Saturday's game against the Vancouver Whitecaps was one that answered many questions that had been swirling around Sporting Kansas City for a while now:
- Who's going to start at left back now that Michael Harrington and Roger Espinoza back and available? Right back?
- What Julio Cesar Santos ever to see the field again now that Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler have solidified their center back pairing
- Would Espinoza see any time a midfield after a good showing there in the Gold Cup with Honduras?
Additionally, it answered questions which many weren't even thinking of asking:
- How will Davy Arnaud look coming off the bench?
- What does Seth Sinovic look like playing at left wing?
- When will we see Teal Bunbury again if he doesn't even make it to the field when all three forward players get subbed out?
All of those answers (and more!) after the break.
So the biggest story on the day for Sporting Kansas City would be the lineup, and - in my opinion, particularly the two outside back positions. Espinoza was back from the Gold Cup, which asked a few questions about who would be playing where in the right and left back spots. Sinovic had played very well, particularly defensively, in the absence of Espinoza and had even managed to wrestle the spot away from Harrington who had started to fill in for Roger while he was gone (though had been starting at right back before the whole mix-up started). Unfortunately for Harrington, Chance Myers had done very well filling in at that right back spot while Michael was over covering for Roger's absence.
Now that you're up to speed with the drama that is Sporting Kansas City's full-back position you can truly appreciate the questions surrounding those spots. Harrington/Espinoza had filled those spots up until Espinoza's absence, but now whether either of them would be starting was in serious doubt. Anyone could feel some sympathy for the players - it hardly seems totally 'fair' for Espinoza to lose his position for playing for his country when MLS should probably not be playing during the conflicting tournament in the first place. Likewise, Harrington had been playing much better in the right back position than the left back position so having him lose his spot because he is actually more flexible than Myers and can play on the left seems harsh as well.
Yet this sport isn't about being 'fair' to players: as much as we'd like to be fair to players and not penalize them for playing for their country when it's their right to do so, what is important is putting a lineup which has the best opportunity to win games. Likewise, it wouldn't be entirely fair to penalize players who have performed extremely well when called upon, particularly when you consider that Sinovic as not been a part of a losing Sporting Kansas City cause.
Because of this, it is not terribly surprising that we saw Sinovic and Myers out there in the starting lineup. However, this did not actually result in Espinoza being left on the bench, which leads straight into the next line-up discussion.
For the purpose of this discussion, the 'midfield' of Sporting Kansas City's current formation (which is as easily described as a 4-3-3 (with the wingers withdrawn) as a 4-5-1) will be the three players in the center. I don't look at the current formation and consider the wingers up top to be 'midfielders' just as I don't consider the change from the '4-3-3' played earlier in the season to this '4-5-1' played currently as a radical change at all. That's a different story altogether, however.
Anyway, I'm sure I wasn't the only one surprised to see who was led out there against Vancouver: Graham Zusi, Espinoza and Cesar. Zusi was a welcome and probably expected sight for many - his recent run of form should probably at least deserve consideration to being an All-Star (though not through the fan-voting, which Kansas City players would have a hard time winning anyway). The other two, however, were somewhat of a surprise.
Espinoza really ought not be as much a surprise as it ended up being for many; he had started off his MLS career as a midfielder and that is exactly how he is used by his national team (where he performed very well in the Gold Cup). His move to left back was significantly more surprising than his move back into the midfield. To me, however, it isn't that he was being played or even started in this position that surprised me, but who he was arguably replacing: Davy Arnaud. You know, the captain of the team...
How often is a team's captain left out of the starting eleven? Well, I'd venture that it doesn't happen extremely often, but when you consider the incredible amount of fixture congestion that Sporting Kansas City is and will be going through, it honestly seems like a good move and I wouldn't be surprised to see it again. Of course, Arnaud has his opposition this season as well - he hasn't been nearly as visible has he had been in the past, with somewhat of an exception in the previous game at Philadelphia. The reasons I see this to be the case is that Arnaud is playing more of a defensive and less of a creative role as he had in the past (with the exception of that Philly game). And, if you pay closer attention to his play this season, I'd say that he's been very influential in playing some key passes to get the offense off and running.
Julio Cesar, however, is probably the most surprising of any inclusion of a player in the lineup. Cesar ended up slotting into the other defensive spot in the midfield, a position he had played for 30 minutes against San Jose a week earlier, but that particular appearance seemed to be more of a tactical adjustment by Vermes to Dawkins coming in for San Jose earlier.
To say that many fans were 'down' on Cesar would be an understatement. He had a number of questionable plays early in the season - to the extent that he was being pegged as the 'second coming of Escobar' (a central defender from last season who was let go the end of June and was probably lucky to make it that long). To be honest, his necessary inclusion in the Philadelphia game had given me some qualms (though he performed admirably), but I do feel that this (and any) league takes some time to get acclimated to. The fact that Collin had come in and played as well so quickly seemed to be the exception, not the rule.
But then, the most surprising part of the lineup against Vancouver was... well, not the forwards. Omar Bravo at left-wing, CJ Sapong continuing his strong run of form at center-forward and then Milos Stojcev making his regular appearance at right wing. Err... wait, so there was something a bit surprising there - Stocjev was not only returning to the lineup as a starter after a disastrous appearance against Dallas but he was doing so on the right wing, the opposite side of the field from the Dallas game. Considering that he took the place of Kei, who was the only forward who played the full 90 in Philadelphia takes a bit of the surprise out of this, but it was still quite a shock for me.
With two of the three substitute appearances coming after the 80th minute, there really isn't too much that one would probably be able to take away from those appearances. However, even though it was the last sub made of the game, I thought the Harrington sub for Bravo was the most interesting. It seemed to me that, unlike the similar situation in Philadelphia, where Harrington played up top in Bravo's vacant position, this time we saw Sinovic move up to the left-wing spot and Harrington filled in the left-back position. I found this particularly interesting because I think that Sinovic's weakest attributes is his game going forward while I feel that Harrington is much better at doing this. Perhaps Vermes was just trying to get a look at Sinovic in left-wing, or even wanting to get Harrington back at his more suitable position at left-back to give him another chance to win his spot back.
So with all of these surprising lineup changes, how did they all do? Well, if the 2-1 scoreline doesn't indicate that the team did well enough, I am here to say that I was particularly impressed with many of these new spots for these players.
It does deserve mentioning that the team was playing the team at the bottom of the table which hadn't logged an away win yet this year, yet they did find themselves down 1-0 after 15 minutes. That being said, the goal against them was against the run of play and it took a strong performance from Cannon to prevent 4 or more goals being scored by Kansas City. I also tend to think that Vermes knew this was an opponent which would struggle away from home and that he could use the opportunity to tinker a bit with the lineup as well as rest some tired legs.
Of all of the players' performances, I was particular happy with Bravo's - he had not really looked nearly as sharp as expected since his surgery but he looked much, much better this game. In fact, he probably could've notched another assist or two if the other players had backed him up at times (though I didn't think he had much of a chance in most of those situations either). Cesar's was another very positive performance as well - we're starting to see what it was that caused Vermes and co. to offer him the contract that he got. He's still a good amount of proving to do, but he's definitely off of the "what the hell were they thinking" list and onto the "need to re-evaluate" list. Espinoza showed that he was definitely an option in midfield and had a number of very good plays. Stocjev also showed that he is no longer a player to discount offhand. Like Cesar, he doesn't go straight to "automatic starter" in my book, but I am receptive to seeing him on the field again.
The Harrington/Sinovic situation was one that didn't get a terribly long amount of time to evaluate. Sinovic didn't look completely lost at left-wing, but I'm not sure I want to see him out there for an extended period of time, particularly if we're needing to score goals. Harrington also didn't do anything great or poor in his few minutes and I expect to see more of him in the Open Cup.
Bunbury not making the field at all, even after all three forwards were replaced, was interesting. I'm absolutely positive that we'll see him in the Open Cup game against the Chicago Fire PDL side, but it is quite amazing to see the role reversal between him and Sapong considering Sapong was considered the 2nd choice guy back in the Open Cup qualifier against New England and now he seems to be the 1st choice. I expect that the Open Cup will be a good experience for a strugling player like Bunbury and I look forward to the point where we have a very difficult decision to choose who should get to start at center-forward in the future.
All-in-all, I believe that this type of lineup rotation that shows just how deep and versatile Sporting Kansas City is. Versatility is something that Vermes seems to value highly and I expect that this versatility may even start making its way into the way the team plays in the future, with players able to swap mid-game with other players if things are not working out quite so well. This depth and versatility is also going to be extremely instrumental considering the fixture congestion which the team has been entering into. This congestion could be crippling in other circumstances, but I am now feeling that we could skate through it just fine.
I'm not calling saying that we're shoe-ins for the MLS Cup just yet, but you have to say that things are much brighter these days for Sporting Kansas City.