After easing past the declining Columbus Crew, the Colorado Rapids will face Sporting Kansas City over two legs with the first one at home later this evening. The Rapids most pressing issue will be the lack of depth they have in the center of midfield. Jamie Smith, who came in for a concussed Pablo Mastroeni, tore his ACL against the Crew and will be out for a minimum of six months.
That leaves a big hole in an area Sporting KC will be likely to exploit. The Rapids are now down to Wells Thompson joining Jeff Larentowicz in the engine room, unless manager Gary Smith takes a more radical approach for the home leg and sends out a 4-3-3 formation with Omar Cummings, Caleb Folan, and Sanna Nyassi across the top and Larentowicz in the middle with Brian Mullan and Thompson on the sides. The formation will be a tough call as the visitors are likely to press with their outstanding forward trio of Omar Bravo, Teal Bunbury and Kei Kamara with CJ Sapong in reserve.
At this point in the season a team virtually selects itself unless there are injuries, so expect the same defense that stymied the low-scoring Crew to try and keep the more prolific Sporting KC side off the board. Matt Pickens should expect to face some shots tonight after having a quiet, chilly evening on Thursday. Only an Andres Mendoza drive off the crossbar gave Pickens anything to worry about. That won’t be the case against Sporting.
Peter Vermes must have been pleased to see the Rapids play an extra game while his side rested after the long season. He’s spoiled for choice at forward and has a solid midfield, too. Veteran Davy Arnaud can fill a number of roles, but has been supplanted in the center of midfield by rookie Graham Zusi. The youngster added five goals and seven assists, displaying cool passing and a penchant for long range shooting that will keep the Rapids on their toes. Roger Espinoza provides an additional wide threat down the left.
Chance Myers, Julio Cesar, Aurelien Collen, and Matt Besler form a solid, but not entirely invulnerable defense in front of Danish goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen. Sporting did concede forty goals this year, not near the best in the league. The team has depth at most positions and the flexibility to add either defense or offense as a situation warrants through substitutions.
After spending the first ten games of the season on the road waiting on the completion of Livestrong Park, Sporting Kansas City took advantage of their unbalanced schedule to make up for lost time at home. Having the second leg of this match-up at home should help them. The Rapids aren’t a high-scoring team and will struggle to fashion a big enough advantage to withstand what will likely be an all out attack in the second leg.
Sporting’s balanced scoring–Bunbury, Bravo, and Kamara each had nine goals–means that the Rapids cannot focus on just one player in defense. Zusi and Sapong each had five goals, too, with a total of seven from the back showing the breadth of scoring threats at Peter Vermes’ disposal. This may be Sporting’s best chance to get to an MLS Cup final since they won it back in 2000.