Sporting KC will battle Real Salt Lake at LSP this weekend for the right to be named the top team in MLS and with such an important game to look forward to don't you guys want to know a little bit more about the side that could potentially deliver Sporting it's first loss of the year? So ahead of that game we have this week's 'Three Questions' segment with Denzel Eslinger of Real Salt Lake's SB Nation blog RSL Soapbox.
Denzel asks me three questions about various Sporting KC subjects while I ask him three questions about Real Salt Lake's draft picks, their biggest player, and the key to their style of play that sees them at the top of the Western Conference.
Three Questions For RSL Soapbox
1. Sporting KC draft picks Shawn Singh, Cyrpian Hedrick, and Dom Dwyer have all been limited to reserve league play so far this season. How have Real Salt Lake's draft picks faired in this year's campaign?
Well so far only two of our draft picks have seen first team action Emilio Bonfigli has seen a minute of action, while Sebastian Velasquez actually has 4 starts with our first team and been a huge success early in the season earning praise from teammates and staff alike. Sebastian was actually the first rookie to start a match for RSL since 2006, the team has a very deliberate approach with young players to not put pressure on them too early in their careers and it has worked well for them. We did just sign Chris Estridge from Vancouver Whitecaps, he was their 2nd round pick this year which lead to us releasing Diogo de Almeida who was one of our 2nd rounders this year. For RSL the injuries and turnover this off season (9 players out, 8 players in) has forced the team to look to not only our draft picks but also guys like Jonny Steele and Terukazu Tanaka who joined the team in the off season to provide depth early this year. So far so good on that front as most of them have exceeded expectations.
Keep Reading for all 8 questions(you read that right, look out for the bonus Q's)
2. Obviously this weekend's game is against the only two teams with 15 points in the league. What have been some of the key's to RSL's early success this season?
I think there are two huge factors to RSL's early season success, first is the leadership of our core of players who now have been together for 4-5 years. They set high standards on themselves and the rest of the team to come into camp fit and ready to go, and that has allowed them to get up to full match fitness very quickly. The second factor has been the ability of new and young players to step into major roles, when we entered the season without Alvaro Saborio, Will Johnson, Javier Morales, and Nat Borchers it would have been easy to panic, but instead guys like Paulo Jr. Luis Gil, Jonny Steele, Sebastian Velasquez, and Chris Schuler stepped up and provided the team with players who didn't just fill in, but players who elevated and excelled for the team. While the chemistry needed on the pitch has at times been less than perfect with so many new faces, both the core and the new players have quickly found ways to make the team productive on the pitch.
3. Who has had the biggest impact on RSL's season thus far?
Fabian Espindola, I think he may be one of the least understood or appreciated players in MLS. He is a fireball of emotion and energy that simply plays every minute he is on the pitch as if his life depended on the result, that sometimes can drive him to behavior that gets him in trouble, but as last year progressed he seemed to find a way to control and funnel that passion and drive better. This year he has simply been amazing to watch, be it the endless runs he makes at defenders with or without the ball, or the full pitch runs he makes to get back and support the defense (if you missed his run down of Thierry Henry a few weeks ago, it was a thing of beauty). I think that type of play inspires other players who may be tired or maybe are a bit down in hard matches, to pick up the pace, to fight harder and not give up, perhaps no better play demonstrates that than the third goal in Portland, he doesn't try to make a selfish run, he sees Kyle calling for the ball, and delivers a cracker that Kyle puts away for the game winner. Yeah, it is Fabi who gets my vote.
Bonus: Too early too call these two teams supporter's shield candidates?
Yes and No, we are under 20% of the way into the season so it is early to think about a season long title at this point, but you also can see that both of these teams are at the top of their conferences and while I doubt that either can keep their current pace going all season long, the reality is that the result of the match on Saturday could end up being the deciding factor at the end of the season. Last year just 4 points separated the top two teams at the end of the regular season, 3 points in 2010, and a single point in 2009, so this match in all reality could be a big factor in the final standings for the supporters' shield. For me the shield has a lot less meaning now that we have gone to a very unbalanced schedule, but that is a topic for another day.
RSL Soapbox's three questions
1. Where did this defense come from? I mean last year SKC had a respectable defense, 40 goals allowed, but this year just one goal in 5 matches. Only one team with more than a single shot on goal, I mean honestly what the heck happened to end up with this?
True, the stats do point towards a more unstable defense last year than we seen now. However, if you look at the last 5 games of 2011(excluding playoffs) Sporting KC only let in 1 goal, a statistic eerily similar to the one you mentioned above. So basically in 10 games(again, excluding playoffs) they've let in just 2 goals, and the key to that has been the consistency in the back, both in terms of the performances and in terms of the four guys that get chosen on match day. I think if you look at a lot of the other teams around the league, you can never really pinpoint who will be starting on any given day. But for Sporting KC fans we know that we can rely on Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, and Seth Sinovic to all be in the starting XI. The same 4 guys that have started the past 12 league games on the trot together.
2. While SKC hasn't needed a ton of offense this year to get wins, they do have 8 goals scored (only New York and RSL have more), but the scoring has been mainly on the backs of Kei Kamara and C.J. Sapong who each have 3 goals and two others have 1 goal each (countered by RSL's 7 players with goals so far this year). Do you expect more players to step up and start scoring goals or will you be able to rely on these two to provide a majority of the goals for the team this year?
I think we'll basically be looking to Kei Kamara, CJ Sapong - and maybe later on in the season - Teal Bunbury to be scoring our goals. Graham Zusi will probably get the odd long shot or follow-up goal but is no means our best finisher. With CJ though I think it's definitely not out of the question to say we could be looking at a 10-12 goal season from him, same for Kamara, they've both looked dangerous early on and are big physical guys that can get on the ends of set pieces. Bunbury will probably wind up with 5 and Zusi will have about the same. Last year we could rely on Omar Bravo a lot more to score our goals and we had one of the most potent attacks in the league with Omar, CJ, and Kei up top in our three pronged attack. With his departure however, and Bobby Convey's entrance, our left side hasn't been as prolific.
3. I thought Bobby Convey was a great addition to the roster of SKC, so far while he hasn't made a huge impact via stats (just 1 assist in 406 minutes), do you think that he has made Sporting a more dangerous team?
I think it's been really tough on Bobby to come into this squad. First of all, he has had to adapt to a position he hasn't played in years, not to mention the fact that Convey barely even played for San Jose towards the end of last season at any position never mind the left wing. Second of all, while he looked really good against LA Galaxy last week, he is still adapting to Sporting KC's attacking 4-3-3 formation and in the beginning of the year looked like a ghost. I think something Sporting KC fans are getting used to is that Bobby won't be scoring goals left in right, but instead will be used to help score the goals and progress the attack into the final form. In it's simplest form, Convey was brought in to replace our Mexican DP, Omar Bravo, who scored 9 goals last season. While Convey is no Omar Bravo a lot of us want him to do well and if he plays like he did against LA I'll have no complaints.
Bonus: If you could pick a player from the RSL roster to add to SKC who would it be and why?
Based on pure talent - it's got to be Javier Morales, he's one of the best attacking midfielders in the league when he's playing at full fitness. Shame he was injured so horrifically last season. As far as players that Sporting could actually use I'd go with Fabian Espindola. He's so fast and could fit really well on one of the wings, who knows, he might even be able to play a Omar Bravo type role.