Berhalter: Sporting matchup is “special game”
Through the first two months of the 2014 MLS season, the top half of the Eastern Conference table is closely contested, with four teams sitting on 11 points, and the Crew leading the way with 12.
Sitting just behind the Crew in second position, reigning MLS Cup champion Sporting Kansas City is one of the clubs with 11 points. Although it’s early in the campaign, Crew Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter is thinking long-term in evaluating Sunday’s May encounter and what it means for the crowded conference picture.
“The space we create is on [Sporting] Kansas City, but all the other teams are pretty tight,” said Berhalter. “At this stage, you need to go on a good run to create real space, real breathing room.
“This is competitive. The Eastern Conference is very competitive. You see a lot of ties; games are tight. It is another game, but it is a special game in playing the defending champs.”
As the MLS title-holder, Sporting Kansas City naturally brings quality to Sunday’s matchup on NBC Sports Network. Berhalter specifically mentioned U.S. Men’s National Team members Graham Zusi, Matt Besler and Benny Feilhaber as players that make Sporting “a difficult group to play against,” but he cautioned that the team as a whole will present a challenge.
“They pressure the ball very well. They get after it,” said Berhalter. “They’re very physical, and they have a very good defense. They force you into errors, and they force you into turnovers. I’d say that’s their main strength. They’re defensively ahead of most teams in the league.”
With both teams coming in as strong possession sides, the midfield figures to play a large role in who can dictate the flow of the game. Berhalter, however, believes that his side’s performance in the area is paramount.
“I think it’s going to be won in the penalty box, that’s where I think it’s going to be won. Sporting Kansas City is very good on set pieces, they’re very good attacking crosses, and I think that’s where the game’s going to be determined.”
Aurelien Collin, a big element of Kansas City’s vaunted back line, will miss the match due to a red card suspension, and his absence figures to be a difficult void for Sporting to fill. Still, Berhalter expects his team will have to play their best to earn a result on the road in front of a national TV audience.
“This is one of the favorites to win MLS Cup. We know they’re the defending champs, and it’s a strong group. They’re well coached, and they have good depth in the team, so we know it’s going to be a difficult game.”