Saturday at BC Place, the Vancouver Whitecaps will be kicking off against Sporting Kansas City in a repeat matchup from the first round of last year’s MLS Cup Playoffs.
For Vancouver, being bounced out of the playoffs signalled the end of the Vanni Sartini dream run. Meanwhile, for Sporting KC, they may have thought they were well on their way to a deep playoff run of their own. Unfortunately, KC ran into Real Salt Lake in the second round, a team who surprised everyone with their playoff results, and once again, KC fell short of their lofty MLS Cup ambitions.
With another strong season behind them, paired with a disappointing playoff loss, you would think SKC would have been hungry out of the gates this year. So far though, that hasn’t been the case. Kansas City has struggled through five matches and currently sits outside the playoff line in 8th with just two wins: one over Houston, and more recently, a tight 1-0 victory over RSL. Even in victory, this Sporting KC side did not look entirely convincing, needing a miraculous individual effort from Johnny Russell to break the deadlock.
It’s not all panic though, as confidence in Peter Vermes and one of the best-run organizations in MLS remains high.
Crucially for both of the teams in this weekend’s matchup, they should have fewer injury issues to deal with. In particular, the return of Ryan Gauld and Brian White will be a sight for the sore eyes of many Whitecaps supporters.
To dive a bit deeper into these two teams, I chatted with Dan McCown of the Blue Testament, our SB Nation colleague down in KC.
Sam: It looks like Sporting Kansas City has been struggling a bit so far this season, at least in comparison to what we’ve come to expect from them. How much of that is due to the departure of Ilie Sanchez and the continued injury struggles of Alan Pulido? Or is it something else?
Dan: Ilie being gone hurts. While many people, including me, had concerns about the lack of athleticism he has shown with LAFC, surrounded by energetic midfielders, he still has the tools to be a top-tier midfielder in this league. Of the apparent replacements for Ilie on the roster, Uri Rosell got injured in the first game, and Jose Mauri got cut shortly after. Add on top of that lots of injuries to our forwards and lots of new faces in the team, and it is not super surprising that SKC is slow out of the gates this year.
Sam: After beating the Vancouver Whitecaps, SKC lost to RSL in the second round of the MLS Cup Playoffs in 2021. Is it fair to say that every season is MLS Cup or bust for this team, and what has the organization done to switch things up since these teams last met?
Dan: This team always wants silverware. Full stop. But it is also a small market team that has usually gone with a bit of a Money ball approach. That can be very effective in the regular season but it seems like the big names tend to show up big time in the playoffs. Hopefully, we can make a deeper run this year, but I have some concerns with how things have gone so far.
As to what the organization has done to change things, they went big on U22 initiative players (aka Young Money) this off-season. They went from zero to three U22 players in one off-season, and those guys are already showing some flashes of why they went out and spent some money to bring them in. It will be fun to watch them grow throughout the year.
Sam: What are your thoughts on how SKC plans on approaching this match, and how do you think it might play out considering recent form?
Dan: A lot of players are back from injury and looking pretty good. So I would expect closer to the full-strength lineup in the ever-present Peter Vermes 4-3-3. Expect the wingers to try to cut inside and the fullbacks to be pushed way up when in possession. In terms of how all that is going to work out… I do not feel like I know what this team is yet this season and could see it going either way.
On a different note, I feel like there is the start of rivalry brewing with these teams, so I expect to see some fireworks between the players. I love a little emotion in the game (assuming no one gets hurt), so I am looking forward to it.
Dan: Vancouver went on a tear last season to make the playoffs, but at the start of this season, they have lost three and drawn one. What changed in-between the end of last season and the beginning of this one to cause this?
Sam: Luck, for one. The Whitecaps were winning on the thinnest of margins last season and I think we saw that in the playoff match-up with SKC at the end of last year. Once they conceded a goal, it was really difficult for them to get back into the match against a really good team. Injuries would be the other answer, both Brian White and Ryan Gauld have been limited up to this point in terms of their impact and those were Vancouver’s best two contributors last season. Caio Alexandre has also been absent, first with visa issues, then fitness, and he was supposed to be a key starter in the centre of the midfield.
Dan: Speaking of that good run of form last season, most of it happened under the direction of interim and now permanent head coach Vanni Sartini. What do the fans think of him? What are his strengths and weaknesses as a coach?
Sam: Personality-wise he is very likeable, but it always helps when you go on a winning run. Vanni is not afraid to rotate his squad, but he is also very consistent with his tactical identity. It’s a three at the back system that puts a lot of focus on the wing-backs and usually employs a front three with two inside forwards and a striker. As we’ve seen so far this year, the squad might not match up perfectly with this identity, so it will be interesting to see if he is willing to make tweaks to his system, or if the players will be forced to adapt. Vanni comes from a background of coaching, and in particular, coaching coaches. There is little doubt about his knowledge of the game, but it’s a different animal to translate that to results at a first-team level consistently, as well as dealing with all the other responsibilities of being the bench boss. He was playing with house money last year, now we get to see him truly tested.
Thanks to Dan for taking the time to chat. Now, on we go to how I see this match playing out.
Overall, Vancouver’s record against SKC is very poor, but the Whitecaps have been good at home under Vanni Sartini, so one of those things is going to have to give if three points are to be given out.
If Vancouver fails to put SKC’s centrebacks (Ismat-Mirin and Fontas) under pressure then it will be a long day. Those two are not terribly fleet of foot but are very good defenders when playing in structure with everything in front of them. So Vancouver will have to look to stretch the game when they can.
The midfield three of Roger Espinoza, Remi Walter, and Felipe Hernandez for SKC is decent but not overwhelmingly so, and not in comparison to what the Whitecaps have faced so far this season. A midfield pivot of Owusu and Berhalter or Teibert and Berhalter should at least be able to hold their own.
Overall, I think this is a match Vancouver can take points from, but I struggle to commit to the full three, especially if Daniel Salloi is in the starting XI. SKC is much better with the Hungarian in the squad, and he’s only played three matches this season, scoring once and helping his team to victory in those other two matchups.
I’m going to pick a 1-1 draw for this one, as I think Brain White and Ryan Gauld will start to build on their 2021 magic, but ultimately, Sporting KC will have too much urgency to be kept off the score sheet.