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Through A Glass, Darkly: SKC v CHI, MLS #7, preview

Fire's improved attack face a different kind of challenge against a Sporting side still searching for an identity

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

There's a common fantasy that is spun as justification for public-works boondoggles like stadia: Attract 20,000 people here every week, and won't they need services? Won't they need restaurants and malls and sidewalk vendors? Won't they need toilets and drinking fountains and sidewalks? If we build it, won't civilization just have to follow?

One needs look no further than poor, troubled Bridgeview to see the underside of that story. While gamedays are great, 20 days of fantastic business per year equals a failing business; the bonds necessary to build the thing can strangle if mismanaged. But there are success stories amidst the litany of broken promises and fantastical projections that populate the history of public/private stadium partnerships, and Sporting Kansas City's Sporting Park is one of them. Am I the only one whose heart hurts just a little every time the Fire kick off a game from America's Soccer Palace? Wasn't that supposed to be us?

The situation

There are several ways in which the teams present interesting compare-and-contrast studies. Sporting has been the Peter Vermes show since before they were Sporting; meanwhile, Chicago has cycled through Carlos de los Cobos, Frank Klopas, Frank Yallop and an ever-shifting host of deal-makers and shadow-chairmen. The aforementioned stadium outcomes. Front-office-of-the-year stuff. And, y'know, winning.

But this could be a different day. It's been some time since Chicago traveled to Kansas City and expected much out of it. For all that, the games have always been closely contested, even in those recent moments when Sporting were considered elite while the Fire toiled on a lower level. Expect this game to be gamely contested for 90-plus minutes whatever the scoreline.

All that said, the Men in Red clearly enter the game with an advantage in what my wife would call ‘swagger.' Swagger is a difficult ingredient, a volatile suspension of grinning confidence and ruthless willfulness, but it can be persuasive. The Fire have swagger, and Kansas City's defense is not the Collin-Besler-Rosell shutdown machine it once was. Expect no changes that would disturb the swagger, especially among the midfield axis I spent 2,000 words explaining (heh) - Harrison Shipp nominally on the right but very free, Shaun Maloney mostly in the left channel, David Accam blazing away starting from wide left, and Matt Polster just left of center, deep, starting in front of the centerbacks and working forward.

The fifth member of that group ("Mr. X") won't be known until about 3 p.m. CDT, but it's likely we can rule out Mikey Stephens as he continues to heal an ankle knock. Last week's starter, Matt Watson, was red-carded after the fact by the Discipline Committee, so he's out. As CoachTony noted in his tactical preview, that leaves Chris Ritter, Razvan Cocis and Victor Perez for the role. The choice could signal the Fire's posture at kickoff, with Ritter the choice if the team are trying to hit their hosts on the break.

Defensively, it's unlikely we'll see much tinkering. Joevin Jones has been potent and responsible wherever he's been asked to play; expect him at left back again. Adailton and Jeff Larentowicz are pitching their own weird buddy-cop movie in the center - Jeff the passionate redhead who'll follow a lead anywhere, Adailton the guy whose anticipation means (whatever his protestations) that he is definitely not too old for this shit. Finally, there have been murmurs of a return for Lovel Palmer this week, but it seems ill-timed. Sporting's left wing, Krisztian Nemeth, is really a forward starting from a wide position; Eric Gehrig's background in the middle should come in handy against the Hungarian.

And then there was the striker. Who starts? Guly do Prado played his role well against New York City, helping the Fire keep the ball, but offers no cutting edge when going toward goal. Quincy Amarikwa's head-down wrasslin' doesn't mesh very well with the intricate fugue of movement and touches behind him. And Kennedy Igboananike seems to be having adaptation issues; he offers awareness and movement but his finishing has ranged from ‘hilarious' to ‘okay, that's just not funny anymore.'

In short, Mr. X and the striker are the questions yet to be answered by the lineup sheet. What they'll see lined up across them is a different Sporting team than in past years.

The opposition

The seventh game of the season for Chicago is the ninth for Kansas City, and they're still tinkering a bit. Their trouble started early last June, when the team sold defensive midfielder Uri Rosell to Sporting of Portugal without a direct replacement on the roster. Without Rosell's tireless backstopping of midfield, opponents found they could now break through the suddenly-soft center of the Blue Hell press, and the entire manic basketball-on-grass experiment came elaborately unsprung. The Collin-Besler defense had thrived on pure aggression behind that balls-out pressing, but when forced to chase runners coming at them full-speed it was another matter.

Peter Vermes reshuffled the deck for 2015 in an effort to address those problems. No destroyer? No problem - the team would play a slower, more patient game, pressing less aggressively, using movement and communication to keep the ball. The return of Roger Espinoza meant Benny Feilhaber had a skilled, tireless runner to carry the water while Feilhaber schemed from deep. The defense would benefit from a more measured approach instead of facing a constant stream of fast-break opportunities. And Nemeth's presence means Dom Dwyer doesn't need to feel pressure to score All The Goals.

Funny thing about identities, though - they don't just vanish even when they're discarded. Kansas City has struggled with the change in tactic. It seems pressing like madmen has become part of the team's identity, and over eight games, they've slowly come around to their old 4-3-3. It's not as terrifying as formerly, but neither is it a simple thing to exploit.

Dom Dwyer may be a narcissist, but he's not simple to mark. Dwyer's work rate defensively is world-class, he anticipates big moments well, and his finishing (this season aside) is usually a strong point. He's been helped scoring goals by Nemeth, who is the very definition of ‘back-post ghost.' Nemeth isn't a classic winger; he's not going to slalom between four defenders to get a shot on goal; he'll wait, notice the right-center back tuning him out, and loiter for Graham Zusi to drop a ball on his head.

Wait, I'm on the fifth paragraph of the Sporting section and I'm just now mentioning Zusi? Well, it's been that kind of year. Graham is another player for whom the tactical switch didn't work - accustomed to knifing into the middle or taking space on the right against opponents scrambling into places, instead San Zusi's has faced massed, static defenses in this early season, to predictable effect. He's still here, and he's still dangerous, but he can be frustrated when not given room.

Sporting's midfield is another matter. Feilhaber and Espinoza have been automatic starters; the switch back to 4-3-3 was predicated partly on Servando Carrasco as the nominal destroyer, since neither are suited to the role. Supposing another formation change is ruled out, Carrasco's suspension heaps pressure on Soni Mustivar, the French-Haitian mid signed from Romania in the offseason.

The home defense will have its hands full with the Fire attack. Besler's poor form in the Sporting badge continues. Early in the season, he was repeatedly bailed out by the World's Unluckiest Human, Ike Opara, who has since been lost for the season with a knee injury. The defense that starts today will likely feature Besler alongside Kevin Ellis, a natural outside back, with Marcel de Jong and Anibaba on the flanks. Chilean international Luis Marin starts between the pipes.

Matchups of note

David Accam v the right side of the SKC defense: Accam has a preferred route to goal which runs in the channel between the right back and the right-center back. Fire fans have seen Jalil struggle with quick wingers on the outside before; paired with a young outside back in the middle? Against Accam's lightning-bolt pace? If the Men in Red can get into the heads of the KC defense early, look out.

Their midfield fluidity v our midfield fluidity: Both coaches have talked about building fluid teams in the early season, and now each gets a difficult test. Who is winning second balls? Whose touch and awareness refuses to give up a second ball? With defenders stepping in to help, and attackers dropping deep for touches, the midfield could get very congested indeed. Who has the nous to prosper?

Joevin Jones v Graham Zusi: Zusi's status as SKC's X-Factor is uncontested, but in Jones he is up against a player of greater physical capacity than usual. Will Jones snuff out the USA man, or can Zusi find space to exploit when Jones gets forward?

Larentowicz' awareness v Nemeth's skulking runs: Larentowicz likes to step into midfield from time to time to protect possession, and it's just those moments Nemeth seizes upon for his back-post runs. Can Big Red stay frosty and keep the Hungarian quiet?

What I'll be looking for

How high are Sporting pressing? The old SKC would have their front three closing down defenders on their own goal line. Are they trying to do that today? How far forward are the midfielders stepping to close down space? The back line? In short, how high are they challenging the ball, and does their shape behind that point look compact, or are their spaces between the lines for Shipp and Maloney to exploit?

How are our midfielders coping? In previous matchups against Sporting, the Fire midfield were unnerved by the pressure. This group seems to have greater reserves of calm - are they stepping around the first man and making the simple pass? Or are they constantly dropping the ball off to a defender while under duress?

Long passes - with a purpose? When the Fire are going long, is it desperation or cunning? Are they dropping balls in behind for Accam, or just whacking it out of trouble?

The bottom line

The bookmakers aggregated at BetBrain.com do not have happy thoughts to share with the Fire faithful. The current lines have Sporting a 57% favorite to win, with 25% chance of a draw and only 18% for Chicago to win this one. If you've got a good feeling about the Fire, there's money to be made, one supposes.