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Scratching the Chalkboard: Scouting Sporting Kansas City

Top spot in the West is on the line in Frisco.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The top two teams in the Western Conference going into this weekend, FC Dallas and Sporting Kansas City will do battle for outright supremacy of the league leadership this evening. It promises to be a well contested fixture and it's an opportunity for both sides to put things right against each other given their recent hoodoos in head-to-head meetings. FCD have lost each of their last three to SKC, all in Kansas, and will look to end that run here. Meanwhile, SKC haven't won at Toyota Stadium since a 4-1 success in 2011.

Both sides will have their absentees for this game. SKC are without Chance Myers, Kevin Ellis, Soni Mustivar, Justin Mapp, and Paulo Nagamura but will have Matt Besler and Brad Davis back and readily available. For FCD, Mauro Diaz, who missed the last three games, remains an injury doubt while Alex Zendejas is also out, Carlos Gruezo is suspended, and Jesse Gonzalez is joining up with the Mexican Olympic team for a training camp in preparation for next month's Toulon Tournament.

Possession Battle

SKC usually lineup in a 4-3-3 formation and are a team that love to have the ball at their feet, evidenced by the fact that they've won the possession battle in all but one of their games so far in 2016. With Mustivar out and Davis probably not at 100% yet to start, Lawrence Olum will likely continue as the defensive midfield pivot with Benny Feilhaber partnering one of Jordi Quintilla or Roger Espinoza next to him.

Seeing as FCD will likely lineup in a 4-4-2 in the event that Diaz isn't deemed ready to start, the plan will once again be to cede possession to SKC and try to hit them on counters. This will allow SKC to control the ball but FCD will decide the direction in which it goes through defensive organization and high pressing from the front.

SKC have fielded three different midfield combinations in the last three games since the international break with Feilhaber returning from injury and Mustivar struggling with one as of late. They've varied their distributional game depending on who's been in the lineup, as highlighted in the graphics below:

Quintilla, Olum, and Espinoza's distribution against Colorado:

Feilhaber, Olum, and Espinoza's distribution against New York RB:

Feilhaber, Mustivar, and Quintilla's distribution against RSL:

(Green - successful passes, Red - unsuccessful passes and crosses, Yellow - key passes)

With Espinoza and Olum in the lineup, there's more of a preference to go down the left side while with Feilhaber and Mustivar, they like to distribute the ball more down the right flank. Given that we saw some creaks down FCD's right in the Portland game with Ryan Hollingshead struggling at times defensively and that Gruezo is out here, SKC may go for Espinoza from the start and target that flank from the get go where Graham Zusi is also present.

Kellyn Acosta is expected to replace Gruezo in the team and even though he's had his struggles offensively so far this year, it's up to him now to impose himself defensively and support the right side of the backline as often as possible as SKC is sure to attack down that flank.

Dangerous Dwyer

The 25-year old Englishman has scored four times in six games this season, making him the joint third top scorer in the league. He may not be the tallest or the strongest forward FCD will face in 2016, but he does have an eye for goal and is a consistent threat around the penalty area which is something that Matt Hedges and Walker ZImmerman will have to be aware of.

This is Dwyer's attacking dashboard in last week's win at New York RB:

(Yellow - goals, Blue - successful passes, Red - unsuccessful passes, Red with arrow - shots off target, Gray - shots blocked, Light blue - chances created, Orange - failed dribbles, White - fouls suffered)

This is how he did in the one game this year where SKC were out-possessed. It's not hard to notice that while Dwyer may not always make the best pass or beat his man, he is persistent and he's a nuisance to put up with for defenders. That's what makes him dangerous and that's why he's one of the in-form strikers in the entire league at the moment. Even if SKC play a more possession-oriented game tonight, Dwyer will be present in and around the penalty area looking to find ways to make an impact, even with less space. FCD have their work cut out defensively in this game.

Defensive Depth

SKC's defensive performance against Colorado (Salaam-Coelho-Opara-Dia):

SKC's defensive performance against New York RB (Myers-Coelho-Ellis-Dia):

SKC's defensive performance against RSL (Myers-Coelho-Ellis-Dia):

(Green - successful tackles, Red - tackles lost, Yellow - defensive blocks, Blue - interceptions, Purple - clearances, Orange - recoveries)

SKC have the joint best defensive record in MLS this season with just five goals allowed in six games and when you see just how different their approaches to defending are above in the last three matches, you could understand why they're doing well at the back so far in 2016. Against Colorado they defended higher up the pitch as a result of their dominance in possession and cut down the spaces for the Rapids to attack down the flanks. Against New York RB, they played deeper and ceded possession to their opponents and did a good job of shutting down any available space in front of their penalty area to deal with NYRB's narrow approach. Against RSL, they mixed it between the two approaches by defending both centrally and on the flanks.

They're capable of defending in several ways and with the added boost of having captain Matt Besler back in the fold, they'll surely be tough to break down. If they dominate in possession, they'll likely defend higher up the pitch and try to limit any space out wide for Michael Barrios and Fabian Castillo to work their magic. If they drop deeper and play on the counters, then they'll likely impose themselves defensively by putting men behind the ball in front of the penalty area and expose FCD's creative problems without a recognized playmaker pulling the strings, which in this case would be Diaz.

Conclusion

It's safe to say that SKC is one of the more versatile, all-round teams in the entire league. They're capable of playing a number of ways on both ends of the pitch and that sort of variety could make it difficult for FCD to get something here given that they've only had success playing one way as of late. Defensively it'll take another strong team effort to hold off a dangerous looking opposing attack while offensively the team will have to pick their moments to attack the spaces that SKC will at some point give away given their preferred approach is to attack.

The high press has worked for FCD against teams with technical quality so far and it'll need to be deployed again here otherwise it'll be difficult to get ahold of possession against a team that likes to have lots of it. A repeat of the performance against Portland would go a long way towards getting a result here, but the best route to coming away with points is to get stuck in defensively and just wait for chances to break that will surely arrive at some point over 90 minutes.