KeyBank Scouting Report: Portland Timbers at Sporting KC
With the Portland Timbers preparing to return to action this weekend, find out everything you need to know about the next opponents – Sporting Kansas City.
A brief history…
One of the 10 charter teams to start in MLS, the club was originally known as the Kansas City Wizards before changing to Sporting Kansas City in 2010. That was part of a complete rebranding as well as the construction of the soccer-specific Sporting Park, which is now amongst the best in MLS.
Success has come on the field too with the MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield double in 2000, as well as two US Open Cup victories (2004 and 2012).
How did they fare last season?
A first-place finish in the Eastern Conference, playoff quarterfinal spot and victory in the US Open Cup was considered to be a very successful season for Peter Vermes’ team. They would have liked to go further in the playoffs, but they are a team that is still growing and are much stronger this year.
The one thing that they lacked was a prolific goalscorer, especially after losing Omar Bravo, as Kei Kamara was their top marksman with 12 goals in all competitions. However, their exciting style led to achieving big results and they attracted good crowds to their new stadium.
Who have they brought in for this season?
The big signing made by Kansas was forward Claudio Bieler – an Argentine who had been playing in Ecuador – as the club had agreed to loan Kamara out to Norwich City in the English Premier League. It has proved to be a shrewd piece of business with Bieler adapting quickly to MLS and scoring eight goals in as many games.
Vermes also made moves to bring in defender Ike Opara, the versatile Josh Gardner and midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who are all proven players in the league. They also picked up the highly-rated youngster Mikey Lopez in the MLS SuperDraft, but Roger Espinoza and Julio Cesar moved on to Wigan Athletic and Toronto FC respectively.
How have they done so far this season?
Kansas had gone five games without conceding a goal before losing 2-0 to LA Galaxy last Saturday. That defeat really stung for Vermes, especially after watching his team escape from New York in midweek with a narrow 1-0 victory over the Red Bulls. So far, their record for the season is 4-2-2, which sees them sitting top of the Eastern Conference.
Right now, Kansas are averaging 1.75 points per game, compared to 1.43 for the Timbers. The two teams are very close in a lot of their stats as they tend to dominate possession (Kansas had 54.7 per cent against LA, while Timbers had 50.7 per cent against San Jose), as well as passing (Kansas had 77 per cent accuracy against LA, while Timbers had 73 per cent against San Jose), when on top in games.
Head coach: Peter Vermes
After a long playing career, which included spells in Hungary, Netherlands and Spain as well as amassing 67 caps for the United States, Vermes turned to coaching. Well, he actually started off as technical director at Kansas before taking the coaching position on an interim and then permanent basis. He has been a breath of fresh air since with his slick style of attacking soccer and eagerness to turn Kansas into one of MLS’ elite teams.
Star Player: Graham Zusi
Arguably amongst the top three players currently in MLS, this 26-year-old Florida native has improved with each season. A classy midfielder, who covers a huge amount of ground, creates chances for his teammates and pops up with crucial goals, Zusi is an integral part of the Kansas attack. He is also now considered an important player for the United States.
One To Watch: Seth Sinovic
A very under-rated player, Sinovic can play anywhere across the backline, but is most comfortable at outside back. The former Creighton University was originally drafted by the New England Revolution, but has been with Kansas since 2011 and is now a regular at left-back. Expect him to get forward on overlapping runs and contribute to counter attacks.
What can the Timbers expect?
Kansas are a team who play very quick soccer, often moving the ball through midfield with as few touches as possible, and aim to put their opponents on the backfoot from early on. This makes them one of the most thrilling teams to watch and difficult to defend against. It is high-tempo soccer that attempts to squeeze the opposition back inside their own penalty area.
Normally set up in a 4-3-3 formation, Kansas like to dominate possession of the ball and rely on the movement of their forward players to shift into dangerous positions before executing that final pass. One midfielder, probably Oriol Rosell, sits deep to protect the defence, while the outside backs are encouraged to get forward. And cutting in from out wide is something that they are masters of, but it can be halted if their runs become predictable.
Where are they most vulnerable?
By playing on the front foot and with such an attacking style, Kansas’ backline tends to be quite high, thus leaving a lot of space behind them that a forward like Ryan Johnson could exploit, if he breaks the offside trap. They have two solid center backs in Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin, but they can be lured out of position and sometimes left with too much to do.
Kansas can be guilty of committing too many players forward in counter attacks, especially their outside backs, which means they are extremely vulnerable when the opposition counter attack. This is something that the likes of Will Johnson and Diego Valeri will be aware of and try to use to their advantage with quick passing and clever runs.
Who are their main threats?
Just like any team with ambitions to challenge for the MLS Cup, Kansas have multiple threats – strong forwards, roaming midfielders, and defenders who dominate at set-pieces. Yet, the most obvious threat is Designated Player Bieler, who has been in superb form in his debut campaign.
The movement of Bieler around the penalty area must be monitored closely by the Timbers defense, but space cannot be afforded to CJ Sapong, Zusi or Benny Feilhaber as they can all punish a team. Zusi, in particular, is the one to watch as he has been superb in recent games. Quick to move the ball through midfield, the key to stopping Kansas is by putting them under pressure and stopping them getting crosses into the penalty area.
Previous Meetings in MLS
2011: July 2 – Portland Timbers 1-2 Sporting Kansas City
2011: August 17 – Sporting Kansas City 3-1 Portland Timbers
2012: April 21 – Portland Timbers 1-0 Sporting Kansas City
Record vs Sporting Kansas City: 1-2-0
Did You Know?
Timbers favourite and Missouri native Jack Jewsbury played 195 games and scored 14 goals for Kansas after being selected in the 2003 MLS SuperDraft.
Gareth Maher is a contributing writer to PortlandTimbers.com. He is a frequent writer about soccer for the Irish Daily Mail in Dublin as well as ESPNFC.com.