle Sounders makes those questions more pointed. To be fair to SKC, they lost national team call-up and divine midfield presence Graham Zusi during FIFA World Cup qualifying; it's no secret that losing your midfield engine and creative spark can have a disastrous effect on your team's ability to control a game.
(See also: Reo-Coker, Nigel and Teibert, Russell.)
With that in mind, the wise Whitecaps supporter should prepare for an ugly outing on Wednesday. The loss of Teibert and Carlyle Mitchell will leave the 'Caps without a key component of their offence and a necessary piece of defensive depth, respectively. Sporting KC will be looking to regain their form on home turf, which is not a huge ask with Zusi and Kamara prepared to unleash hell on Vancouver's defenders. Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler and Jimmy Nielsen will be an imposing challenge on the backline for any team's offense, let alone one missing its assists leader. Still, Vancouver has proven it can go into a tough environment and escape with at least a point on the back of a solid defensive effort -- the first leg of the Voyageurs Cup final against Montreal springs to mind, as does the recent win against the New York Red Bulls. Do results like that dispel the 'Caps history of spotty road play? No, though there's slightly more room for optimism than there has been.
Result: SKC 2 - 1 VAN
Bieler 21', Zusi 70', Miller 88'
Miller - Camilo
Manneh - Davidson - Watson - Hertzog
Harvey - Rusin - Leverón - Reo-Coker
Rituro is a freelance nerd, sports fan and avid gamer. Feel free to throw a tweet his way and follow @ThatRituroGuy.