Most of you probably didn’t watch a USL Western Conference match all season. I spend an inordinate amount of time keeping up with USL stuff and I barely did. That adds up to most of us having zero idea of what to expect from the Western Conference Champ Swope Park Rangers. To cure that ill, I got in touch with Chad Smith, editor of Sporting Kansas City blog The Blue Testament to get some dirt on our opponents for Monday. Here’s what he told me:
Taylor Sorrels: How would you describe Swope Park’s style of play under manager Nikola Popovic?
Chad Smith: Despite playing a different formation than Louisville, it sounds like these teams play very similarly. SPR look to possess the ball and play out of the back. Swope play out of a 4-3-3 formation but they also send their fullbacks forward into the attack. The holding midfielder, James Musa, can drop deep and act as a third centerback at times as well.
Overall the club looks to get forward and score lots of goals. One twist that SPR plays that Sporting Kansas City does not is that their center forward is more of a false nine. Lebo Moloto is a midfielder by trade and he can drop really deep for a #9. That opens up players from the wing to pinch in and get the goals, like leading scorer Kharlton Belmar.
TS: Rangers are Sporting KC’s development or reserve squad, which, for other teams, can mean up to 40 players seeing time in the USL over the course of a season. How would you grade Swope Park’s roster in terms of consistency over the course of the playoffs? In other words, do you see many changes in the roster for the upcoming match, or is there a pretty good idea about the starting XI in your view?
CS: Swope are very consistent. In the playoffs they’ve essentially played the same lineup from game to game with the exception of a few guys being with Sporting KC at the end of the season. Now that SKC are eliminated, anyone with five USL games is available to be loaned back to SPR. Don’t worry, though, these aren’t MLS guys masquerading as USL players. They have mostly only played in USL this year with less than 200 MLS minutes among them. Expect to see the above mentioned Belmar, Kevin Oliveira, Adrian Zendejas, James Musa, Tyler Pasher, Amer Didic and Colton Storm. If I had to guess at a Starting XI, I’d say it’ll be pretty close to unchanged.
Storm – Didic – Barnathan – Maher
Duke – Musa – Oliveira
Pasher – Moloto – Belmar
TS: We know that MLS clubs manage their USL reserve teams differently. FC Montreal and Toronto FC II are famous for just working on player development rather than results, while some other sides try to put more focus on winning performances in the league. How would you describe SKC’s approach to SPR and the USL?
CS: Sporting KC Manager and Technical Director Peter Vermes seems to have the perfect balance when it comes to Swope Park. In his season ending press availability he reiterated that the first priority is developing players for the first team and that winning is secondary. Despite that, SPR find themselves in their second USL Cup Final in just two seasons of existence. They have their share of teenagers getting significant minutes like Felipe Hernandez and Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal, but it seems to be guys in their low 20’s like Didic, Oliveira, Zendejas and Storm who are swallowing up most of the minutes.
I’d expect Wan Kamal and Hernandez on the bench along with Nansel Selbol but Hernandez and Selbol will almost certainly get in the game.
TS: Give us some players to watch out for/ridicule. Anyone whose last name is Storm is ripe for some catcalls, yes?
CS: The first person that jumps out is #90 Belmar. He is leading the team with 15 goals and he just has pace for days. He will hustle the whole game and he is so fast. A player who is out of form but capable of amazing things is #88 Oliveira. He’s an attacking midfielder who was #2 in the league’s 2016 20-under-20 list.
#55 Didic has been a complete stud at centerback for the season and a half he’s been a starter. He makes what could be considered risky tackles, but he always seems to get the timing right. He also kept SPR alive with a late goal in extra time against Phoenix Rising. The last guy to watch out for is #1 Zendejas. He’s been lights out between the posts and he even scored his 11th round penalty kick to send SPR to the USL Cup Final.
As for ridicule, Colton Storm is probably a good target. But I believe he prefers to go by “Mark from Cabo.”
TS: What are you concerned about going into this Cup final?
CS: Suddenly SPR have gone a bit cold in scoring goals. They have just two goals over three playoff games and have needed two shootouts to advance. One of those goals came really late in extra time too. They are really stout defensively but if they get behind will they find a way back? The good thing is they have only allowed a single goal in three playoff games. That goal was also allowed by the teams backup keeper to this guy Didier Drogba. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
TS: What is your prediction for how the match plays out?
CS: Let’s look at some stats. SPR have allowed 38 goals to Louisville’s 32. SPR have scored 57 goals to LCFC’s 64 goals. SPR are 6-6-4 on the road while LCFC are 11-2-3 at home, not to mention they added three more playoff wins. Swope have been to the finals before but they got blown out 5-1 by the Red Bulls last year. Also, many of the players from last year are gone due to the heavy USL roster turnover.
If the Rangers are to find a way to win, much like Sporting KC usually do, it’ll probably come down to penalty kicks. It really seems like everything is in Louisville’s favor but you just never know. In an effort not to jinx anything, I’ll say Louisville City wins 1-0.
Thanks a ton to Chad for talking to us and for giving us the keys to shattering Swope Park’s dreams on Monday!