Sporting Spirit: Vancouver Whitecaps prepared for a bit ‘extra’ from motivated Sporting Kansas City side on Sunday

The Vancouver Whitecaps take on Sporting Kansas City in their 6th match of the MLS season on Sunday. Here’s our preview ahead of that one. 

Against a team that has had their number in recent years, they’ve got a chance to try and return the favour. 

Reeling after a midweek loss to Minnesota United, the Vancouver Whitecaps will look to get back to winning ways on Sunday, when they’ll take on Sporting Kansas City at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas. 

At a stadium that has typically been a bit of a haunted ground for them as of late, it’s going to be a tough matchup, one that favours their hosts, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t play the role of the unlikeable guest as visitors on Sunday. 

Considering that their head coach, Marc Dos Santos, used to be on the hosts’ side in the past, having worked under Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes a few years back, they’ll know what it takes to win in Kansas, even though they’ll be in tough to actually make it happen. 

With passionate fans, and a playing style that can wear on teams, a stiff challenge awaits the ‘Caps, but it’s one they’re prepared to try and tackle head-on. 

“When they play at home, they always have that bit extra,” Dos Santos said on Friday. “They have a good fanbase, fans that push the team a lot. So going to Kansas, in their stadium, to get a result will take a lot of hard work from all of us. They are a team that changed a little bit with the years in the sense that I feel that they choose a much better moment to press, in the past they would be more high pressure for 90 minutes.”

“And now they have more moments where they do it in the right times. They also became a little bit more vertical with time, it’s a team that was very possession-oriented, and now with time, they’ve become vertical in some actions. (They’re) always an MLS playoff contender, they won our division last season, so again, a big challenge for us as a team.”

Despite their winning ways in 2020, though, Kansas has started a little slower than they would’ve liked in 2021, having amassed a record of 2W-2L-1D (7 PTS) through 5 games so far this year, and come into this game fresh off of a 1-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday. 

Almost eerily, the ‘Caps have also started the season off quite similarly, having also amassed a record of 2W-2L-1D (7 PTS), and are also coming off of a 1-0 loss of their own from the midweek, having lost to Minnesota United in a tight game. 

But while their records are identical, the comparaisons stop there. 

The ‘Caps are more of a plucky underdog that is trying to prove itself, making this a strong start for them, while SKC are more of a side that are looking to maintain their winning standard, which makes this start look a little worse from their perspective. 

And returning to the ‘Caps, it just makes this game all the more important in their continued quest to try and prove themselves to doubters, especially after that Minnesota game, where they arguably played one of their best games of the season, yet gave the Loons their first points of the season after they started the year with 4 losses in their first 4 games. 

“Looking back at the game, I think it was our best of the first five games this season, our most complete one,” Dos Santos lamented. “Defensively, not always, but we had good moments defensively, but offensively we generated, we created a lot, we did enough to get out of Minnesota with points, unfortunately we didn’t, and now we have to try to get something in Kansas City.”

Thanks to a poor defensive miscue at a bad moment, they threw away a chance to pick up rare road points, instead leaving the Loons to soar, shedding off the weight of their slow start. 

For a ‘Caps team that has defended quite well to start the year, it was a tough goal to give up, as Minnesota’s veteran striker, Ramon Abila, caught the ‘Caps back 4 napping on a cross and nodded home the all-important winner for his team. 

That doesn’t mean that his goal erases the ‘Caps strong defensive start to the season, as they’ve still only conceded 4 goals in their first 5 games in 2021, but it’s also another instance where falling asleep at the wrong moment forced the ‘Caps to drop points, much to the frustration of Dos Santos. 

“No, it’s a coaching thing also,” Dos Santos said when asked if the goal was solely the fault of his team. “It’s my job also to make sure that in moments like that, we stay more connected. Overall, look, the team conceded 4 goals in the first 5 games, it’s a huge improvement from where we were in the past, and we’re growing a lot defensively. But it’s disappointing that of the 4 goals we conceded, 2 of our goals we are arguing or asking something to the referee, and we shouldn’t stop until the referee whistles.”

“He takes the decision, and then when the play is done, maybe then we could go to the referee and tell him, hey, this wasn’t good enough, you have to wake up here, but not during the play. It comes a little bit with some immaturity from some players sometimes in a certain position, and trust me, we did address that, we spoke about that, and hopefully we’re going to do a better job in that.”

And for all of the talk of the goal that they conceded, it would’ve quickly been forgotten had they done some more damage at the other end of the pitch, but they failed to breach their opponents’ goal for the second time this season. 

Having only scored 5 goals in 4 games this season, none of them from open play, it’s put a lot of pressure on the defence to be nearly perfect in games, knowing that conceding 1 or 2 goals could see the ‘Caps drop points. 

To give credit to the defence, they’ve done their job, but that doesn’t absolve the offence of responsibility, as they need to make it easier for their defenders to do what they need to do in order to help the team. 

It’s something they’ve continued to work on, and they’re hoping that they can reap the fruits of their labour as soon as Sunday, no matter how tough Kansas might be in the eyes of onlookers. 

“For us, it’s important, not only when we are away but also at home, that we take our chances,” ‘Caps midfielder Caio Alexandre said through an interpreter on Friday. “ When you’re in front early, we can play a more relaxed and fluid game that suits us more. We were obviously a bit down but we weren’t lethal, and it didn’t help us get the result.”

“But as I said, we are working very hard for Sunday, and working in front of goal to get the best result possible, and the objective is to be one of the top teams, and in order to reach that objective we have to be lethal and effective on all aspects of our game.”

BTSVancity Player to Watch: Derek Cornelius

Cornelius reacts after a chance against Sporting KC in July of 2020 (Jared Martinez, Devin L’Amoureux/MLSSoccer)

But even though the ‘Caps offence is going to have to step up big for their team on Sunday, their defence is going to be under heavy scrutiny once again versus SKC, especially after centre back Andy Rose suffered an adductor injury during the game versus Minnesota. 

Due to that, and the continued slow integration of Erik Godoy back into the lineup, that’ll leave Derek Cornelius and Ranko Veselinovic as the starting centre back pairing, putting the two U23 defenders together for the first time this year as starters. 

For that reason, Cornelius is our player to watch, especially after he put up a pretty good shift while deputizing for Rose on Wednesday, coming into the game cold and doing a respectable job at a tough position. 

Despite his strong play, he would be blamed for the goal the ‘Caps gave up, and even though the criticism of him on that goal didn’t really make sense (since it came from a plethora of mistakes defensively, not Cornelius’s individual mistake), it’s still something that he’s had to deal with, ramping up the pressure that he’ll face on Sunday. 

Usually, pressure doesn’t seem to bother him, so it’ll be curious to see how he responds in his first start of the year for Vancouver, as he looks to quickly erase that goal from fans memories, showing people why he’s one of Canada’s best centre backs when he’s at his best. 

There’s no doubt that he can be a good centre back for the ‘Caps, but he’s often gotten opportunities in fits and starts, making this chance a big one for him, with the ‘Caps current health situation putting him into the spotlight for this game, and maybe a few beyond it. 

Storylines: 

Looking elsewhere, here are some other storylines that stand out ahead of Sunday. 

Load management? 

And while Cornelius will be a forced change, it’ll be curious to see if he’s the only new face in the lineup for the ‘Caps on Sunday, as they’ll be expected to make changes from the 11 they sent out to face Minnesota on Wednesday. 

Having only made 2 changes to his starting lineup all year up to this point, it would be very surprising to see Dos Santos stick with most of his same group again, especially considering Rose’s muscle injury from Wednesday. 

Especially after a loss, where he tends to be a bit more trigger-happy with changes, this game seems like a prime opportunity for some much-needed rotation, injecting some fresh legs into a lineup that looked tired at the end of the Minnesota loss. 

Breaking the SKC slump: 

Rotation or not, though, the ‘Caps will be up against it against SKC on Sunday, as they’ll head to Kansas looking to bust a lengthy slump against their fellow Western Conference foes. 

Since Dos Santos was hired, they’ve got a record of 0W-2L-1D (1 PT) in 3 official games, which along with a penalty shootout loss to SKC last year, leaves the ‘Caps without a win against Dos Santos’s former team in all competitions since his arrival to Vancouver. 

And even dating back further, the last ‘Caps win over SKC came over 3.5 years ago in 2017, where the ‘Caps famously snatched a shock 1-0 win over Kansas at Children’s Mercy Park in a game that featured 2 red cards and a missed SKC penalty. 

So for the ‘Caps, they’ll be looking to channel some similar magic, as they look to avoid extending their run of futility against SKC, gaining some valuable points in the process. 

Goals on the horizon? 

Lastly, the ‘Caps will need to find a way to breach the back of the net some way or another at some points versus SKC, as their inability to do so against Minnesota cost them big time. 

The important focus will be to find an open play goal, as the ‘Caps have now gone 5 games without scoring an open play goal in 2021, but at this stage of the game, any sort of goals will be welcome. 

If they’re going to keep defending as well as they have, they cannot afford to keep getting shut out, as they’re missing out on valuable opportunities to pick up wins that they’re instead turning into draws and losses. 

With every point counting in the playoff race, those sorts of 1-0 losses can make or break a season in the long run, so it’s imperative that Vancouver finds a way to breach the net on Sunday, allowing their defenders a bit of needed breathing room. 

Stats Splurge: 

Interestingly, SKC enters this game as quite the sleeping giant, though, which makes them such a fascinating team to monitor in a match like this. 

When you dive into the advanced stats, they’ve actually been quite the force in MLS this year, sitting 7th in the league in Expected Goals (xG) for per game with 1.45, while also sitting 2nd in xG against with only 0.89. 

That’s pretty good. 

Their downfall, however? 

Poor finishing and bad goalkeeping, as they’ve just been unable to capitalize on the chances they’ve created, while not doing a good enough job at keeping low-quality chances out of their net. 

The good news for them? They’ve got a lot of talented offensive players on their roster, so they’re going to start scoring at the sort of rate we’re accustomed to seeing from them at some point or another. 

On the other hand, their goalkeeping is unlikely to get much better for now, as usual starter Tim Melia appears to still be out with an injury, leaving the inexperienced John Pulskamp to remain as the starter for now, which considering he’s allowed 7 goals in 5 games despite their strong xG numbers, gives you an idea of the sort of struggles he’s had in goal to start the year. 

So for a ‘Caps team that sits 3rd last in xG for per game with 1.09, there’s hope that they can find some goals, and even though they have the 8th worst xG against with 1.52, considering that they have the 3rd best goalkeeper in all of MLS in terms of overperforming xG in Maxime Crepeau, they should be alright defensively, as well. 

And considering both teams average just under 50% of possession (Vancouver 48.2, Sporting KC 49.4), that means that the stats suggest that a tight result could be in the cards, contrary to popular belief. 

That still leaves SKC as favourites, but the ‘Caps could make this a lot more interesting than anyone might expect, at least if the numbers are to go off of.

Projected XIs: 

Vancouver Whitecaps: 

Record: 2W-2L-1D (7 PTS)

Head Coach: Marc Dos Santos

Sporting Kansas City: 

Record: 2W-2L-1D (7 PTS)

Head Coach: Peter Vermes

2020 Matchups:

Vancouver Whitecaps 1-3 Sporting Kansas City

Sporting KC (3)0-0(1) Vancouver Whitecaps (MLS is Back Tournament)

Looking Forward:

Now, it’ll be fascinating to see which team comes out on top on Sunday, as both sides will have plenty to prove when they take the pitch then. 

Will the plucky ‘Caps rewrite some of their recent history against SKC? Or will their foes find their footing again and return to winning ways? 

The latter seems the more predictable option, but things appear to be closer than what most people think, making this a curious fixture to follow. 

Plus, with both teams being tied in the standings, it could also prove to be a big game for the team that wins, adding further spice to a matchup already filled with it. 

So all in all, this game promises to be a good one, making it one worth keeping an eye on come Sunday. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Sporting Kansas City, Sunday, May 16th, 2021, 11:00 PDT, 14:00 EDT (Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas)

Cover Photo via: Jared Martinez and Devin L’Amoureux (MLSSoccer)

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