Sporting KC was off to a blazing start. A perfect start. The boys looked good and they were doing it without their MVP, Benny Feilhaber. Real Salt Lake was limping into town and fielding reserves every where you looked. It didn't matter Espinoza and Besler were out, because Benny was ready to play and SKC looked fit to cruise to their fourth win in as many games.
But rivalry games are rivalry games and nothing really ever goes as planned.
When asked about the loss this week after practice, Peter Vermes says his team is ready to use the 2-1 loss to get better:
"It's our first one. Sometimes these situations can be good from an educational perspective. There's a lot of things that we actually did really well in the game, to a certain point. And then it sputtered out after that. So those are things we can work towards and get better with."
The absences of Roger Espinoza and Captain Matt Besler certainly played a role. Besler's importance to the back line is obvious, and his 78.7 passes per game facilitate so much for this team out of the back. That mark is the highest on the club and good for second in MLS behind only Pirlo of NYCFC.
When it comes to Roger Espinoza, I think what we are seeing is that this team is just nowhere near the same without him. Sporting looked in this match very much like they did last year after Roger got hurt and they fell from Supporter's Shield favorite to the second wildcard spot.
This season he leads the team with a passing accuracy of 89% (I eliminate Rubio and Ellis for lack of minutes) and he is second in tackles per game with 2.7 behind Soni Mustivar (3.3). And Roger is only behind him because a big part of his job is funneling the other team into Mustivar's lap! He is the enforcer. He starts attacks and he ends threats before they begin.
But when I asked Vermes about what his team was missing without those two important players, he just simply doesn't look at it that way. He knows the team out there was capable and he focuses on the players on the field and what went wrong.
"Look there's no doubt you'll miss those guys, but I don't think that was the cause of the game by any means. Not at all."
"The goals are pretty simple. That's one piece. We gave the ball away in crucial areas of the field, very simple balls. Which then allowed them to get chances that they never should have. And then the other piece is that we actually got ourselves in pretty good spots, but we never took advantage of them. Seemed like we were good building all the way up the field until the final third. And then in the final third we were sort of lackluster, we weren't aggressive enough and we didn't penetrate enough. It's something we've got to get better at."
'Lackluster in the final third' is putting it lightly, coach. This heat map is not pretty:
Sporting KC are attacking left to right in this image. And yes... that is a big empty space in the center of the field on the attacking end.
The space where, you know, you can create goals. That is where Sporting KC was not.
While that is often a general shape for SKC, you can see much of the game was spent in their defensive half. There is basically zero red on the good side. What little action there was came from the flanks and the lack of heat up the middle in the attack is just disturbing.
There was one specific offside call that was really close, but wrong. I think it prevented Zusi from having an easy 1-on-1 with the keeper. But still Sporting KC was called offside eight times, killing several attacking efforts.
Despite Vermes refusing to make excuses about players he didn't have, Sporting KC missed Espinoza desperately and the offense needed Besler's distribution to get things going.
But PV has a squad full of veterans. He says they've moved past the loss and are focusing on getting ready for the Red Bulls this Saturday.
"I think we've got a group that has been through this quite a few times and they understand its a grind through the season," Vermes explained. "It's about getting back to your next game. We play a really big opponent in NY and we have to be ready for it."