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Sporting KC vs. Chicago Fire - MLS #13: Three Questions Livestrong Sporting Park Edition

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Gonzalo Segares making sure Sporting KC's C.J. Sapong backs off.
Gonzalo Segares making sure Sporting KC's C.J. Sapong backs off.

We exchange three questions with Andy Edwards of The Daily Wiz in order to get some insider perspective on Sporting Kansas City as the Chicago Fire travel to KC to open up the brand new Livestrong Sporting Park tonight.  Andy's answer to my first question is below and the other five questions in the exchange are after the break.

Hot Time In Old Town asks The Daily Wiz

1. Sporting KC has gone from giving up 2.5 goals a game on average to allowing just 2 goals in their last 3 games.  What do you attribute the defensive improvement to?  Defense finally playing together as a unit?  Weaker opponents?  A change in tactics?  Something else?

First and foremost, get to know the name Aurelien Collin. He is a special, special defender in MLS. He was a player the team had targeted throughout the entire offseason, (I actually reported their interest first back in December - go me!) but due to contractual and legal issues with his former club in Portugal, were unable to work a deal. He came to KC on "trial" in late March-early April and was signed by the team once the legal issues worked themselves out in mid-April. The thing that makes him a brilliant defender is that he has the perfect combination of athleticism and physicality. He started the first game he was signed and hasn't left the field since.

The other half of the centerback pairing, which was the problem early on, has finally settled, too, and has also done wonders for the defense. Matt Besler was always my preferential choice to start over Julio Cesar Santos, and look what happens when he is made the starter - goals conceded go way down. Head coach Peter Vermes likes to switch guys in and out a lot, but I think even he has figured out just how huge that pairing has been of late.
2. Chicago just fired Carlos de los Cobos for getting just 9 points in 11 games and 45 points in 41 games overall in his time with the Fire.  Is Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes on the hot seat after the team's poor start in 2011?  Before the season, Sporting KC was picked almost unanimously to be No. 2 or No. 3 in the Eastern Conference and they currently sit dead last in MLS.

If it were not for the colossal road trip to start the season, Vermes would unquestionably be on the hot seat. But, he - and the front office as well, thanfully - understand just what kind of hurdle this has been. Fans, on the other hand, have shown no hesitance to point the finger and sharpen that ax.

For me, it would be ludicrous to ask Vermes to embark on such a start to the season, put him in that extenuating circumstance (which he did not ask for, but welcomed the challenge anyway) and not be ready for some shortcomings. Right now, KC are right on par with the average MLS road win percentage - somewhere around 15 percent, give or take. The only difference is that the rest of the teams in the league have had home games throughout their schedules to supplement those road games and pick up three points nearly 60 percent of the time.

3. On a scale of 1 to 11, what is the excitement level for the opening of the new stadium in Kansas City?  What is the excitement level for you personally?

Around town, it's at a solid 11. Personally, I'm sitting near a 74. The place, if you haven't checked it out, please do yourself a favor and do so right here, right now. It is by no means at all a stretch when people call it the finest soccer stadium in all of America, and maybe even North America. It's beyond a stadium, it is a home for a team that 16 years into its existence, has never had a place to call its own.

From Arrowhead Stadium to CommunityAmerica Ballpark, the team and fans have long been nomads without a proper "place of worship." That all changes tonight, and all credit due to the ownership group OnGoal, LLC. They saved the team from relocation and kept at it when stadium proposals failed time and time again. In the end, they got it right, and the love from ESPN2 shall runneth over.

 

The Daily Wiz asks Hot Time In Old Town

1. Do Chicago fans see the Sporting KC front office as trying to "manufacture" a rivalry between the two teams with the various promotions based on Chicago losses? (sub promotion, LIVESTRONG donations)

Yes.

2. It seems like the only other team in the league keeping pace with KC's poor results this year is Chicago. Just what - in 150 words or less - has gone wrong in 2011?

My reputation for being long-winded precedes me I see.  Let's break this down into topics.

Goaltending

We thought Sean Johnson was more of a finished product than he has turned out to be.  We thought the defense was finished gelling in pre-season.  It turned out both needed a lot more work.  The good news for Chicago is things have improved since they gave up 11 goals in the first 5 games.  Johnson is back to looking good and being healthy.  The defensive core has been sorted out and it shows with only 8 goals against in the last 7 games.

Lack of Initiative

Chicago did not have a lead in the entire month of May but managed to pull out 4 ties and only suffered 1 loss that resulted from a no-look-30-yards-outside-the-box strike from Philly’s Carlos Ruiz.  Chicago's offense seems incapable of punching without getting punched first.

Roster Size Increased       

Lame excuse or part of the equation?  Chicago only had 14 players return so while other teams used the 6 extra roster spots added in the off-season to tweak their roster and fill a hole or two, Chicago was just trying to find quality players to fill out a roster so they would have the 18 players necessary to fill out a bench.

Okay, so I went over 150 words.  I think it's still succinct.


3. Since the firing of head coach Carlos de los Cobos, what changes in tactics, personnel and/or team spirit have you noticed? Anything KC fans should have an eye on in particular?

New head coach Frank Klopas has emphasized changing little details and not making too many big changes.  That was apparent in Klopas’ first game last week when he started 10 of the 11 players that started Carlos de los Cobos’ last game as head coach.  The only change was Corben Bone starting in Marco Pappa’s place and Pappa was out due to Guatemala calling him up for CONCACAF Gold Cup action.  The formation was officially listed as being a 4-2-3-1 but it looked just like a 4-4-2 at times.  de los Cobos would play a 4-4-2 or a 4-1-4-1 formation this year.  I highly doubt Klopas would ever use a 4-1-4-1 so there's that. 

One significant change Sporting KC and the league peering in might recognize is the Fire being more consistent in pressing on the attack.  de los Cobos preferred to have the team play the ball back and draw the opponents in.  The game plan then called for the Fire to make quick counter strikes.  Many fans have become upset with captain Logan Pause for sending 30 to 40 yard back passes to the goalie but he was just being a good captain and following coach’s orders.  The interesting aspect is that you can’t really say the offense didn’t responsed to de los Cobos’ tactics because the team has been hovering around top 5 in the league in goals scored all season long.  The defense that was put together just couldn’t handle the pressure forced upon them. 

I did want to address the rivalry question in a little more detail too even though I already poked fun at Sporting KC back in AprilI think that Sporting KC has attempted to manufacture a rivalry with the Fire (or dare I say 'fan the flames' of a lukewarm rivalry historically), but they are no different than other teams around the league.  Look at the Houston Dynamo’s "Houston Two Times Better Than Dallas" billboard or even San Jose’s bizarre video response to get in on the act.  The hashtag "#WeAllHateHouston"?  Really? 

The fact that all of this rolls out shortly after the Portland Timbers put up a billboard near Qwest Field last year makes the rivalry charged material ring hollow.  You can just feel that there was a big conference or a big memo that went around and all MLS team marketing directors were informed that the Portland sign was a big success.  MLS pointed out that the Portland and Seattle rivalry has made big news so everyone is encouraged to spice up the trash talk between teams.  So Kansas City gives $500 to Livestrong for every goal against the Fire and some sub shop gives away free subs when the Fire lose?  It was a member of Section 8 Chicago that said something along the lines of, ‘We are curing cancer and feeding the hungry.  We’ve got to put an end to this travesty".  Rivalries are built based on play on the field, not gimmicky tricks by the front office.  With that in mind, I look forward to the 40th MLS confrontation between these two teams taking place tonight.