COLUMBUS, OH - APRIL 16: Shavar Thomas #6 of Sporting Kansas City slides in to kick the ball away from Tom Heinemann #32 of the Columbus Crew as goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen #1 of Sporting Kansas City guards the net on April 16, 2011 at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus defeated Sporting Kansas City 1-0. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Sporting KC returns to MLS play in the place where American soccer found it's footing. The Columbus Crew may not be the most exciting of teams, but provide an important test of Sporting KC's ability to score against hyper-defensive units.
Back in first place and in the US Open Cup final everything is playing out perfectly for Sporting Kansas City. It's not a time to get over-confident, as the season is barely half over and the rest of the way is heavily stacked with Eastern Conference matches. Every result pulls other teams into contention or knocks them out of it. Three points against the Columbus Crew tonight would go a long way, as many teams would prefer not to play Columbus in the playoffs, especially one so intent on defensive prowess (third worst in goals for, tied with SKC for best in goals allowed).
This should come as no surprise as this has been my most hated fixture for the past three or four years. No it's not stylish, but there's no denying that Robert Warzycha can coach a team on shape and defense. This is best exhibited in results like the 1-0 defeat last year in Columbus and don't be too shocked if that is the final score going either way. On the positive side, the same can be said of Sporting KC's defense so the result may be in their favor.
The Crew As A Forgotten Unit
There is some kinship between Columbus and Kansas City, as both teams are located in odd places that probably wouldn't have a soccer team without Lamar and Clark Hunt's involvement in MLS. Whereas Sporting KC is kind of a darling with their crown jewel of a stadium, Columbus now is somewhat forgotten despite starting that trend building Crew Stadium in 1999. When I think of Crew Stadium, I think of February qualifiers against Mexico and not much of the team inside, so maybe you do as well.
First off, Chad Marshall still plays there. It feels as if he has been in Columbus forever, but he is just 27 and got there in 2004. They sport their own miniature SKC in Emilio Renteria who has scored twice on 36 shots, only ten of which have been on target. Their keeper is Overland Park native Andy Gruenebaum, just ask Will Hesmer how well he's been playing. Gruenebaum has been arguably the MLS Keeper of the Year. The team plays a shape similar to Sporting's but their wingers drop deeper, and Milovan Mirosevic plays more of a traditional number ten role.
Less Shots, More Quality
We saw it a bit against Philadephia on Wednesday but Sporting KC needs to take better shots. When they control the game's flow and possession, they then need to spend far more time probing with passes than testing the goalkeeper. Like I said, Grunebaum has been fantastic, and it would do them a favor to try beating his defense rather than him. It may not be easy given the veteran and well-trained lineup, but it would be better than the 1-0 loss suffered against Chicago with 27 shots on target.
I really don't know where to go with this. Expect to see Jacob Peterson and Teal Bunbury at some point, either as starters in place of Convey and Sapong. I expect they'll want to get Convey on the field whether he's starting or not. Also, the game notes say Nagamura is expected to start in midfield, but that may just be a lack of adjustment from Wednesday, as Julio Cesar isn't hurt and doesn't play US Open Cup games.
Sporting 1-Columbus 0
Healthy and riding high, this team should beat the Columbus Crew tonight. The possibility of this being a listless 0-0 draw also exists, but neither team is going to come out and pummel the other. Low-scoring either way.