As Sporting Kansas City opens play in the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup against St. Louis FC on Tuesday evening, I caught up with St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Tom Timmermann to preview the match. Live coverage of Tuesday's match is available at SportingKC.com/GameOn.
Jonathon Feyerherm: St. Louis have defeated Des Moines Menace and Minnesota United FC in previous Open Cup rounds and is eighth in the USL Eastern Conference standings. Can you talk about their season up to this point?
Tom Timmermann: Offensively they're a little bit lacking right now. They're not scoring a whole lot of goals and they're not winning a lot of games. They're tying a lot of games,kind of like Kansas City in that regard. Their last seven games have been tied after 90 minutes, with two of those being Open Cup matches that they went on to win. But they're playing to a lot of 1-1 ties recently. Against Minnesota, the one goal was on a penalty-kick. In their USL game on Saturday, the first half they didn't do a lot offensively. In the second half they made some changes. That's been the biggest challenge for them. Defensively, they've been fairly solid. They seem to make maybe one mistake per game which ends up in the back of the net. The line-up has been erratic recently due to both MLS call-ups and injuries. It hasn't been a dependable unit in regards to knowing who can be out there on any given day. Bryan Gaul, who's one of their leading scorers this year, got a red card very late in their last Open Cup match against Minnesota, so he is not eligible to play against Kansas City.
JF: Who are some of the key players for St. Louis FC?
TT: Brandon Barklage, who played 6 seasons in the MLS, he plays sort-of a holding midfield role. He's obviously the most experienced player, at least at the MLS level. He was in camp with San Jose this year but decided to come back and play closer to home, since he's from Saint Louis. He makes a big difference when he's on the field. He missed a few games earlier because of injuries. He missed the Des Moines game, he came back in the Minnesota game. So he hasn't played a whole lot lately, but he's fine now. He certainly gives them a presence in the back. Charles Renken is a guy they've been bringing in off the bench lately with about 20 minutes to go. When they bring him in, he just changes everything with his speed. Especially going against a worn down defense. After 70 minutes, he's going out there and just running wild. Most of their goals in the last four games have been either scored by or set up by Renken. He's been a big help for the team being able to bring him in off the bench late in the game to make something happen. Mike Ambersley is a guy who has been around professional soccer for many years. He played at the University of Indiana, he's played at the NASL and USL levels for years. He's a small but speedy forward. He's a guy who brings a lot of experience to the team and knows what he's doing out there. Mark Pais will be in goal tomorrow. He played in the Minnesota game, he made a few saves in the shootout, so he'll be a big factor there.
JF: You've had a chance to talk to St Louis FC players and coaches about this match. What are you their thoughts?
TT: They know that Sporting KC is going to be the best team that they're going to play. Brandon Barklage, when he was in the MLS, was on a Red Bulls team that lost to Harrisburg in the Open Cup. Mike Ambersley has been around long enough. He played for Rochester when they got a couple wins in the Open Cup. They have guys that have been MLS squads that lost to a USL squad and they have guys that have played on USL squads that have beaten MLS squads. They know that it can be done. They know that there could be an upset and they know that it would be an upset. They are saying that they know very well that Sporting KC is better than they are. But, if they control it, if they do have a an organized defense and when they get scoring chances, use those chances, that could be the difference in the game. This is a team that has struggled to finish all of their chances thus far. That's one of the reasons they've had so many ties; they're creating chances but not finishing them. They know it can be done. They know that at the end of this round of the Open Cup, there is going to be some NASL and USL sides that go through and they think it could be them. They know it's going to be hard to do because even if Sporting KC rests some of their regular starters, the number 12-18 players on their roster are still pretty good players. This is a rested Kansas City team. Saint Louis played on Saturday and will have to turn around again and play on Friday, so they're in a bit of a crunch. Plus they've had injuries and Bryan Gaul out on a red card. This is not an ideal situation for Saint Louis.
JF: How do you expect St. Louis FC to approach Tuesday's match?
TT: Ambersley said today, and he's been through this before, the longer that lower division team can keep it close, the more pressure that puts on the first-division squad. If it's tied after 60, 70, 80 minutes, that puts more pressure on Kansas City and takes the pressure off Saint Louis. That's what they would love to do. I don't think you're going to see them pack it in, but probably, in the early going not be quite as aggressive offensively. They're going to try to stay organized at the back, limit the chances for Kansas City, hope Pais can be there when needed. Certainly late in the game, they're going to be looking to counter or create a chance late and hope it's still a competitive game when they get those chances.
JF: What are some things you're looking forward to seeing from the match?
TT: It's a great environment. Most of these guys have never been in a situation like this. Barklage has, but most of these guys have never been in the kind of environment they're going to see in Kansas City, in that stadium, with those fans. I think that there's a lot that the young guys can learn from it going forward in their soccer careers. It's a great place to see a game. There's going to be a good turnout of Saint Louis fans, there's at least 100 from their supporter group, the St. Louligans, that are making the trip west for the game. So they'll have some fans there in the stadium. It'll be a great environment and it'll be fun to see. You would love to see Kansas City playing Saint Louis in Major League Soccer, that's not going to happen for the next five years, at least. It's a great situation for these guys to play against a really good MLS side. It should make for an interesting evening.