Keys to the game: Revs at K.C.

On Saturday, the Revolution (0-1-0, 0 points) will play its first Eastern Conference opponent of the 2012 season when it faces Sporting Kansas City (1-0-0, 3 points) at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park in Kansas City, KS.

The intra-conference showdown will be the first of three matches (including Jul. 21 at K.C. and Aug. 4 in Foxboro) the teams will play this year, thanks to the new unbalanced schedule instituted by MLS during the offseason. And with the new format in place, a greater premium will be put on grabbing points from conference opponents.

So what does that mean for the Revolution? For starters, it may make it easier to put last Saturday’s 1-0 loss at San Jose behind them. Though starting the season pitted against a Western Conference opponent has been nothing new for the Revolution, head coach Jay Heaps acknowledged that his reconstructed squad allowed itself to be “sucked into” the San Jose style of play (i.e. direct). That, combined with the losses of Darrius Barnes (injury), Saer Sene (injury) and Chris Tierney (suspension), left the Revolution missing valuable pieces when they stepped onto the Buck Shaw Stadium field.

Meanwhile, 3,000 miles to the east in the nation’s capital last Saturday, it looked like Sporting K.C. was about to find itself in a situation similar to the Revolution’s at the final whistle: scoreless. But, in the 93rd minute, reigning MLS Rookie of the Year C.J. Sapong nodded a Graham Zusi corner into the net to deliver the 1-0 win over D.C. United. Although the scoreline may indicate that it was a close match between two clubs on the rise, the fact is that Kansas City held the better of possession (57.4%) and out gunned D.C. 8 to 1 in the shots on target department.

Matched up against an opponent with a number of attack-minded players -- including Sapong, Kei Kamara, Teal Bunbury and Bobby Convey-- Saturday’s Revolution XI won’t have any shortage of challenges to overcome when the opening whistle sounds. Here are the three most important they’ll need to focus on:

Mark up on set pieces: Sporting K.C. has the horses to score goals in a variety of ways. One method that’s already worked to perfection this season is the set piece, which helped them grab three points from D.C. last week. With Graham Zusi providing the service, and Bunbury, Convey, Kamara and even Aurelien Collin jostling for position before the whistle, the Revolution can’t allow them to roam free near the net.

Drop back -- fast: Sporting K.C. is one of the few teams in MLS that utilizes a 4-3-3 formation with great success. With Convey, Kamara and Bunbury lurking, the Revolution’s defense -- and midfield -- will have to be sharp in transition to cut off the passing lanes, especially if Zusi and fellow midfielders Julio Cesar and Roger Espinoza are able to dictate the tempo. Heaps may want his team to become more possession-oriented in the long run, but short-term, they may want adopt a counterattacking approach on Saturday.

Find space in the middle: Although their hosts boast an impressive forward corps, the one area that the Revolution could find opportunities is in the midfield. Shalrie Joseph and Clyde Simms have formed a budding partnership centrally, and if they can set the tempo by winning 50/50 balls and connecting with their strikes, the Revolution have a much better shot of claiming three points at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park.

Last time the Revolution played Sporting K.C. (Jul. 30), they came within minutes of getting a win. But since last summer’s 1-1 draw, the Revolution has rebuilt the bulk of its roster while Sporting K.C. has not only undergone very few changes, but has become stronger. For the Revolution to break through on the road, Heaps will need to squeeze every ounce of effort and ability--– and perhaps a little bit of luck -- from his 11 on Saturday.

Brian O'Connell is covering the Revolution for ESPNBoston.com. He is the co-founder of New England Soccer Today (www.nesoccertoday.com), which covers professional soccer within New England. He can be reached at BOConnell21@aol.com.