NBCSN’s Major League Soccer coverage this weekend features last season’s MLS Cup champion Sporting Kansas City hosting Columbus Crew on Sunday at 3 pm CT. MLS Correspondent Anders Aarhus (@SportsViking) takes a look at the game. Sunday’s match is the first of the season between the Eastern Conference’s top two teams, first-place Columbus and second-place Sporting Kansas City. Sporting, led by U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder Graham Zusi and defender Matt Besler, have beaten Columbus in their last 3 regular season matches.
The bulk of MLS action this weekend happens on Saturday, but Sunday offers the best game of the round when the Columbus Crew travels to take on Sporting Kansas City in a top of the table clash. Sporting has been considered a contender for this year’s MLS Cup from the outset, but it’s fair to say few people, if any at all, expected Columbus to be first in the Eastern Conference come May. Former Galaxy defender Gregg Berhalter stepped into the head-coaching role and installed an attack-minded and possession-oriented style that has the Crew off to a 3-1-3 start. Berhalter has shown he’s not afraid to play aggressively away from home and Peter Vermes’ team is used to controlling play at Sporting Park. We’re headed for a very entertaining game.
Which Team Wins the Flank Battle
I’ve written before about the way Sporting likes to get its fullbacks involved and attack down the flanks. Columbus generates more of its offense through the middle with Federico Higuain, but Berhalter also pushes his fullbacks extremely high in possession. It creates overloads and problems for defenses, but leaves Columbus extremely vulnerable on the counter as we saw on Fabian Espindola’s goal for DC United last week.
Columbus turns the ball over in midfield, right back Josh Williams is caught so far up the field he never makes it back into the picture and Espindola runs into acres of space for an easy chance. With the smart runs Dom Dwyer makes and the high line Columbus plays, Sporting will have chances like that to hit on the break.
Can Sporting Capitalize on Midfield Turnovers
Higuain had some interesting comments Thursday about adapting to Berhalter’s system. “The system that’s put out there is very difficult to actually play,” he told mlssoccer.com. “It takes time.” Columbus plays some of the best soccer in the league this year, but has issues with getting caught in possession. Going back to the Espindola goal from last week, the Crew tries to play out of the back, but Higuain’s poor touch puts DC on the counter against a scrambling defense. With the way Sporting pressures and forces mistakes, it’s a good bet they’ll generate midfield turnovers. Combine that with the defensive issues mentioned in point one and Columbus could be looking at a long game.
Who is Columbus’ Center Forward
Despite the defensive issues, Berhalter’s attacking style has produced entertaining soccer and a start that’s good enough to put the Crew atop the Eastern Conference. Columbus is averaging a healthy 13.1 shots per game and 57.4 percent possession, the highest in the league, according to whoscored.com. The issue has been converting that dominance into goals. Columbus has just 10 goals through seven games and only five of those have come from open play. Higuain has been terrific with four goals, two assists and an average of three key passes a game, but right now there’s no one consistently finishing off the chances he’s helping generate. Jairo Arrieta has two goals on the season and seems the logical choice to be Columbus’ main goal threat, but he’s struggled for playing time and there’ve been glaring misses when he has seen the field. Berhalter could also start the speedy-but -inconsistent Dominic Oduro to try and get behind Kansas City’s high line. Berhalter has shown in every game this year he’s not afraid to attack and that means Columbus will always create chances. The question is will someone finish one.
Games This Weekend
Saturday 12:00 – Toronto vs New England – Univision Deportes
Saturday 14:00 – FC Dallas vs. NY Red Bulls – UniMas
Saturday 19:30 – Real Salt Lake at Fire (stream) – MLS Live
Saturday 20:00 – Sounders FC host Philadelphia – MLS Free Live Stream
Sunday 14:00 – FC Dallas vs New York Red Bulls – UniMas
Sunday 15:00 – Sporting Kansas City vs Columbus Crew – NBC Sports