Fresh off their second road win of the season – and first since beating Inter Miami on March 25 – the Fire continue their road trip out west, this time facing Sporting Kansas City.
A glance at the standings suggests that this is one of those forgettable midseason matchups between two teams that won’t do anything significant this year, but that belies the truth: Sporting KC have started a charging run towards a playoff spot and the Fire’s season is far from over, particularly now that they can focus on playing one tournament rather than spreading a roster between two.
Both teams are hoping that the second half of the season brings more joy than the first, and a win for either side will put the club firmly in the thick of playoff contention.
All time: 27W-12D-20L, 93 GF/72 GA, 93 pts out of 177
Last Match: March 19, 2022: Fire 3-1 Sporting Kansas City at Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
Sporting Kansas City
Record: 5W-6D-9L (21 pts)
After a disastrous start to their season, where the team got only three points and remained winless throughout their first ten games, Sporting KC have begun to climb their way back to relevance. They have slipped a bit of late, though, going two games without a win for only the second time since the start of May, losing to Los Angeles 2-1 at home on June 17 before playing the LA Galaxy to a 2-2 draw midweek.
Record: 4W-8D-5L (20 pts)
The Fire headed to Portland to face a team they had never bettered at home or away, rolled out a lineup that was missing key players like Xherdan Shaqiri, Miguel Ángel Navarro, and Carlos Terán, while leaving the recuperating Maren Haile-Selassie and 38-year-old striker Kei Kamara on the bench, and walked away with a 2-1 victory – only their second ever in Cascadia. The match was the first for the Fire in 11 days and opened the books on the second half of the team’s season.
When we said the Fire could make a push for the playoffs, here’s part of why it wasn’t crazy: Sporting Kansas City was winless for their opening ten games, losing seven of them, giving the team just three points roughly a third of the way through the season.
Those abysmal results, coming on the heels of a season in which the club didn’t make the playoffs, even started the discussion that Peter Vermes, Sporting Director of Sporting Kansas City since 2009 and head coach since 2012, might be relieved of his duties, despite having just been signed to a five-year extension before the start of the season.
Then they managed a stretch of decent – not perfect, but decent – play – and are just one point out of a playoff spot, and those discussions have (mostly) subsided as the team has climbed in the standings.
The Fire, meanwhile, are very much back in the hunt for a playoff spot, now in 11th place in the Eastern Conference and three points behind current 9th-place team D.C. United (tie breakers will keep the Fire in 11th place at best, regardless of the result of this match, though the Fire hold a game in hand against both opponents above them).
Still, the margins for both clubs are tight and getting tighter, and every match matters for both clubs. That’s true both in the standings as well as psychologically for both players and supporters, and both Vermes and Fire Head Coach Frank Klopas will send their squads out looking for victory – though it’s far from do-or-die time for either side, a draw and the single point that comes with it will be of little succor to either team, either mentally or in their desire to secure a postseason spot.
The Fire have had precious few winning streaks over the past few seasons, but they’ve won back-to-back road games (albeit with a home draw in between) last year, starting in Cascadia as the team beat the Vancouver Whitecaps before notching a victory in Charlotte. The team also has a perfect record against Western Conference opponents, with three of the team’s four victories coming against occidental opponents in the form of Portland, St. Louis, and Minnesota. With just two games against opponents from out west following this match, any kind of result will guarantee the team has a winning record against teams from the other conference.
Of note: Frank Klopas’s first MLS club was Kansas City – then known as the Wizards – before he joined the Fire for their inaugural season, and he was teammates with Peter Vermes with the U.S. Men’s National Team, including at the 1988 Olympics.
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
Out: Willy Agada, Cam Duke, Kortne Ford, Tim Melia, Logan Ndenbe, Graham Zusi
Questionable: Kayden Pierre
Suspended: Daniel Rosero
Peter Vermes has long sent his team on the pitch in a 4-3-3 formation, and he’s shown little willingness to deviate, regardless of whether his team was winning or not.
The other thing that’s been consistent: His teams press. They press high, and they press frequently. Despite the poor start to their season, Sporting KC leads the league in carries in the final third of the pitch with 318 and touches in the attacking third with 3,323, according to FBRef.
One of the results of the high press is that legs get worn down, and injuries are more likely. Vermes has spoken out about this – blaming the team’s 2021 exit partly on the wear-and-tear that his preferred style of play puts on the squad, and said that he’d ease up a bit – and then it seems that he’s just doubled down.
As it stands, Scottish winger Johnny Russell, one of the faces of the franchise, has been working his way back to full health and is, therefore, more likely to come off the bench than start, and Sporting KC’s list of players in the infirmary is lengthy, including normal starting GK Tim Melia and former U.S. international Graham Zusi.
While it might not be fair to place the blame for injuries on the Technical Director or Coach – though in Kansas City’s case, that’s one man in Peter Vermes – it’s been a consistent issue for two seasons now and is partly a result of the tactics the team plays and the squad composition, with a number of key players now comfortably over the age of 30.
It’s hard to exaggerate the impact that injuries have had on the squad – the team didn’t manage a single win before DP striker #9 Alan Pulido returned from injury but have gone 5-3-2 since.
Out: Javier Casas Jr., Chris Mueller,
Questionable: Carlos Terán
We implored Frank Klopas to revert to a back four, and we weren’t alone in doing so. We said a 4-2-3-1 wasn’t perfect, but it would give the team the structure it needed and suited the players available in the mid-week game.
So, on Wednesday, the team played out of a 4-2-3-1, scored a goal early and late, conceded just once in between, and ended up with a 2-1 victory.
Problem solved, and back to the familiar shape? Not by a long shot. Based on absolutely no inside information, the team is likely to change things up against the high-pressing Sporting KC side, and the team is likely to revert to a kind of 3-2-2-1, 5-2-2-1 formation – and yet, despite pleas to the contrary, that could be just what the team needs to walk away from Kansas City with a result.
What changed? First, #4 Carlos Terán is working his way back from injury and will likely be available on Saturday. Will Klopas feel confident enough in his recovery to start him? One could only hope so. Assuming Terán is able to pick up where he left off, his size, speed, and defensive prowess make playing out of a back three a much more alluring proposition.
Assuming that #22 Mauricio Pineda – who never found his way to Ezra Hendrickson’s good graces after being a regular starter under Raphael Wicky – again gets the nod, that gives the team three competent backs, all of whom have slightly different profiles and skillsets. Though Pineda is defensively astute, he’s also a capable playmaker, and if he – or another Fire defender – win the ball back and it lands at his feet, he’s capable of jumpstarting the attack. The captain, #5 Rafael Czichos, will likely be in the middle coordinating the defense – and ensuring that Alan Pulido doesn’t have an easy time continuing his run of good form.
Second, #17 Brian Gutiérrez played well in the #10 central attacking midfielder role in Portland and assisted on both Fire goals, so keeping him in that kind of a role makes sense, but #10 Xherdan Shaqiri is back from international duty, having played a full 90 minutes for Switzerland Monday, and should be available to start, so reverting them to dual #10s makes sense. Both are capable playmakers with different profiles, and they’ll likely be trying to get the ball to #23 Kei Kamara, who was kept off the starting XI on Wednesday so he’d have fresh legs for Kansas City.
The trick to making the formation work will be for the wingbacks – probably #6 Miguel Ángel Navarro, back from suspension and having joined (but not played for) the Venezuelan national team over the break – to have attention to detail, knowing when to get up the field to help give the team a numerical advantage on offense and when to get back to counter Kansas City’s attack, which is increasingly dangerous, especially on defense.
It can mean a lot of running – well, Navarro is rested, and the team has options off the bench to relieve Souquet, including Jonathan Dean and Alonso Aceves, who has been showing flashes of why he was brought to the Fire, even if there are still notable rough patches to his game. Fabian Herbers – the opening goal scorer on Wednesday – is a good, more offensive-minded option off the bench, and Jairo Torres and Georgios Koutsias both have shown flashes of strong play, even if they might not merit actual starting minutes.
Fire Keys to Victory
- Shaq Attack: There are a few different ways to beat a team that plays a high press, but one of them is dead simple if you’re playing a game of FIFA: Shoot the ball from distance and get it in the net. It’s something that Shaqiri has almost made a career out of, and yet it’s not something that we’ve seen much of in a Fire uniform. Well, apparently, June is MLS’s unofficial “goals from distance” month and this would be a fantastic time for Shaqiri to make a highlight-reel caliber goal for the team.
- We’ve got wiiiings: The key to making the formation work – and breaking down the not-quite-but-kind-of energy drink high press of Sporting Kansas City is the play of the wingbacks. They’ll need to be ready to put significant mileage on their boots, giving the team numbers on both offense and defense. They need to be switched on and ready to run, and that likely means telling the players that they should go for it, and can get subbed off if need be later.
- Fewer touches, more shots: The Fire spent a lot of time trying to find the perfect pass or play on Wednesday, and it often resulted in the ball ending up at a Timbers player’s feet before having a serious look at their net. That’s one of the reasons the Fire are 28th in the league in shots for, behind only Inter Miami, and dead last on shots on target, and yet, they’re tied for seventh for goals per shot, and second in the league in goals per shot on target. The message: The team doesn’t shoot enough, and especially considering Kansas City is relying on their back up goalkeeper, getting the ball on net, even to create a second chance, is simply something the team needs to do more of.
This will be difficult but ultimately the Fire should ride the high of the win midweek and if they stick with the 4-2-3-1 with Guti through the middle, they should find a way to win.
Prediction: Kansas City 1-2 Fire
“But the Action Hero swears he feels just fine/He’s got to finish saving the world for all mankind” Sporks is on a tear, the Fire just barely made it past a trashy Portland side. Sure, I “believed” for Wednesday, but we got the one win we needed for morale and now it’s time for everyone to come back down.
Prediction: Sporks 3-1 Fire
It’s been a while since the Fire have had a 3-3 draw and if they were to earn another one, SKC is the team to do it against considering both teams are comedically inconsistent.
Prediction: Kansas City 3-3 Fire
Kansas City have been figuring things out but it feels like the Fire, slowly but surely, have as well. This is just Klopas’s second match when he’s been able to prepare his squad without worrying about other competitions, as the team had just a handful of days between their Open Cup loss to when they faced Columbus before the break.
Prediction: Kansas City 2-3 Fire
Prediction: Kansas City 1-4 Fire
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Saturday, June 24, 7:30 PM CT
Location: Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas City, Kan.
Forecast: 92’F expected at kick off, with 50% humidity, winds SW at 11mph, 13% cloud cover and 6% chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – Free
Radio: wlsam.com (English), TUDN 1200 AM (Spanish)