Sporting Kansas City has been one of the popular picks to win MLS Cup all year. Many pundits doubled down on that prediction once the playoffs were seeded. And yet, here they are trailing the New England Revolution 2-1 heading into the home leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal on Wednesday.
It's not exactly a horrible position to be in, but Sporting KC is also dealing with the weight of expectations. Can they come good against a Revolution team that will be playing with far more unburdened minds?
1. Do the Young Guns have at least a goal in them? The Revolution have a young attacking core that should really be the envy of the league. Leading the way has been Kelyn Rowe, who bagged his first postseason goal in his first postseason game on Saturday. But guys like Diego Fagundez and Juan Agudelo could come through on Wednesday. Even a guy like Imbongo Boele has looked dangerous at times. If the first leg is any indication, though, the Revs are going to need to score at least one goal to move through. Chances are they are going to be looking to this relatively inexperienced group to get it done.
2. Is Peter Vermes the guy to take Sporting KC to the next level? Ever since appointing himself head coach of the then-Kansas City Wizards in 2009, there's been an air of promise around Vermes' teams. But aside from last year's U.S. Open Cup, they haven't had much to show for all their talent. Falling to the Revolution would be, perhaps, the biggest mark against him. Vermes might not quite be on the hot-seat yet, but another playoff failure would certainly start warming it up.
3. Who's going to score for KC? Claudio Bieler leads Sporting KC with 10 goals. But the Designated Player hasn't started since Sept. 7, didn't even play in the first leg and has just one goal over the past 3.5 months. He's apparently nursing a groin strain, but it's not exactly clear if his absence is entirely injury related. Meanwhile, guys like Jacob Peterson, Soony Saad and Dom Dwyer are eating up tons of minutes at forward, Teal Bunbury is shockingly playing again and CJ Sapong is trying to work himself out a yearlong slump. Now would probably be a good time for Benny Feilhaber to get another shot. Mostly a disappointment since returning to MLS last season, the former United States international still might be KC's best hope at finding a game-changer and with Lawrence Olum already ruled out, now's a good time to get back into the lineup.
4. Is Graham Zusi ready to take over? When people say they like KC's chances at winning the MLS Cup, they are really just using shorthand for saying they like Graham Zusi's chances of carrying them to the mountaintop. Zusi is already one of top American attacking players in the league, but he's still looking for his signature moment on the biggest stage. Beating the Revolution won't provide that, but it certainly will move him closer to someplace where that becomes possible.
5. Can the Revolution defense hold? The scoreline did a good job of masking it, but the Revolution were really under quite a bit of pressure in the first leg. In fact, the visitors held a 13-8 shots advantage and made 157 more passes. If not for some questionable referee decisions that included a shorter-than-expected stoppage time the result may have been quite different. That said, the Revs defense has been a major reason they've gotten this far. But it's hard to see them holding up to that kind of onslaught on the road.
Match date/time: Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET
Venue: Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kansas
Streaming: MLS Live