MLS CUP: Head-to-Head Breakdown: Kansas CIty vs. Colorado

Who will come out on top in this Eastern Conf. semifinal clash?

Colorado stopper Matt Pickens has proved extremely reliable in his two-and-a-half seasons since joining from the Chicago Fire. He played in all 34 games this season and recorded a shutout win against Columbus on Thursday. His experience in knockout competitions is also crucial, after winning the Open Cup with Chicago in '08 and the MLS Cup with Colorado last year. Pickens has three shutouts in five playoff games and he is sure to be busy over the two game series with SKC’s lively offense.

 

GOALKEEPERS

 

Jimmy Nielsen has been sensational in net for KC this season — the towering Dane has total command of the Sporting defense. In 31 starts, he has let in just 35 goals as SKC have been solid at the back and clinical up top. The “White Puma” certainly has acted like a large cat in goal, with his sprawling saves, one of which won him Save of the Week for Week 32. Nielsen’s communication skills and vast experience from playing in Denmark and England will be pivotal in helping out the younger members of the side against the wily Rapids.

The firm foundation upon which Colorado built last season’s playoff success was defense. They have continued that this year with Gary Smith’s boys proving determined and tenacious defensively. With the talented Drew Moor a huge presence in the center of their back line, the Rapids will not be giving up any ground without a scrap, a valuable asset in playoff soccer. Marvell Wyne is a fine partner for Moor and those two will need to be on top form if the Rapids are to keep from being burned by the pace of Teal Bunbury and Kei Kamara and the trickery of Omar Bravo and C.J. Sapong. This is Colorado’s strongest area and if they continue to defend well, just like last year, they could make a run to the final.

 

DEFENSE

 

Matt Besler, the hometown hero, has had a sensational season for KC and his goal against D.C. United sealed first place in the  East for Sporting. His long throw-ins are also a deadly weapon that Colorado must deal with effectively as SKC have had success from them this season. Seth Sinovic, Aurélien Collin and Chance Myers have also shown admirable form throughout the year as KC’s defense recorded eight shutouts and conceded just 35 goals. Myers has formed a great partnership with Kamara down the right flank and his overlapping runs could cause Miguel Comminges problems. Kansas City know if they keep a clean sheet, they are almost guaranteed a win with their deadly offense.

These are trying times in Colorado's central midfield, as Pablo Mastroeni will likely be missing again after suffering concussion-like symptoms while his replacement against Columbus, Jamie Smith, is now gone for the playoffs with a torn ACL. That means the buck now lies with Jeff Larentowicz to come up big and stop KC feeding off Bunbury and Sapong’s lay-offs up top. The Rapids' chances in the series could well rest on the form of the Ginger Ninja.

 

MIDFIELD

SKC have tried a number of combinations in the midfield this season, and moving Brazilian Júlio César into a holding midfield role has allowed Graham Zusi, Kamara and Roger Espinoza to surge forward. With the lanky Kamara proving hard to hold down on the right and Espinoza buzzing around linking play together, Colorado will have to work hard to shut down the passing lanes up to Bunbury that KC love to use. Kamara is the key in the midfield, his skill and pace will frighten the life out of Colorado. The less he sees of the ball, the better for the Rapids.

Colorado’s forwards have been in and out of the treatment room all season long as Omar Cummings, Caleb Folan and Conor Casey were all missing for large chunks of the campaign. Gary Smith has had to rely on goals from midfield to keep his club’s playoff hopes alive, recent US call-up Larentowicz has proved to be the Rapids most potent offensive player, scoring seven goals this term. That said Cummings, whose form dipped dramatically after injuring his ankle, became the hero against Columbus in Thursday’s wild card game. The dynamic striker will be delighted to have scored the winner and Smith must be hoping more goals are to follow. Colorado’s forwards have scored just 15 of their 44 goals this season.

 

FORWARDS

SKC have a plethora of attacking options that is the envy of many sides across the league. Bunbury, Kamara, Sapong, Zusi and Bravo proved a deadly quintet this year for the Eastern Conference toppers. Bunbury, Kamara and Bravo all had nine goals each, while Rookie of the Year candidate Sapong and Zusi each have five. Colorado will have a very hard time of locking them down, and with Kamara coming off the right wing, KC can attack from all angles. Colorado must bring a physical approach to try and stop the young attackers.The battle between former Bunbury and Colorado’s Moor will be intriguing viewing. Only Seattle did better than KC’s tally of 50 goals this year.

Gary Smith has been under intense pressure this season after several high-profile stories have put him in the media spotlight. His decision to send a reserve side to El Salvador in the Champions League — and stay behind himself — now seems shrewd given the defending champs' strong finish in league play. Smith’s skills as a man manager will be vital to getting his side prepare to battle and stop the supremely talented individuals SKC have. His defensive tactics may contain Kansas City for large periods, but he needs his side to be clinical when they get chances to score from set pieces.

 

COACH

Peter Vermes was a hugely successful in the playoffs as a player, never missing out on the postseason from 1996-2002 with KC, the MetroStars and Colorado. His ability to mesh together the raw young talent of Bunbury and Sapong with the experience of Bravo and Davy Arnaud has been key. Also it has to be said with such a promising young core coming through, Vermes job at times this season has been relatively easy. He will, however, use his know-how in the playoff scene to give his team the edge over the defending champions.

Colorado’s bench does not look as strong as KC’s on paper, but Smith proved he can send a second string side to a hostile environment and get a result, as he did against team Isidro Metapán last month in CCL play. This proves he has strength in depth, but whether game-changers can be found on the bench is another matter.

 

BENCH

SKC have a multitude of options which are appealing to Vermes and his coaching staff. They have game-changers and goal scorers stacked on the bench and experienced players like Arnaud to bring on to protect a lead.

Colorado have shown their ability to grind out results again and again. Last year’s triumph shows they can do just that, but after a brutally long season, they have their work cut out against Kansas City. That said, if they can get their defense in order and score an early goal, they could stun the young SKC squad.

 

OVERALL

The attacking talents of KC are plentiful and filled with panache. They seem to have the ability to score goals from anywhere. Their main attacking options are key, and if they stay fit, an SKC victory in the series seems somewhat inevitable. Their watertight defense marshaled by hometown boy Besler is also a good sign against a less-than-formidable Colorado strike force. But underestimate the Rapids at your peril.