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MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on Sporting Kansas City ahead of Saturday’s match at New England

Nov 2, 2013, 5:01 PM EST

Oriol Rosell

Ahead of Saturdays’ first-leg of this conference semifinal series, here are the must-knows about Sporting Kansas City (Tonight’s match kicks off at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN):

  • Benny Feilhaber or Paulo Nagamura … or neither?

The big choice for Sporting manager Peter Vermes isn’t just about his midfield personnel options – it’s more about how he wants to approach this first leg, the away leg for his team. And that will dictate his most pressing midfield personnel decision.

If the visitors want to defend-and-counter, Vermes could go with veteran Paulo Nagamura, who is back to full training. (Vermes says a second-leg appearance is more likely; but who could put a little lineup gamesmanship past any MLS manager?) Nagamura, a tough tackler who isn’t afraid of taking a few fouls, will make things even harder on New England, a team that tilts more toward the technical and less toward the tenacious as it is.

If Vermes senses any defensive vulnerability and the chance to really seize control of this series before it heads back to the Midwest, he might insert Benny Feilhaber into the starting lineup. Feilhaber adds more sophistication to the SKC’s passing, especially as it concerns finding chief playmaker Graham Zusi faster, and in better spots.

Of course, the manager could also just leave things be: that’s having Oriol Rosell (pictured) and Lawrence Olum line up as dual holding mids, with Zusi playing ahead of them in the central midfield arrangement. That’s how the team lined up last week in a 1-0 win at Philadelphia, a match where Sporting needed to retain Supporters Shield hopes.

Zusi has been asked to man central roles at time this year and flank roles at other times, which is where he plays for the national team.

(MORE: Previewing Sporting KC at New England)

  • Contrast in styles

New England just doesn’t really do flank play.

Well, they do … kind of. The preferred route (with its 4-1-4-1 formation) is always through the middle, on the ground. They’ll work through target play and combination play, often involving the quick feet of Lee Nguyen or Diego Fagundez. The Revs had the fewest crosses from the wings of an MLS side this year.

Sporting Kansas City, meanwhile, scores goals with a balance of flank play and counter attacking through selectively applied high pressure. Vermes’ team, always in a 4-3-3, isn’t the hell-bent constant high-pressure beast of the last two years, but they do understand when to press as a unit – and it can be devastating to the opponent who is careless with the ball in midfield.

  • Dom Dwyer’s recent rise … and what of Claudio Bieler?

Hard to say why the club’s Argentine Designated Player, who started so well but faded through the summer, isn’t playing lately. Is it a groin strain … or is the guy just not in the manager’s good graces right now.

Either way, he has been left to languish recently, stuck to the bench – and providing young striker Dom Dwyer the chance he needed to rise.

The team certainly gets more pressure and pursuit from Dwyer, perhaps less skillful and less instinctive about finding the ball inside the penalty area – but easily the more active in terms of trying to immediately regain the ball in the first third of the field.

Dwyer’s year has certainly been memorable. The second year forward went on loan to Orlando City, where he helped lead the Lions to their second USL PRO title in three years. Then, back in place at Sporting Park, Dwyer has done good things lately, including a huge game-winning goal at D.C. United late in the year as SKC pressed for Supporters Shield.

  • Jimmy Nielsen, still dominating MLS stats

No MLS goalkeeper has dominated statistically over the last three years the way KC’s Jimmy Nielsen has.

Obviously, a lot of this is about a tremendous defense in front of him. Still, we love stats in this country. Plus, the guy is good.

Nielsen matched New York’s Luis Robles in league wins (17) and finished second in the league in goals-against average (0.88) and shutouts (13).

His 546-minute shutout streak early in the year held up all season, easily the longest of anyone in the league through the entire campaign.

As mentioned, this is absolutely nothing new for the Dane, nicknamed the “White Puma.”  Nielsen was named 2012 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and was named a Best XI selection after finishing second in goals against average with one of the best numbers in league history (0.79).

Nielsen, in his fourth year with the club, has already set a number of club records.

(MORE: Notes on New England ahead of Saturday’s match)

(MORE: ProSoccerTalk’s MLS post-season picks and predictions)

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