In search of a spark to ignite its season D.C. United will travel to “Blue Hell.” Supporters of Sporting Kansas City refer to their red-hot atmosphere at Sporting Park as “Blue Hell” and it will only add to United’s challenge Friday night to snare at least a point on the road.
The Black and Red have not won in Kansas City since 2007. In the seven visits since, Sporting has won four games with three ties; that includes two wins and two draws in four meetings all-time at Community America Ballpark, and victories in both meetings at Sporting Park.
It has been an amazing transformation in Kansas City. When the team was known as the Wizards empty seats provided the atmosphere at Arrowhead Stadium. Community America Ballpark was better, but it is a minor league baseball stadium. Now SKC has one of the most intimidating home environments in MLS and a side with quality to match.
United has been treading water this season. Considering Dwayne De Rosario missed the first two games of the season with a suspension, four points from four matches is somewhat understandable. On the negative side United gave up valuable points at home in their most recent match, a 2-1 loss to Columbus.
In that game Nick De Leon suffered a hamstring injury and is expected to miss six weeks. In a season where head coach Ben Olsen has had to adjust, he will have to make a change on the right side of the midfield. Against Columbus rookie Kyle Porter relieved De Leon and impressed including a goal that was called back. Marcos Sanchez is back from international duty and is also an option.
Designated player Rafael made his first start for United against the Crew and partnered up front with Lionard Pajoy and Dwayne De Rosario back in midfield. Rafael responded with a goal on an electrifying strike form 35-yards out. It was only United’s second goal of the season, with only two teams (New England and Chicago) scoring fewer goals in 2013.
“I don’t think there’s been good enough progression right now. But we’ve had some things to deal with,” Olsen said. “We’ve had some injuries and call-ups as an excuse, I suppose, and we’ve got some new guys fitting in like Rafael and Dwayne (De Rosario) in a new position. I’m not overly alarmed. I do think that we have some new pieces and we are still finding out who we are, even though we have a lot of the same guys.”
The loss of De Leon to injury is a blow, but Rafael’s insertion into the offensive mix has offered hope. In addition United will need Chris Pontius to provide danger on the left flank. Last season was a breakout year for Pontius with 12 goals and All-Star MVP honors, but so far in four matches Pontius has only five shots on goal.
“After last year we need to be able to be more confident as players on the ball,” said Pontius. “We're not holding the ball enough. We need to give our defense more of a break to defend, and I think we do that with possession on the ball, and we just haven't done that.”
United’s defense and the team’s reasonable record is due in large part to play of Bill Hamid in goal. Against Columbus, Hamid was called upon to make seven saves and he probably deserves much of the credit for United’s 0-0 draw with New York on the road. Hamid will be helped by the return of Dejan Jakovic to central defense after missing the last match because of national team duty with Canada.
As United look to score it will be against a Sporting team with Jimmy Nielsen in goal and a defense that has not conceded a goal in 339 minutes of play going all the way back to March 9. Despite the impressive defensive record Kansas City has been far from dominant with two wins, two draws and one loss in five matches.
Sporting attacks with three up top and so far in five matches has scored six goals. All but one of SKC’s goals have come from Graham Zusi or designated player Claudio Bieler. Zusi operates on the right side with Bieler in the middle and C.J. Sapong, who scored 9 goals last season, on the left. Pulling the strings in the midfield is Benny Feilhaber.
“Kansas City plays a very different style of pressure than any other team in this league,” Feilhaber said. “It takes a little while for the new guys, including myself, to kind of pick up on it when we want to go, when we want to hold a little more. It's obviously not the easiest system to figure out right off the bat, so I'm getting it little by little. I think I'm improving every game.”
United will look to stunt Feilhaber and Sporting’s growth for one more game. Earning at least a point in Kansas City might just be the jump start the Black and Red are looking for.