Rookie striker C.J. Sapong has four goals and four assists for Sporting KC this season.
Greg Carroccio

Scouting Report: Sporting pushing for East crown

On June 22, Sporting Kansas City came to PPL Park as the last place team in the Eastern Conference.

Fast forward three months and Peter Vermes' side is in second place, just one point behind conference leaders Columbus and one point ahead of Philadelphia.

Friday's showdown at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park is critical for the Union, who can reclaim first place with a win. Getting a result in KC is no easy task, though. Sporting are 7-2-5 at LIVESTRONG Park since the spectacular stadium opened on June 9. 

After drawing with the Union 0-0 at PPL Park, Sporting went unbeaten for six straight weeks, claiming 15 points from the end of June through the beginning of August.

The club didn't play a single road game in August, winning three matches and losing two. Seattle and Dallas are the only teams to win in Kansas City this year.

Sporting are 1-1-1 in September, and they play three of their last five remaining games at home. The Union play four of their last six on the road.

Interchangeable parts

Kansas City have received contributions from a variety of sources this year. 12 different players have scored this season; Sporting are tied for second in MLS with 43 goals total.

The first time these teams met, Kansas City forwards Kei Kamara and Teal Bunbury were out of form and just returning to the starting XI. Vermes was experimenting frequently with his lineup and began giving more minutes to players like C.J. Sapong and Graham Zusi.

Since then, Kamara and Bunbury have really returned to form. Kamara has eight goals and Bunbury upped his total to seven. Each have three assists.

Kansas City will likely feature a three-pronged attack that could include any combination of Bunbury, Kamara, Sapong, and Designated Player Omar Bravo, who also has eight goals this year. 

Sapong and Kamara are bigger forwards, and they're more of a natural fit to play at the top of the 4-3-3 formation. Bunbury and Bravo are very good at bringing width to the attack, which is crucial for teams who want to run the 4-3-3 effectively without stranding the target forward in the final third. 

Vermes has tweaked his midfield a bit, using a a variety of players in interchanging roles.

Zusi, who has emerged as an elite midfielder in MLS, has slotted in comfortably to the right midfield spot. Roger Espinosa has functioned as both a defender and midfielder this year, and has been used on the left flank recently.

That leaves a number of options in the center of the pitch. In the club's last match, a 1-0 loss at Salt Lake, defender Julio Cesar was pushed into the midfield, with all-star Matt Besler pairing Aurelien Collin in central defense. Collin did not play in Philadelphia, and the Union saw Besler and Cesar paired together on the backline.

Vermes has also gone the other direction, using Bravo in central midfield with Zusi and Espinosa wide. It's an attack-minded lineup that allows Kansas City's top five goal scorers to be on the field at the same time.

Earlier in the season, Vermes opted at times for a midfield that included Luke Sassano and Birahim Diop in twin holding roles. The shape functioned like a 4-2-3-1, and played well defensively at the expense of scoring chances. Injuries to both Sassano and Diop mean that shape is probably not an option right now. The pair are both listed as questionable for Friday's matchup. 

Tale of the tape

Looking into the first matchup between the Union and SKC, there's not a whole lot the tape tells us.

Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen put on a clinic in front of 18,127 at PPL Park. The Danish shot-stopper was undeniably the man of the match, denying Jack McInerney at point blank range and parrying away a Carlos Ruiz free kick that looked destined for the back of the net.

The Union's best chance came in the 72nd minute, when Ruiz hit the crossbar on a header from just a few yards out.

Philadelphia controlled possession for much of the game, but couldn't find the net. The Union put seven shots on goal, while Sporting didn't manage a single strike on frame. Kansas City's best chance of the match came early, when Kei Kamara pounced on a turnover but fired wide of the net.

Possession was 60/40 in the home side's favor, as Sporting seemed content to earn a point on the road.

Kansas City showed the 4-2-3-1 hybrid shape, with Sassano and Diop joining Davy Arnaud in the midfield. It was a more defensive road lineup, but we'll see a much different look on Friday.

In Kansas City's two home losses, they've given up very late leads. Both Dallas and Seattle were able to capitalize on Sporting red cards, stealing points in dramatic fashion. Dallas took advantage of a Bunbury ejection, scoring in the 89th minute, and again in stoppage time, to win 3-2. All three Dallas goals came off crosses played from the left side of the field.

It was a similar story against Seattle, who benefited from Bravo being sent off. Kansas City lost control in the 89th minute, allowing back-to-back goals from Mauro Rosales and Lamar Neagle. 

On Friday, Sporting will look to earn three points at home in a game they're dubbing the biggest of the season. It's hard to argue.

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