Supporters fondly remember New England’s memorable run to an MLS Cup final appearance in 2014, but we tend to overlook how the seeds for that adventure were planted a year earlier in 2013. That season, the first one involving playoffs for the Revs in quite some time, concluded with a grind-it-out, semi-final postseason series with then-Eastern Conference rivals Sporting Kansas City.
Although the Revs took a 2-1 first-leg home win, they lost the second leg — and the series — in extra time at Kansas City in what was legendary goalkeeper Matt Reis’ final match. What’s likely forgotten to Revs’ supporters is that their club never backed down to the team that would eventually lift the 2013 MLS Cup a few weeks later. And that particular journey for SKC started in Foxboro.
Breaking Down Sporting KC (5-1-2, 17 pts, +9)
Current Form: W-D-W-W-D
Now in his ninth full season at the helm, manager Peter Vermes — the longest-tenured coach in MLS — has built a culture and tradition of winning in Kansas City that’s envied by his contemporaries. Along with the 2013 MLS Cup, he’s delivered three US Open Cup trophies, two first-place Conference finishes, and seven straight playoff appearances through last season. He’s instilled a staunch, defensive mindset that seeks to suffocate the opposition’s ability to create and score goals, especially at the “Blue Hell” of Children’s Mercy Park. Prior to the season, Vermes said, “Our objective is to always try and finish in the top three for fewest goals allowed each year”. Twice they’ve led the league in that category, in 2012 (27) and 2017 (29, eight fewer than eventual MLS Cup champion Toronto FC). When they didn’t finish top three, they were in the top five or ten league-wide.
Following a first-round playoff exit in 2017, Vermes set off to fix the team’s weak link — scoring. When striker Dom Dwyer was sent to Orlando City during the season, he took his goals with him. SKC finished with a paltry 40 for the season, barely more than a goal per match and third fewest in MLS last year.
However, replacing Dwyer wasn’t the objective — instead, it was retooling the attack. And that’s exactly what’s been done. So far in 2018, SKC has scored an MLS-leading 20 goals in 8 matches, already half of last year’s output in just less than a quarter of a season. They’re on pace for 85 goals, which would tie the 1998 LA Galaxy for most goals scored in an MLS season — ever. Further, SKC has tied the MLS record for shots in a team’s first eight games of a season (148). Their 55 shots on goal are also the highest total through eight matches since 2008.
The main culprits behind this offensive renaissance are recent International acquisitions: Chilean World Cup veteran Felipe Gutierrez and Scotland international Johnny Russell. Each has already contributed five goals apiece in Vermes’ attack-minded 4-3-3, with Russell also offering up a couple of assists. Left midfielder Gutierrez — April’s MLS Player of the Month — made a substitute appearance last week after being sidelined by injury for a couple of matches. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be in the starting eleven against the Revs. Right winger Russell — the current MLS Player of the Week — scored a hat-trick in SKC’s most recent match, a 6-0 dismantling of nine-man Vancouver. The former stalwart of English Championship side Derby County FC was also one of three SKC players named to the MLS Team of the Week.
Vermes had hoped Dwyer’s shoes would be filled by Chilean striker Diego Rubio, but the Young Designated Player never really found in his form in 2017. NYCFC forward Khiry Shelton was acquired in the offseason to compete with Rubio for starting minutes, and he’s since made that slot his own, having started the last seven matches and contributing two assists. However, he hasn’t scored a goal yet, and many supporters believe Vermes is actively looking for a more polished number nine. In fact, New England forward and former SKC man Krisztian Nemeth’s name has been tossed about as a possible target.
In his second full season with the club, Homegrown Daniel Shalloi has settled nicely into the left wing position opposite Russell. The Hungarian youth international has contributed a goal and four assists in 2018. Depth at forward is provided by Designated Player and SKC’s 2017 Golden Boot winner Gerso Fernandes, who has a goal this year.
International Designated Player Yohan Croizet has seamlessly handled left midfield duties in Gutierrez’s recent absence. The Frenchman has provided a goal and an assist. FC Barcelona youth academy product Ilie Sanchez, in his second season with Sporting, expertly covers the central defensive midfield. He’s started all eight matches and has gotten forward enough to provide two goals and an assist in SKC’s potent attack. Honduras international and World Cup veteran Roger Espinoza — one of the club’s longest-serving members — leads the team with five assists from his right midfield post. Spanish midfielder Cristian Lobato is a depth piece who opened his MLS account in last week’s 6-0 win over the Whitecaps.
Defensively, Sporting KC hasn’t quite met Vermes’ lofty standards thus far. Their 11 goals allowed in eight matches is already one-third of 2017’s total — in less than a quarter of a season. However, at this rate, SKC would yield 46-47 goals for the year, which is still respectable and on par for most playoff-caliber teams. And if SKC continues scoring goals in bunches, that goals-allowed projection would be more than adequate.
Regardless, one has to imagine a Peter Vermes team will eventually display its lock-down defensive form as the season progresses, especially with its high-caliber talent in the back. US international mainstays Matt Besler and Graham Zusi continue to not only anchor the backline but also, according to Vermes, serve as coaches on the pitch. Now in his tenth year with his hometown club, five-time MLS all-star center back Besler is SKC’s all-time leader in starts and minutes played, and second in appearances. Right back Zusi — also a ten-year SKC man — operates almost as a wing back in Vermes’ 4-3-3. With winger Russell often playing extremely high and close to goal, Zusi is able to get far forward in the attack and has already scored two goals this season.
His opposite number on the left side, Colombian fullback Jimmy Medranda, complements the attack much like Zusi. Now in his sixth season in Kansas City, Medranda has also scored a couple goals in 2018, including this cracker vs Vancouver last weekend, an MLS Goal of the Week candidate.
He shares left-back duties with former Rev Seth Sinovic — in his eighth season with his hometown team.
Their potent attack notwithstanding, Sporting’s central defense is probably the team’s strength. Centerback Ike Opara, who missed the Whitecaps match due to vertigo issues, is the reigning MLS Defender of the Year. He should be available to face the Revolution this weekend. If not, Argentinian loanee Emiliano Amor, who performed well in his stead against Vancouver, will likely get the start again. Between the pipes stands former Rochester Rhino and current MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Tim Melia who posted a career-high ten shutouts in 2018.
Breaking Down New England (3-2-2, 11 pts, +4)
Current Form: D-L-W-W-D
The Revs hope to build off a pulse-pounding 2-2 draw in Columbus, a match in which the visitors clawed back from two one-goal deficits to earn the point. Former SKC 2010 draft pick Teal Bunbury bagged his third goal of the season, a nifty individual effort, to equalize the match at 1-1 following an Andrew Farrell own goal. Later, a bit of magic from the feet of Juan Agudelo set up Ecuadorian winger Cristian Penilla for a one-time volley into the back of the net — his second of the year — to draw the Revs level once again and solidify the final scoreline.
First-year manager Brad Friedel made one lineup change in his now-customary 4-1-4-1, inserting Juan Agudelo into the midfield in place of Scott Caldwell. The latter eventually came on as a second-half sub for Agudelo and slotted into his usual holding midfield role, temporarily altering the formation into a 4-2-3-1. Later, striker Krisztian Nemeth replaced Wilfried Zahibo, returning the shape back to a 4-1-4-1.
The physical, back-and-forth match saw both teams get several chances to grab all three points, but it wasn’t in the cards. Crew SC outshot New England 16-9 on the night, but the Revs held a 6-5 edge in shots on goal. Columbus was content to cross balls into the box to the tune of 29 for the night, but their lone offensive goal came courtesy of Gyasi Zardes’ creativity and clinical finishing. The plethora of Crew SC crosses was routinely parried away by the Revs, as New England held a 32-13 advantage in clearances.
The much-maligned backline held up well, with Jalil Anibaba, in particular, putting in a solid shift. His performance will likely keep early-season starter Toni Delamea on the bench. His center back mate, captain Claude Dielna, also excelled and was duly recognized with an MLS Team of the Week selection. Goalkeeper Matt Turner continues to impress. His three saves vs Columbus now give him the third-highest save percentage in MLS this season (75.8%).
Midfielder Kelyn Rowe — a regular second-half sub -- missed the match due to a knee injury, but he might be ready to go for SKC this weekend. Attacking mid Lee Nguyen continues to be a healthy scratch. He has not appeared on the gameday roster at all in 2018.
Vermes’ squads bring intensity and physicality to every match. They now have an attack that is firing on all cylinders and will provide a formidable challenge to New England’s defense. In particular, center back Claude Dielna and left back Gabriel Somi — who seems to spend more time in the offensive half and less time defending — will have their hands full with Russell, who is extremely active and can both create and distribute from the wing. It’s all-hands-on-deck in the SKC attack, so New England will need its “A” game defensively to keep pace.
This match has the potential to replicate last week’s Columbus draw. The Revs will need to continue pressing, creating chances and, most importantly, finishing against a squad that’s still trying to find its defensive footing. SKC’s historically relentless defending has produced inconsistent results thus far, but it’s probably just a matter of time before they return to form.
Sporting KC leads the all-time regular-season series vs New England with a 25-17-11 mark. SKC actually has a better record vs the Revs in Foxborough at 11-10-6. New England won the last match at home, in 2016, by a 3-1 score.
Sporting KC hasn’t won in New England since 2012. They earned a 0-0 draw in 2013.
This is the only meeting in 2018 between these former Eastern Conference rivals.
How to Watch
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, April 28
Venue: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, MA
TV: NBC Sports Boston (Boston); Fox Sports KC+, Fox Sports Midwest+ (Kansas City)
Radio: 98.5 The Sports Hub (Boston); Sports Radio 810 WHB (Kansas City)