Sporting Kansas City and St. Louis City SC have shown the makings of a strong rivalry in the latter’s first year in Major League Soccer. While the crowds have been wild, the games have been fierce and show hopes of a strong rivalry to come, they haven’t always been close.
St. Louis have looked the far better side in their two wins and were dangerously competitive in their one loss. But we’ve talked about that all already. Go check out our Game One match preview for more information in that vein.
Instead, lets focus on what needs to change for Sporting Kansas City to be successful against St. Louis. First, let me state an often used cliche.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
While Sporting KC haven’t rolled out identical lineups against St. Louis, they tried to play their brand of soccer against them. SKC want to possess the ball and make the other team chase until it opens up opportunities to attack. St. Louis want to counter-press the hell out of you until you make a mistake they can capitalize on. If that fails to happen, they are hoping to simply wear you down.
In the two games St. Louis won, their tactics were on full display. In the first meeting, they stole the ball (by fouling?) to create their first two goals. Then the game got stretched as Sporting KC tried to claw back and it just opened them up for more counters.
In the second STL win, they tried the same thing, but Sporting KC were well rested. It remained a cagey 0-0 draw until the wheels came off in the 73rd minute for Kansas City.
It’s not like Sporting KC’s style is useless. They’ve beaten plenty of teams with it, particularly over the last two-thirds of the season, including St. Louis.
However, this meeting feels much more like the first meeting between these teams. In that game St. Louis won 4-0. Sporting KC entered that game on short rest having gone on the road to, then league leading LAFC, and earned a 1-1 draw. Eventual MLS Golden Boot winner Denis Bouanga said that Sporting KC, who were just 2-7-4 at the time, were the best team they had played in the league.
St Louis on the other hand, were well rested, having not played in the midweek. They crushed an eventually exhausted Kansas City team. That parallels what has happened this week. Sporting KC won on Decision Day to make the playoffs and then had to play midweek in the Wild Card game to advance to the playoffs first round. Now they’ll play a rested STL team while they are banged up and tired. And St. Louis deserves that advantage. They finished first and earned it.
How to Win this Series
Don’t get me wrong, the odds are stacked against Kansas City. St. Louis has had their number. Sporting KC have a rough looking injury report while St. Louis are nearing perfect health. STL are the home team in two out of a potential three games in the series. And St. Louis are rested, having played just twice this month.
But lean into that. Don’t run out the same 11 guys that started on Saturday and Wednesday. Instead, use all the tracker data to determine which players are overworked, and use common sense. Rest some guys and give a handful of backups the chance to shine.
And don’t just change the lineup, change your tactics. St. Louis want KC to have the ball. They want to press to win it back and counterattack. Instead, play against the ball. Force St. Louis to try to string together attacks and break down an organized defense. Then when you win the ball, it doesn’t have to happen every time, but go long. Let speedsters like Willy Agada and (forgive me in advance SKC faithful) Khiry Shelton use their speed and physicality to their advantage.
I’m not saying you can never possess the ball and do what you do but throw St. Louis a curveball. They profess to love baseball, but maybe it’ll catch them off guard. It’s a three-game series, plan ahead. Don’t run your starters into the ground for their third game in nine days and risk exacerbating injuries that derail the whole series.
Instead, maybe play a little ugly and pragmatic. If the “backups” can keep the game close, you can bring on those starters around the 60th or 70th minute and try to claw back a goal or go for the win. If it ends up tied, it goes straight to penalty kicks and that’s probably not the worst thing in the world.
Timothy F. Melia
what we see vs. what they see pic.twitter.com/DP9UzifWdk
— Sam Kovzan (@skovzan) October 26, 2023
Let’s get to the injury report and some specifics.
Sporting KC Injury/Availability Updates
OUT – Kortne Ford (Achilles surgery), Kayden Pierre (hamstring)
QUESTIONABLE – Johnny Russell (groin), Alan Pulido (foot), Jake Davis (knee sprain), Erik Thommy (calf injury), Tim Leibold (groin)
#SportingKC Injury/Availability Report
QUESTIONABLE – Leibold (groin), Davis (knee), Thommy (calf), Pulido (foot), Russell (groin)
OUT – Ford (Achilles), Pierre (hamstring)
One change. Leibold upgraded to questionable. #STLvSKC
— Chad Smith (@PlayFor90) October 27, 2023
There is just one change on this injury report. Tim Leibold, who hasn’t played since a cameo six weeks ago, is upgraded to questionable. He’s the less defensive of the left backs on this roster. It would have been nice to have him healthy to play one of these other games so Ndenbe could be fresh for Sunday.
Everyone else, who have started despite their injuries, remain questionable.
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Starting XI Predictions
These are more loose ideas than who I actually want to start. Peter Vermes, his staff and his players know who are truly beat up and are at greatest risk of injury. St. Louis play physical, and refs tend to let things go a bit in the playoffs. Put out some guys who can match that physicality and who are fresh.
The “Injured” Guys
I put injured in quotes, not because I don’t believe they are hurt, but because some of them will play through it no matter what. Let’s tackle them one by one.
- Jake Davis: Graham Zusi has been back for weeks but hasn’t gotten into a game. He was up and dressed to come on a couple times in the same game but remained on the bench. If you are playing defensive, that’s not his strong suit. He’s a creative right back. He could no doubt put in a shift and if Davis can’t go, you could do worse. I expect Davis to start though.
- Johnny Russell: Another guy who will gut things out. But if you are going to play against the ball and counter, Shelton is faster and he’s a solid crosser. Don’t shoot me, I’d start Shelton. Make him earn that pay or buy him out if he fails you again.
- Alan Pulido: Rest him. Zero doubt in my mind. He hasn’t looked right. Willy Agada is a physical monster who can hold up the ball to benefit this style and play over the top with speed. He and Khiry together actually makes a ton of sense. I’m anti-crossing the ball too much, but if Shelton and Agada are on a counter, that’s when it makes sense. When you have the defense running at their own goal.
- Erik Thommy: Rest him. He’ll run himself into the ground otherwise. Gadi Kinda doesn’t fit the play style I’m talking about, but he could start as a 10 with dual d-mids behind him. Felipe Gutierrez could start. Hell, Roger Espinoza could start, knowing he has to come off at the half or early in the second.
What About Defensive Midfielder?
Don’t kid yourself, this team has one defensive midfielder. Sure, Remi Walter has played there at times and even Espinoza closed out the San Jose Earthquakes game. But Nemanja Radoja is the key to this midfield. I don’t want to see him ran into the ground, but I’m sort of afraid there may be no other choice. I expect he’ll start if he can, but Peter Vermes said he was “dead” on Wednesday which is why Roger replaced him.
Back when the team signed Felipe Gutierrez, I threw him out as an option. He’s not as physical and is clearly smaller, but he’s a smart player. This is probably not the game to try that out, but it lingers in my mind.
How do you Rest These Guys?
Obviously, if the data and physical evidence says they can’t go, anyone is replaceable. But the defense has been at its best all season in these last couple games. The center back depth is questionable at best behind Fontas and Rosero and Leibold is an offensive left back and leaves something to be desired in defense.
Salloi is probably fine, as he seems to have iron lungs like Remi Walter. Marinos Tzionis hasn’t even made the bench the last few weeks and he’s too turnover prone. Speaking of Remi, his work rate would be a good addition to a team looking to defend. Heck, put him next to Radoja and play a double pivot. Or if Radoja can’t play, having two defensive midfielders would provide some cover for whoever is paired with Remi (Roger, Guti, etc.).
All That Being Said…
I suspect we’ll see the “best” lineup PV thinks he has available. All too often though, that lineup has been tired at the end of a three-game week and lost anyways. Then more injuries and more exhaustion play into the next game. I think the “best 11” probably lose anyways, so why not try something different?!
Take this graphic which a grain of salt and know it’s not the lineup I believe we will see.
Rest of the Lineup
- Tim Melia is the goalkeeper. Duh.
- I’ve literally talked about everyone else.
- Be ready to put in the starters if it stays close. The firepower of having Russell, Pulido and Thommy coming off the bench could change a game. Leibold too if you are chasing a goal. Hell, Pulido and Agada together? That could work!
Rest of the 20: Pulskamp, Espinoza, Pulido, Leibold, Voloder, Zusi, Russell, Thommy, Gutierrez
It seems many of you recognize the need for some sort of changes this week too.
Here is the tally of your fan vote. Starters in italics with guys at five or so percent showing up with their tallies.
Goalkeepers: Melia (100%)
Defenders: Rosero (96.5%), Ndenbe (91.2%), Davis (91.2%), Fontas (89.5%), Zusi (14.0%), Leibold/Voloder (7.0%)
Midfielders: Walter (86.0%), Radoja (73.7%), Thommy (68.4%), Kinda (38.67%), Gutierrez (17.5%), Espinoza (7.0%)
Wingers: Salloi (91.2%), Russell (82.5%), Shelton (12.3%), Tzionis (8.8%), Thommy (5.3%)
Strikers: Pulido (59.6%), Agada (35.1%)