When? Friday April 23, 4 p.m. PT, 7 p.m. ET & 12:00 a.m. BST (24/4). Where? Children's Mercy Park, Kansas City, MO. How can I catch the action? Fox Sports 1, Fox Deported and TSN5 for residents of the United States. FreeSports (FreeView channel 64, and via the FreeSports app) for us UK folk. The game is also available via radio, locally on FM 96.9 The Game, Accion 97.9 FM and 810 AM.
The games are coming thick and fast as the MLS and NWSL seasons kick into gear, and I couldn't be more excited. With all of the drama of the European Super League currently dictating the course of soccer conversation, it's nice to be able to look ahead to an actual game. And this match-up is going to be a real test for this squad. Last season's Western Conference champions are no mugs. With the quality of the likes of Alan Pulido, Jonny Russell and Gianluca Busio in their ranks, this is going to be a huge test.
Orlando can certainly take heart from last season's victory in Missouri, but there's no doubt that they will have to be at the top of their game to come away from Children's Mercy Park with the spoils this time around.
So, let's get straight into it.
SKC are a top quality side; and one that are looking to build on their impressive showing in 2020. Peter Vermes' side finished third in the Supporters Shield standings, having won the Western Conference title. They scored 38 goals across their 21 games. They're certainly a formidable opponent, but they're definitely not invulnerable on their own patch. With a 5-1-3 home record in 2020, they've not exactly been impervious at home.
Their midfield is a major potential chink in their armour. During their win over the Red Bulls none of their 3 midfielders posted a higher than 73.5% passing accuracy rate (Remi Walter, 49 passes, figure 1). Gadi Kinda (63.6% of 33 passes) and Roger Espinoza (66.7% of 54 passes) were considerably more wasteful in possession than Walter at Red Bull Arena. And with the energy of Junior Urso and Sebas Mendez in midfield, you'd back them to be able to recover the ball in the midfield area.
Against Atlanta, Urso won 3 tackles and 2 interceptions. Mendez, meanwhile, won 2 tackles and completed 1 clearance. With their ability to press, win the ball and utilise it effectively; against a mistake prone midfield unit, you have to back the Lions' midfield. On Saturday, Mendez made an impressive 92.9% of his 42 passes stick, whilst Urso made 81.5% of his 27 attempts find their man. Both sets of statistics are in stark contrast to their SKC counterparts. SKC's relative profligacy in midfield could be something for Orlando to exploit.
Figure 1 shows the possession statistics for SKC's midfield triumvirate of Walter, Espinoza and Kinda.
The real danger with this team comes in the forward areas. Against the Red Bulls Dániel Sallói, Gianluca Busio and Khiry Shelton lined up. There were also a number of great attacking options on their bench, with the likes of Alan Pulido and Jonny Russell amongst the substitutes. My personal view, is that Alan Pulido will come in; he's too good to leave on the bench for a second game in a row. Just a hunch. You'll see from the heatmap in figure 2, that their forwards often pull into wide areas in an attempt to stretch the backline and create space to exploit. This is something we can see perfectly, for their winning goal in New Jersey:
Figure 2 shows the heatmap for SKC's front 3 against the Red Bulls. Note how much time they spend in wide areas.
The pace and ability they possess in their forward line, means that Orlando will have to maintain a well organised set-up to keep them at bay.
Unfortunately, it is rough news for both of these teams on the availability front.
SKC are currently without Kendall McKintosh, Tim Meliá, Brooks Thompson, Madou Dia and Graham Zusi. For that reason, I can see this team naming a fairly settled line-up. But more on that shortly.
As for Orlando City João Moutinho is still out. There are still doubts over the fitness of Robin Jansson and Uri Rosell. Alexandre Pato was injured in the draw against Atlanta. He was seen to by the club doctor, however the club hasn't put a timescale on his return just yet. Thankfully, however, he will not need surgery. Nani went down in the game, also. He was able to continue for a while but was then substituted as a precautionary measure. We'll wait to see if anything comes out of that.
Possible starting XI
As I alluded to previously, I can see this being a largely unchanged line-up. Peter Vermes already has considerable injury concerns to contend with, so his team are already a little stretched. I can see Alan Pulido coming in for Khiry Shelton, who was largely anonymous at the weekend.
I anticipate them to utilise a 4-3-3 that can transition into a diamond at times, with Gianluca Busio almost operating as a false 9, which allows Pulido to take up a central position and Sallói to pull wide. It's an effective system, that's served them well over recent years.
The fact that Pulido had to make do with a substitutes' role last time out, speaks volumes to the strength of this roster. The 30-year-old Mexican international is a quality player, and his record speaks for itself. His 6 goals and 5 assists in 11 starts (1 substitute appearance) made him a popular figure for this club. Injuries hampered his progress towards the end of 2020; the former Guadalajara man had significant muscle problems in September. With 34 goals in 97 games for his former employers, it's not difficult to see why SKC's ownership was so eager to get him in. The creative front man also has 10 international caps, and has scored 3 goals for El Tri. Quality player.
Sporting Kansas City got their season off to a flier, with an impressive come-back win over the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull arena. After Caden Clark had given the home side the lead, SKC sparked a comeback with Gadi Kinda firing them level from the spot. They took the lead 2 minutes later courtesy of a
Dániel Sallói strike. SKC ultimately took the game 2-1.
Orlando, meanwhile, go into this game off of the back of an entertaining 0-0 draw against Atlanta United. Oscar Pareja's team will be eager to pick up their first win of the season, in what promises to be a fascinating encounter.
*Statistics courtesy of whoscored.com
Line-up graphic courtesy of chosen11.com