MLS Playoff Preview: New England Revolution at Sporting Kansas City
- Revolution won leg one 2-1 on Saturday
- Kansas City eliminated on home ground each of the last two seasons
- First leg featured seven yellow cards
Over 180 regular season minutes, Sporting KC kept New England off the scoresheet. That’s why it was so disconcerting to see the Revolution score twice by Saturday’s 67th minute, Kelyn Rowe’s goal coming 12 minutes after Andy Dorman’s controversial opener. Granted, one of Sporting KC’s shutouts over New England (the one in Foxborough) was against a much different Revolution team - the spring version of Jay Heaps’ side that was all parry, no punch. Since, New England’s a much different team, settling on a 4-1-4-1 formation that can leverage their wealth of attacking talent. Unfortunately, they still lost 3-0 at Sporting Park in August.
But the relevance of that result to Wednesday’s second leg is questionable. The departed Kei Kamara scored the first two goals. Then New England saw two players sent off. Benny Feilhaber, who added Kansas City’s third just before the whistle, isn’t expected to play a significant part on Wednesday. With each of August’s major events unlikely to be replicated on Thursday, we might as well throw that game out the window, too.
So what are we left with? What we saw on Saturday - a chippy, often ugly affair where capitalizing on breaks defined the match. After being neutralized throughout the first half, New England got theirs with Gorman’s potentially offside goal. Rocked, Kansas City gave up a second 12 minutes later but capitalized on their own break at the end, where chaos in the penalty area left Aurelien Collin alone in front of goal. Had Kansas City done better with their first half chances, Collin’s could have been an equalizing or winning goal.
That’s easy to say in hindsight - that benevolent state that tricks you into thinking everything will go right in the next time around. But there’s a reason why Kansas City wasn’t converting on those chances. When Teal Bunbury fires an uncontested volley right at Matt Reis, it’s because he’s Teal Bunbury and not a more established scorer. When Jacob Petersen and C.J. Sapong aren’t producing goals, it’s a reminder that this wasn’t the plan. Claudio Bieler was supposed to be Sporting’s go-to guy, but that didn’t work out, either. You can’t just look back at the previous game and expect every chance you generated to come good next time. In reality, most teams don’t have sure-fire finishers up top. It’s always a game of chance.
Clearly, if Graham Zusi continues generating those types of chances on Wednesday, the odds sway in Kansas City’s favor. But those odds will balance out if New England gets more production from their midfield creators. Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe, making their first postseason appearances, are the keys to this team’s success, yet in the first half in Foxborough, they weren’t their normal selves. Some of that is on KC, but as we saw in the second half, a lot of that is on the two creators. They’ll be better on Wednesday.
Which leaves us with Kansas City’s recent history. Each of the last two years, home field went for naught, Kansas City eliminated from the postseason in front of their home fans. All the good work they did in the regular season to earn their conference’s first seed went for naught as they came up short of the MLS Cup final. Is history repeating itself?
Possibly, and when you consider the team’s personnel, style, and results, you can see why. Kansas City is habitually among the best defensive teams in Major League Soccer not only because of their great personnel (is there a better central pair than Collin and Matt Besler?) but also because of their tactics. No team is better set up (and more willing to try) to kill off a one-goal game. Sporting won took five 1-0 wins this season, winning 2-1 on five other occasions. (New England, by contrast, had three 1-0 wins and two 2-1s.)
But often (and definitely in the 1-0 results), that approach is predicated on scoring the first goal. They didn’t in this series. They didn’t in the 2011 conference final, but they did in the 2011 conference semifinal (taking a 2-0, opening leg win out of Colorado). Now, instead of being able to revert to what they do best, they’ve been forced out of their comfort zone. Sporting’s ability to adjust will dictate whether they can truly put the last two postseasons behind them.