Saturday, October 15, 2016

Match Day 33: The Final Stretch

Sporting Kansas City head into the final two games of the season with their playoff chances still very much in doubt. With two games left, KC sit in sixth place in the Western Conference, two points above seventh place Portland who is under the red line at this point. Every team in the league has played 32 games at this point, with the final two games of the season being played at the same time among all Western Conference teams. KC can still technically finish as high as third and as low as seventh and out of the playoffs. Their final push will start tomorrow on the road against an old rival in Real Salt Lake.

Salt Lake is one of four teams (along with KC) fighting for the last three playoff spots in the Western Conference. They'd been in a comfortable position just a few weeks ago, but a five game winless streak (0-3-2) including going winless in their last two home games (0-1-1) has seen them slip down the table into a precarious situation, especially given their form. Even with that though RSL can clinch a playoff berth tomorrow if they can defeat Sporting KC, something they've done two times in KC already this season. Kansas City has not won against RSL in six straight league games, going 0-4-2 in that stretch, the team's last win was in 2013 when Ike Opara scored in stoppage time to win it 2-1 for KC in a game that ultimately decided who hosted MLS Cup 2013.

A few weeks ago Kansas City ended their long road winless streak with a win in San Jose, then two weeks ago KC fell to the New England Revolution on the road. If KC wants any chance of clinching a playoff berth tomorrow night then they'll need to pick up another road win in Salt Lake, where the home side has only lost one time all season, a 1-0 loss to Houston. Kansas City's defense has been the big talking point most of the season for the team as they've been unable to find a consistent partnership back there with five different players making at least eight starts at center back over the course of the season. Tomorrow though KC will be forced to make one change on the back line, although it won't be at center back, left back Jimmy Medranda is suspended for the game tomorrow. The question is how does Peter Vermes replace him, does he go like for like and insert Seth Sinovic, or does he go with another similar lineup, putting Matt Besler in at left back and have the team transition between a 4-3-3 and a 3-5-2 over the course of the game? The later would fit the set up that Vermes has done previously when Medranda has been unavailable (September's 3-3 draw at home against Houston).

Zusi - Dwyer - Peterson
Feilhaber - Espinoza
Besler - Ellis - Opara - Abdul-Salaam

Number to Remember - 2 - That's the number of scenarios that KC has to clinch a playoff berth tomorrow. Both first involve KC needing to get a win against Real Salt Lake. The first scenario needs a KC win combined with a Portland draw/loss at home against the Colorado Rapids, who are currently leading the Supporters' Shield race, so they certainly have a lot to play for tomorrow. The other scenario involves a KC win combined with a Seattle loss on the road at Dallas. The reason for this would be that KC would jump over both Seattle and RSL who sit on 45 points, those two teams meet in Seattle the final week, meaning that both teams couldn't pass KC's 46 points and KC would win the "most wins" tie breaker over Real Salt Lake if KC, Seattle, and RSL all finished with 46 points.

Key Match Up - KC defense vs RSL attack - Much has been said about KC's defensive issues, with two games left in the regular season, Sporting KC really needs to get things squared away before a potential playoff run. One of the things that made KC's defense so good back in 2011-2013 was the consistency of the back line, week in and week out it was the same four guys in front of goal for KC, the group was able to get comfortable with that, this season KC really has not had that and at times it has certainly shown through.

PREDICTION - Neither team is in a great run of form right now and both teams are desperate for a result tomorrow. Since July, RSL has shut out just one team, Dallas, they've struggled to keep teams from scoring goals, Kansas City has been direct most of the season, but if Graham Zusi is back in the lineup there's the chance for a bit more dynamic play in the attack. Rio Tinto hasn't been friendly to KC, and in the end I think Kansas City would certainly take a draw tomorrow, while it wouldn't clinch a playoff berth it would keep them in control of their own destiny heading into the final game of the season.

SKC - 1 (Dwyer)
RSL - 1 (Plata)

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