Sporting Kansas City head to the Pacific Northwest on Sunday to take on the Western Conference leaders Seattle Sounders FC. Of course, we all remember how the last meeting between these two sides went, with Jordan Morris dropping four goals on SKC at home.
With Sporting still in search of their first win of the 2023 season, I spoke with Dave Clark of Sounder at Heart to get an idea of what to expect from Seattle.
Jimmy: Seattle sit atop the Western Conference standings despite having dealt with a number of injuries throughout the first 10 games. How has Schmetzer been able to find continued success despite missing key pieces off and on?
Dave: Unlike last year’s injury plagued second half of the season, the injuries up until Kelyn Rowe’s knee, were spread around the field. This meant playing second string rather than third, fourth or fifth string guy like last year. But the biggest thing is having two MVP finalists fully operational.
Good news for Sporting fans! João Paulo is suspended.
Overall, there’s just more depth. Much of that is due to the youth. There’s enough quality depth in central midfield that the Sounders loaned Danny Leyva to Colorado for the year. KC will see young Obed Vargas in the middle. He’ll probably be the more defensive of the center mids with Albert Rusnak also starting in the middle.
The biggest tactical tweak is that Nouhou works as a LCB when Seattle is in possession and a LB in defense. That enables the right back to bomb forward like a wingback and at least one defensive mid to join the charge. Nouhou is out, but if youngsters Cody Baker or Reed Baker-Whiting start in Nouhou’s place expect them to do what he does, just not as good.
Jimmy: Jordan Morris feasted against Sporting KC for four goals in the first matchup between these two teams this year, accounting for half of his goal total on the season. Have other teams found ways to slow him down, and if so, how?
Dave: The easiest way to limit Jordan Morris’s effective ness in 2023 is to start him as a right winger. Which isn’t something that other teams are doing, but what the Sounders have done because they’ve been without a few too many guys. In order to maximize the amount of talent on the pitch there’s been a lot of movement that reduces individual effectiveness. That’s inevitable on MLS teams with only 11-18 capable starters.
If I was designing a defense to tactically limit Jordan I would try to funnel him into zones where he is swarmed or force him to be a crossing winger outside, even backing off him and allowing that space. This year he isn’t slanging crosses that well, so accept that path and grant him none other.
Jimmy: Seattle are once again dealing with injuries and suspensions heading into this game with, Cristian Roldan, Raul Ruidiaz, and Kelyn Rowe all set to miss the game due to injury and Joao Paulo suspended. Outside of Morris, who is the Sounders player to keep an eye on this game?
Dave: Nicolás Lodeiro is having a resurgence. He no longer attempts to cover every square foot of the pitch or have 100+ touches a game. Now that he’s soccer-old Nico isn’t drifting horizontally as much as he did when he helped the Sounders to winning all those trophies.
He’s much more efficient now. Capable of being the Best XI, Lodeiro is now longer a volume passer. He’s a precision artiste who can carve through stone with clean, quick balls. It’s not often the league can watch a volume player become a low-touch star, but we’re seeing it.
He’s most potent on the left now, a difference from previous years. This gets exceptional when Morris is up top and Léo Chú is wide. That’s three dudes that know their role, know where each other are going to be and offer the spice, the acid and the salt to make a nice meal.
Dave also asked three questions regarding Sporting KC. Here’s how I responded:
Dave: Is this a must-win game for Peter Vermes?
Jimmy: It probably depends on who you ask and what your definition of “must-win” is, but if you’re asking me if I think Peter Vermes will be fired if Sporting KC loses to the Sounders on Sunday my answer would be an emphatic “no.” There has been radio silence from SKC ownership and the President of the club Jake Reid about Peter Vermes’ job since he was signed to a five-year extension through the 2028 season this past February. At the time, there was a contingent of Sporting KC fans who questioned the wisdom of the timing of that extension given the way 2022 went, but even those people didn’t expect Sporting to be on the verge of the worst start in MLS history after 10 games.
Having said that, ownership has not given any indication that Vermes is actually in danger of losing his job. Most of the “Vermes Out” commentary is from understandably frustrated SKC fans. On Thursday night, the KC Cauldron supporters group published their first official comment on the state of the club. At the time of this answer, neither the club nor SKC ownership have responded in any sort of capacity.
If there were a “must win” game for Peter Vermes’ job security, it would have been last week at home against a struggling and injured Montreal team that defeated SKC 2-0, leading SKC captain Johnny Russell to say, “I genuinely don’t know how to fix it.” If that game didn’t result in technical staff changes, I highly doubt a road loss to the first-place team in the Western Conference will.
One game I would keep an eye on as a potential “must win” depending on how the next few weeks go? May 20 at CITY Park against St. Louis CITY SC. If SKC gets shellacked in the first meeting with what was supposed to be the “little brother” club, the heat may ramp up a bit.
Dave: Seattle will probably have a third tier left back. How can Johnny Russell make me sad on Sunday?
Jimmy: Sporting KC’s biggest offensive problem this year has been their inability to get quality shots inside the box. SKC have the sixth most shots in the league at 137; however, those have only led to a 27th ranked 8.40 xG per American Soccer Analysis, and a league worst three goals scored. Now that Johnny Russell, Alan Pulido, and Gadi Kinda have all returned from injury, missing key starters isn’t really an excuse anymore.
So far this year Johnny Russell has struggled to use his pace to get past left backs to create chances either at the end line or near the six-yard box. He’s also been frustrated by teams double-teaming him with a LB and CB when he has the ball on the wing. He’s also been a tad slow and indecisive when making decisions, something that has plagued much of the SKC attack.
If Johnny is able to use his pace to take advantage of one-on-one situations, he may be able to create open lanes to pass the ball back into the box to a trailing midfielder or to even create a shot for himself. If he’s double teamed, he’ll need to be decisive with cycling the ball back to either Gadi Kinda or Erik Thommy at the No. 10 spot to attack up the middle or an overlapping Graham Zusi (if he’s able to return from injury).
Dave: What will be done differently to contain Léo Chú and Jordan Morris?
Jimmy: The honest answer? Probably not much tactically, which may scare SKC fans. The two biggest differences will be:
- Ben Sweat was cut after the first Seattle game, so he can’t earn two yellow cards in a span of 10 minutes, and
- Sporting KC has a new starting CB since Morris scored his quad against SKC back in March. Dany Rosero joined Sporting KC from Colombian side Atlético Junior. The 29-year-old has been inconsistent in his five starts for Sporting, at times looking like the best central defender the club has had since the Besler/Opara pairing of old, and other times looking a bit too erratic and undisciplined.
The advantage Rosero will bring to SKC in this matchup compared to the first game is he’s much quicker and more athletic than Andreu Fontas who was primarily responsible for marking Morris in the first game. Sporting doesn’t typically do man marking, but I would expect Rosero to be sticking near Morris if he’s anywhere near the goal this time around.
How will Sporting KC handle Léo Chú? That’s a bit more uncertain. Graham Zusi has missed a few games with an injury, leaving 21-year-old midfielder Jake Davis to fill in at the RB spot. While Davis performed admirably against NPSL side Tulsa Athletic, it was a bit more of a struggle against CF Montreal. Zusi has returned to “full training” as of this week, so it’s likely we see Zusi back in the starting XI. The 36-year-old likes to push up in the attack (a hallmark of Vermes’ 4-3-3 system), but he may hang back a bit more to avoid getting beat in the same way he was by Chú in the first match. If Sporting can somehow strike first this will be a bit easier, but if they find themselves down early and Zusi is forced to press in the attack looking for an equalizer, Seattle may be able to take advantage of that left side similar to how they did in the first game.