By KEVIN KOCZWARA
If there’s one team that the New England Revolution probably didn’t want to see themselves matched up with for their first foray into the playoffs since 2009, it had to be Sporting Kansas City.
Kansas City, who finished second in the Eastern Conference, has had New England, who finished third, figured out the past two seasons and held the Revolution scoreless in their last five meetings, going back to last season. It’s been a lopsided affair where Peter Vermes’ Kansas City team has been able smother New England’s midfielders and frustrate Jay Heaps’ side with well-timed fouls.
If the games this season are anything to go off of for where this playoff match-up will go, then the games will cagey and high-intensity affairs. Sporting KC features the best defense in Major League Soccer while the Revs have a confident Matt Reis in goal again, who leads the league’s goaltenders in goals against average and hasn’t lost a game this year as the team’s No.1.
The last time Sporting KC and New England played, it was a feisty affair that saw two Revolution players dismissed (Dimitry Imbongo and Andy Dorman) before the final whistle and two Kei Kamara goals — who is now playing for Middlesborough in the Championship. In March, the team’s played to a scoreless draw that was just as testy as the game in Kansas City, but it didn’t have the same kind of fireworks. Expect a similar affair with plenty of shouting from the benches as these teams seem to genuinely bother each other on the field and resent the way the other team plays.
Here’s a closer look at this playoff series:
Sporting KC has held New England scoreless in their last five games against the Revs. This season Kansas City won their home game, 3-0, thanks to two goals from the now-departed Kei Kamara and a goal from former Revolution midfielder Benny Feilhaber. In March, the two teams played out to a scoreless draw.
Bobby Shuttleworth was New England’s starting goalkeeper in the Revolution’s loss in Kansas City; Matt Reis started in goal in the draw.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
For the Revolution, it all comes down to the health of defender Jose Goncalves, who had a hamstring strain in last week’s game against the Columbus Crew, and what kind of day forward Juan Agudelo has. If Kansas City can put Agudelo off his game, then New England’s fluid attack falters and stutters as the forward does more than just score goals. He creates space and holds up play so New England’s other attacking players can transition and counter quickly.
Kansas City had the stingiest defense in MLS, and a lot of that has to do with its center backs, but Oriol Rosell doesn’t get enough credit in the midfield for his work rate, solid distribution and ability to slow opponents down with smart fouls in the midfield.
Claudio Bieler is the other player Kansas City needs to play well. He’s the team’s leading goal scorer, but he’s struggled as of late to find the back of the net, and with no Kei Kamara around anymore, Bieler, a Designated Player, needs to provide Kansas City with a scoring punch.
MATCH-UP TO WATCH
Soony Saad and Diego Fagundez. Both young wingers players provide goals, width and pace for their sides and will find themselves on each other’s side of the field for plenty of battles during the two legs.
Graham Zusi became Kansas City’s golden boy last year because of his play not only for his club but also his big-time goals and telling crosses for the U.S. Men’s National Team. He’s been quiet in postseasons past, but look for his corners and his ability to run at defenders to cause New England problems.
For New England, Kelyn Rowe has the ability to change games with either foot. He can hit 40-yard through balls and score goals from anywhere on the field.
The last time the New England Revolution were in the playoffs, Jay Heaps was marauding up and down the right-flank. It was 2009 and the Revolution scratched and crawled their way into the playoffs. It would be Heaps’ last games in a Revolution jersey. He retired at the end of the season and pursued other ventures away from soccer in the offseason before going the team’s broadcast booth the following year. Now, four years later and two seasons into his coaching career, Heaps has led New England to the playoffs for the first time since his final season as a player.
But it wasn’t easy for Heaps’ team. They had to fight and claw in the last few weeks of the season to make sure they didn’t slip out of playoff contention in a what ended up being a jammed-pack Eastern Conference.
“We have had pressure-packed games leading up to this,” Heaps told the media on Wednesday. “I think that we’ve certainly ramped up the intensity over the last few weeks because we did know that any slip-up, not getting certain points, would’ve cost us a playoff opportunity.”
That intensity served New England as they closed the season out with 14 wins and the good form helped them push ahead of both the Montreal Impact and Houston Dynamo to No.3 in the East, avoiding the playoff play-in game.
Waiting for New England, though, is a battle-tested Kansas City team looking to redeem itself after two disappointing playoff runs in the last two seasons, when they were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
“The last couple of years factor in for sure,” Vermes told the Kansas City Star last week. “We’ve grown year to year. Our players have a lot more experience because of that. Hopefully all that stuff is a big factor.”
Kansas City is a team that has traditionally had New England’s number. Although they have never met in the playoffs, Kansas City has an impressive 23-13-11 record against New England, which includes five consecutive shutouts.
But this is a different New England team than what KC saw earlier in the year. New England has scored 11 goals in their last six games.
Both teams come into the two-legged tie on unbeaten streaks. Kansas City is unbeaten in four games while the Revs haven’t lost in six games.
“They’re a difficult team,” Heaps said. “They defend well. They’re the best defensive team in the league by design and I think they’ve got good defenders. So it’s going to be a combination of things. We’re playing a little differently since the last time we played them,” Heaps told the media.
One factor in the game will be Benny Feilhaber. The former U.S. Men’s National Team regular midfielder made his way to MLS after trying his hand in Europe and found himself playing for a struggling Revolution team looking to catch-up with the rest of the league. He suffered through two difficult seasons in New England before the Revs decided to go in a different direction and build their team around the young core of playmakers they had collected over the past few seasons.
Trading Feilhaber paid off for New England as the team was able to build a new system around the likes of Diego Fagundez, Kelyn Rowe and Lee Nguyen.
“Benny Feilhaber moving on was a difficult decision and club decision because he is a special player,” Heaps said after practice on Tuesday. “He does a lot for KC and did a lot for the Revs, but I think you’re right, for where we were going and where he was going, I think the change was good for him and I think we felt a lot of faith in the young guys around.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do if we didn’t have faith in our younger guys,” Heaps continued.
Rowe, specifically, has seen an uptick in his play since the Feilhaber trade. Heaps said in the past that he wanted to move Rowe into the middle of the Revs’ midfield. Trading Feilhaber allowed him to do that because there was a creative void to fill. The move has paid off. Rowe scored seven goals and added in eight assists this season from midfield, rewarding Heaps’ faith in the young playmaker.
For Kansas City, snapping up Feilhaber was important because they lost the dynamic Roger Espinoza last year to Wigan and needed someone who could cover similar ground and create as many chances as the Honduran midfielder. Feilhaber met that criteria and he has done well to fill the creative midfield role that Espinoza vacated by scoring three goals and chipping in four assists this season.
Heading into Saturday’s game, both teams will be weary of the threat their opponent possesses on the road. Kansas City, who hosts the second leg at home on Wednesday night, has the best road record in MLS (8-5-4); the Revolution have the second best record on the road (6-6-5).
Saturday night’s game at Gillette Stadium is the first time Kansas City and New England will meet in the playoffs. Kick-off is scheduled for 8 pm ET. The second leg will be in Kansas City next Wednesday.