Sporting Kansas City enters its Knockout Round tie with New York in the final throes of its championship reign. The protection afforded by the regular season ended in a painful defeat to the Red Bulls on Sunday. The MLS Cup holders’ recent wobbles now imperil their treasured status.
There is no latitude for further missteps after frittering away a potential home date at the weekend. Sporting must triumph in Harrison on Thursday night to sustain its push to retain its perch. Recent performances suggest the journey will end in vain, but the postseason offers a fresh start for a side capable of summoning the resolve to turn things around quickly.
It is down to belief for Sporting now. The legs look heavy. The injury list raises issues in central midfield and right back. The performances underwhelm more often than not. And yet the earned triumph last season provides a conviction that everything could turn around in 90 minutes.
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“We’re still the defending champions,” Sporting fullback Seth Sinovic told the Kansas City Star. “It would be great to go into the game winning four or five in a row, but there’s a lot of teams that would probably take our experience over winning (games) going into the playoffs. You can draw it any way you want it, but I’ll take our team over anybody right now.”
New York plans to shake that confidence by repeating its display from the 2-0 victory at Sporting Park just a few days ago. The performance — fueled by the improved organization in midfield and typified by Bradley Wright-Phillips’ active and potent efforts up front — underscored the Red Bulls’ recent resurgence. Their strength at home (10-3-4 on the season, though the 3-0 defeat to Columbus a fortnight ago proved a disaster) offers more reason for encouragement.
The current landscape supplies no assurances, though. Sporting functions effectively on the road with its high-pressure 4-3-3 system and punishes opponents for their mistakes in possession. The task ahead requires diligence and perseverance, according to Red Bulls forward Thierry Henry.
“They are a team that knows what it takes to win,” Henry told reporters on Wednesday. ”They showed it last year. We haven’t done that yet, so you have to give them their respect, but know also that you can beat them. It’s another game. You can’t look at what we’ve done against them during the season. It’s going to be a different game on Thursday.”
Henry’s expected return to the lineup — he missed the trip to Kansas City with Achilles tendonitis in both heels — creates one point of divergence, but the stakes present the most significant difference. It is do or die for the champions right now. It is up to them to produce the response required to overcome their recent issues and retain their throne for a little while longer.
Sporting Kansas City will press high up the field to win the ball back, but Red Bulls coach Mike Petke will likely sit his team a bit more deeply to retain its defensive shape.
1. Both teams focus on their lines of confrontation: Sporting relishes the opportunity to press high and unsettle the opposition for 90 minutes. Their energy reserves, however, might restrict their ability to do it effectively. If the pressure drops, then the Red Bulls will have space to play through as they did on Sunday. New York will likely set out its stall a bit deeper: Red Bulls coach Mike Petke told ESPN he thinks his side functions more effectively with a more conservative defensive approach.
2. Sporting copes with shape concerns: The occasional drop in pressure creates concerns given the pervasive chopping and changing at the back. The entire system hinges on familiarity and reliability. If one component slides out of place, then the team struggles to compensate. Those problems are particular evident at the back with Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin both grappling with their form and the entire rearguard straining to shift properly when threatened with fluid movement. It is tough to erase those sorts of issues in a few days, but Sporting must find a way to reestablish its firm base in order to cope with the lively Wright-Phillips.
3. Central midfield looms as the key area … : New York eradicated most of its problems in the engine room by shifting its shape (4-2-3-1 is the preferred structure now) and tinkering with its personnel in the middle of the field (Eric Alexander and Dax McCarty form a more effective base, certainly). Sporting continues to labor a bit in possession without Uri Rosell. If Benny Feilhaber (ankle) isn’t fit enough to feature, then Sporting may struggle to cope with the Red Bulls’ midfield trio and use the ball effectively.
4. … but how will Petke fit the pieces together?: Henry is expected to return to the starting XI after missing the trip to Sporting Park on Sunday. His likely restoration creates a selection issue or two for Petke. The easiest solution — dropping Tim Cahill and playing Henry in his place behind Wright-Phillips — might prove problematic, while the prospect of playing Henry out on the left (a frequent berth as of late) instead of Ambroise Oyongo could prompt some defensive concerns and reduce the ability to play quickly and use the wide areas.
5. Strikers in the spotlight: The binary nature of this game heaps pressure on the star forwards — Wright-Phillips for New York, Dom Dwyer for Sporting — to produce when presented with opportunities. Both players will toil earnestly for the cause, but their contributions will be measured by their influence on the scoresheet.