Coming into the 2011 season, Sporting Kansas City was a popular pick among the touts as a team that could make a run and enter the playoff ranks. Last season they barely missed the playoffs and some of the underlying stats were promising. They had one of the best shot differentials in the league and showed the ability to unload on teams — scoring 4 goals 4 different times. The additions of Designated Player Omar Bravo and SuperDraft pick CJ Sapong were sure to make an already potent attack one of the best in the league. A season opening win over Chivas USA that featured a second minute goal from Sapong and two from Bravo meant that KC were on their way.
But since that game the team has collapsed. It was already going to be a difficult start to the season with 10 consecutive games on the road while the team waited for their new stadium to be completed. And the loss of Bravo to an early red card, the resulting suspension, and then injury has weakened the offense. Even more importantly, the defense has been a sieve. It turns out that an offseason focused primarily on offense may have been a big mistake. Sporting hasn't managed a shutout all season and has allowed 3 or more goals in over half of their games, including to such offensive juggernauts as the Chicago Fire and New England Revolution.
Part of the defensive problem is that the team is organized to attack, even on the road. Vermes plays a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, depending on where the ball is. In either case the team not only plays with 3 forwards, but an attacking midfielder as well. Four players focused primarily or exclusively on offense is reminiscent of the Seattle Sounders teams of the past, but the Sounders have Osvaldo Alonso and a solid squad of center backs to shut down any opposition attack. Kansas City is blooding two new MLS center backs — Frenchman Aurelien Collin and Brazilian Julio Cesar — and covering them are a veteran converted forward in Davy Arnaud and the equally veteran (that's a nice way of saying old) Stephane Auvray, who's had to play most of the season with a mask after having his nose broken. So far that's been a recipe for goals against.
So the question for Kansas City is whether the early season stretch can be recovered from. Certainly there are reasons for tentative optimism. The brutal road stretch is nearly over, with their first home game coming in early June. Omar Bravo is nearly ready to return from injury and may make a sub appearance tonight. The Collin/Cesar pairing will eventually gel and Jimmy Nielsen remains one of the best 'keepers in the league. Teal Bunbury is one of the best young attackers in the country and Kamara is always dangerous.
But time is beginning to run out. A handy rule of thumb is that a point per game on the road is a bare minimum. That leaves a team to get two points a game at home to get to 1.5 per game overall, which last season would have earned 45 points and left a team on the edge of the playoffs. This season — with 10 teams advancing — the resulting 51 points should be a safer total, but there still wouldn't be a lot of room for error. And 2 per game at home is no easy feat. Only 4 teams accomplished it last season, and the Supporters Shield-winning LA Galaxy wasn't one of them (though they were only a point away). With only 4 points through 7 away games, the Sporks are already falling off that one-per-game minimum pace. And with their next two games against Seattle and Colorado, earning points will continue to be a tall order.
Like the Portland Timbers last week, Kansas City's offense tends to come through the middle. The wide forwards play as forwards rather than wingers and the addition of Milos Stojcev as an advanced midfielder keeps the ball moving in the center. Usually, you'd see a team make up for this narrowness by pushing the fullbacks forward, but Sporting's defensive woes means that the fullbacks are kept in the defensive half to provide cover. That should mean that the Sounders' fullbacks are given plenty of room. In Kansas City's last match, the LA Galaxy fullbacks spent more time in the offensive half than they did in their own. That means we should be seeing a lot of James Riley on the ball and are likely to see Tyson Wahl starting again over Leo Gonzalez thanks to his ability to distribute.
- Kamara vs Alvaro Fernandez - Fernandez has earned his DP designation over the last few games after replacing Steve Zakuani on the left wing. He's become a significant part of both the offense and defense and he'll need to be sharp in both roles against Kamara. Tracking back to cover the forward will help free up Wahl to move forward to distribute and if he keeps up offensive pressure he'll force Kamara to provide defensive help.
- Fredy Montero vs Collin & Cesar - It was time for Montero to start producing goals weeks ago and now it's just overdue. He hasn't played poorly and still comes up with a couple of tremendous attacks every game, but not enough of them have found the net. The Kansas City centerbacks are still unsettled and Fredy should be able to find space between them to test Nielsen.
- Jhon Kennedy Hurtado vs Bunbury - It's likely Hurtado's turn to show up in the center back rotation and his ability to cut out distribution would make him a good candidate to shadow the Kansas City target man. Bunbury's entrance to the US national team alongside Juan Agudelo and somewhat similar playing style tends to associate the two in my head and when I think about Bunbury tonight I can't stop thinking about the Agudelo goal in New York earlier in the season. Seattle's been prone to the counter this season and Hurtado needs to make sure he doesn't get turned by Bunbury.