Up in the air - that's where Sporting KC defenders Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin will find themselves waging battle with San Jose Earthquakes forward Steven Lenhart on Friday night.
The epic 10-game road trip is now over and done. The long-awaited home opener of LIVESTRONG Sporting Park is now over and done. The United States National Team playing in Kansas City for the first time in a dozen years is now over and done. Life can now return to business as usual for Kansas City soccer fans. Or, as usual as 16 home games packed into half a season can be.
It's not just the fans that can now rest at ease a bit. The Sporting Kansas City players and coaching staff can now take solace in the fact that the so-called "tough part" is over and done. The road trip didn't go anything like they would have liked, (1-6-3, 6 points) but it is now over and done. The pressure and excitement of a national level event and their own homecoming weighed on the team a bit, (0-0 draw) but it is now over and done.
For all intents and purposes, Friday night when Sporting KC play host to San Jose Earthquakes in their second home game of the 2011 Major League Soccer season, it's the beginning of a whole new season - or, "Act 2." Forget the fact that after the first 12 games of the season they sit exactly dead last in the entire league. Forget the fact that they went three full months without a league victory. A 4-1 result against FC Dallas last Sunday night went a long way to closing down the gap a bit between Sporting and the rest of the Eastern Conference standings. A win on Friday night now puts Sporting a single point behind Chicago and New England with one and two games still in hand against those sides, respectively.
Also, and granted of far less importance, a win on Friday night bring Sporting KC out of the entire MLS standings cellar, as they currently sit only one point behind the Western Conference's Vancouver Whitecaps. A win on Friday night makes the first league winning "streak" of the season for Sporting KC, something they haven't experienced since September of 2010. A win on Friday night and all of a sudden, after an abysmal start that caused many fans to call for the head of head coach Peter Vermes, Sporting KC are a team with momentum heading into a somewhat favorable portion of their schedule.
In other words, this is a must-win game for Sporting. In the context of one game, it might not seem so important - a Friday night game in mid-June - but in the context of the 2011 season, this is potentially a huge turning point.
Vermes pointed towards the game against Seattle Sounders in mid-May as one turning point during Thursday's weekly press conference. "Those guys were pretty upset with not getting a point in Seattle," Vermes said. "I believe that was a turning point, because they realized they played so well, they were organized defensively... and being able to come back in the next game and do it again and again."
That was a bounce back sort of turning point. This, though, would be an up-swinging turning point - onward and upward.
San Jose are without talisman goalscorer Chris Wondolowski as he is off struggling with the rest of the US National Team in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup. That would seem to be a huge advantage in Sporting's favor, except for the fact that they aren't exactly getting the production from their own prolific goalscorers, either. Forwards Teal Bunbury and Kei Kamara have gone without goals in the league since April 2 and April 23, respectively. Combined, those two players scored 15 goals in 2010. They currently combine for just 6 goals.
Neither player has been on particularly great form, and that could actually cause each of them - while completely healthy, keep in mind - to start the game on the bench on Friday night as Vermes could potentially stick with the currently hot hands (or, feet) or midfielder/forward goal-scoring extraordinaire Graham Zusi and forward CJ Sapong. Zusi scored a pair of goals against Dallas and assisted on another, while Sapong picked up an assist on the night, as well. Zusi was named to MLS Team of the Week along with fellow midfielder Luke Sassano, while Sapong looked ever so comfortable as the forward in the center of attack, once again.
Birahim Diop isn't scoring a hat trick against San Jose again (we don't think) like he did in the 2010 season finale, so the onus will be on Sapong and Zusi, along with Omar Bravo (assuming health) to supplement Sporting's recently stout defense. Since a 4-1 shellacking at the hands of Los Angeles Galaxy, the Sporting defense has given up a grand total of 3 goals in five league games. Much credit for that must go to the center half pairing of Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin. The stability they have provided in the middle of defense has cope for the left- and rightback positions being ever-turning carousels the past couple weeks. Nearly half a dozen players have started the two positions over the last four games.
So many signs in this matchup seem to point the favor in Sporting KC's direction, so naturally they'll fail to show up and get run out of their own building, right? The absolute key to the game, as Vermes put it in Thursday's press conference is containing Quakes target forward Steven Lenhart. He's big, strong and poses a different threat to Besler and Collin than they've encountered thus far together. "A guy like that, one moment he can lay a ball off, spin and be free," Vermes warned. "This will be a little different of a test for those two guys, (Collin and Besler) because now you have to matchup to that guy, back to belly, take your shot and the other guy has to cover."
When all is said and done, Sporting are the better side heading into the night with a ton more at stake in the face of the entire season. Win on Friday night, and they're 100 percent believing again and feeling like proving everyone wrong. Win on Friday night, and send your fans home happy.
Anybody else terrified to lose this game now?