VANCOUVER WHITECAPS vs. SPORTING KANSAS CITY
August 10th, 5pm at BC Place (TSN2)
Vancouver: 29pts (6W-4L-11D, 6th in Western Conference, 9th Overall)
Kansas City: 39pts (11W-5L-6D, 1st in Eastern Conference, 1st Overall)
An aside before we get into the 'Caps-Sporks preview: as of typing this preview, Toronto FC and the Whitecaps are level on points in the Supporters' Shield standings, though TFC has a game in hand. It should go without saying but I'll say it just to be sure: every point counts. This is the easiest chance Vancouver has to get a CONCACAF Champions League berth; for the sake of international prestige, let's hope they don't blow it.
To the match, then, and the reigning MLS Cup champions, who face Vancouver for the first and only time this season. Going up and down the Sporks' roster, it's hard not to be pessimistic. Their central defenders are the imposing Aurélien Collin and newly minted DP Matt Besler, their midfield boasts also-newly minted DP Graham Zusi and his running buddy, surprisingly charismatic internet sensation Benny Feilhaber, and the attack boasts no less than Dom Dwyer, currently tied for second in the Golden Boot race with Erick Torres. So, yeah, that's kind of worrisome.
But wait, wasn't there some big game happening the other day? And didn't Collin, Besler and Zusi all play 45 minutes in it? And didn't Dwyer come on for sub duty after some other dude scored?
The devil you say.
Now, I'm not suggesting USMNT regulars Zusi and Besler would be rendered incapacitated by first-half duty in a friendly; nor am I suggesting the walking tree-man that is Collin will be unavailable for Sunday's match. Heck, Dwyer only came on for a 19-minute cameo. What I'm saying is that the 'Caps will be on full rest while three core members of SKC will be slightly less than 100%. Against a team with SKC's bona fides, any advantage you can gain is massive and might be the difference between a draw and a loss. I'm not even going to entertain the prospect of winning because A) the Sporks have a +5 road goal differential (+12 overall), B) the 'Caps have not been finishing anywhere near the levels they need to as of late, and C) SKC is a very good team. Very good teams go on the road and find ways to get a point, if not more.
So, how do the 'Caps get out of this match with a point? For starters, they need to own the midfield battle from the get-go. Kansas City play a 4-3-3, usually with Zusi and Feilhaber on the outside and a holding midfielder in the centre. With overlap coming from fullbacks Seth Sinovic and new loanee Igor Julião, the wings will be where SKC will try to make the magic happen, bombing in crosses or setting up penetrating runs down the middle. It will be incumbent on Matias Laba and Gershon Koffie to shut down the targets for said crosses, leaving the fullbacks and (one hopes) back-tracking attacking midfielders to clean up the flanks. Winning that midfield battle neutralizes SKC's biggest threat - their stellar service - and gives the 'Caps a chance.
On the flip side, SKC's defense is a brick wall. Whoever starts up front for Vancouver is going to have no joy trying to run channels or win aerial duels against the Besler-Collin tandem. Arguably, the 'Caps best chance will be to exploit Igor Julião as he acclimatizes to the league. A combination of the BC Place turf monster and MLS unfamiliarity may just open up a few seams that Vancouver will absolutely have to punish. A good-looking cross won't cut it; chances simply have to equal goals. That's it. That said, there's something to be said for putting a suitable player out on the left to force Igor Julião into errors. Russell Teibert is one option; Kekutah Manneh, in a rare argument supporting him starting the match, is another.
Look, I realize subdued pessimism doesn't exactly help considering Vancouver needs wins and needs them now in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Unfortunately, subdued pessimism is about the best I can muster when faced with a formidable foe like SKC. At least they have a goofy name. Heh. "Sporks". (credit to whoever on the Southsiders forum first came up with that one)
PREDICTION: A 1-1 draw, a decent amount of heckling from 254-J-6/7 and a mad dash to catch the last ferry home.