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From Sporting Fit to Sporting Flat

A look at Sporting KC’s late season faltering.

MLS: Sporting KC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

For the fourth straight season, Sporting Kansas City's season ended in the wild card round of the MLS Cup playoffs, this year thanks to a 1-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo in extra time. Each of the last four years it's been something new that has knocked Sporting out of the playoffs, whether it was goalkeeping mistakes (2-1 loss to New York in 2014), unkind posts (Saad Abdul-Salaam penalty off both posts in Portland in 2015), incorrect refereeing decisions (Nelson Rodriguez being offside on his winner in Seattle in 2016), and inability to finish (Houston 2017), but in the end there have been two constants for Kansas City.

One, all four of these games took place on the road. As has been stated multiple times over the last couple years, the last time that KC hosted a home playoff game was the 2013 MLS Cup final against Real Salt Lake. A number of times in preseason and early in the season the club talked about the need to play at home in the playoffs, to have the home crowd behind them.

Unfortunately that didn't happen this year, and part of that reason is because of the second constant over the last four years, a collapse down the stretch for Kansas City. By this time most of you have seen the Tweet with KC's record over the last 10 games of the season for the last four years. Kansas City has gone 11-19-10 in the last 10 games of the last four seasons combined, picking up just 43 of 120 available to them in that stretch (1.1 points per game).

One of the buzzwords around the club for the last few years has been "Sporting Fit" the team was going to be ready to run Vermes' press, the club was going to be able to go the entire game. And Sporting Fit seemed to work for a while, from 2011 to 2013, Sporting KC finished in the top two in the Eastern Conference each of those years. Since then though the latter half of the season has seemed more like Sporting Flat.

Over the last four years, KC's gone completely flat in the back half of the season, starting in 2014, when the team ended the season on a 2-7-1 run, just seven of an available 30 points. Averaging just .7 points per game (PPG) over the final 10 games of the season was over a full point below KC's PPG average over the first 24 games of the season. Their goal production fell as well, scoring just 12 times in those 10 games, down from their average of 1.5 goals per game over the first part of the season. Goal difference was just as bad, almost doubling their .96 goals against average of .96 over the first 24 games, to 1.8 over the last 10.

The next season, 2015, only got marginally better, KC started that season 11-6-7 over their first 24 games, but over their final 10, went just 3-5-2, over half a point per game lower than where they were the first part of the season. KC scored just nine goals in their final 10 games that season, down from averaging 1.63 per game earlier in the year.

In 2016, the club's fortunes over the first part of the season weren't as well, going 10-10-4 over the first 24 games. Their ending run by comparison doesn't look as bad, going just 3-3-4 over the final 10, their points per game barely lower than it was over the first 24 games.

This season though was another drop off, going 3-4-3 over the final 10 after going 9-5-10 over the first 24 games and a 5-2-3 start to the season. KC's goals per game didn't suffer much over the last 10 games compared to the first 24, but finishing was a problem throughout KC's 2017 campaign. There was a drop though, minimal as it was, combined with the club's goals against rising from an absurdly low .79 GPG over the first 24 games to one GPG over the final 10 games it made getting results for Sporting that much harder.

Compared to the prior three year stretch where KC consistently was averaging close to or at two points per game over the final 10 games (1.8 in 2011, 1.9 in 2012, 2 in 2013) and you see a clear difference between the team's performance to close those seasons, the defense tightens up, allowing close to .4 goals per game less than they do over the first 24 games of the season, not once over that stretch did they allow more than 10 goals over the final 10 games. They also lost a combined five games over those 30 games in that three year stretch (16-5-9), earning 53 of a possible 90 points in that stretch (1.8 points per game).

One of the arguments that people like to immediately jump to in this regard is the amount of minutes Sporting players get early in the season and Vermes' subbing strategy in games where he seems very reluctant to use subs until late to kill time. This season was especially lopsided, as when I pulled numbers after 13 games this year, KC's starting 11 had played 11,930 minutes of 12,870 available for players through their first 13 games. That's 93% of available minutes going to just 11 players early in the season, more than any other team in the league up to that point in the season. The next closest team in the league at that point of the season was Atlanta United with their starters playing 88% of their minutes. The league average over that stretch was even further away, sitting at 79% of minutes going to starting 11 players over that stretch. By the end of the season, KC's number for their best 11 had fallen to where the league average would be, at 79%.

Based off the last few years though, this year was abnormally high, only one other time since 2011 has KC's starting 11 gotten 90% or more of the minutes over the first 13 games, and that was back in 2012. The other five years since 2011 have actually been below this year's average, between a high of 83% of minutes in 2013 to a low of 68% of minutes in 2011 going to the starting 11 players. By the end of the season, KC's average has been well below the average.

The one thing that has changed as the years have gone by is that the core of those minutes has continued to get old. Matt Besler and Graham Zusi for example have appeared on the list for KC each of the last seven years and that pair has gone from their mid-20's into their early 30's over this stretch. You also have the likes of Roger Espinoza and Benny Feilhaber appearing on the list five of the seven year stretch. Both those players are now into their early 30's as well. Unlike prior years, the majority (six) of KC's starting 11 this past year was at or over the age of 30. Of the 11 players who played the most minutes by the end of 2017, only Latif Blessing, Gerso Fernandes, Jimmy Medranda, Ike Opara, and Ilie Sanchez were under the age of 30. In the past, KC has looked to get help from other players late in their career, but the likes of Nuno Coelho, Brad Davis, and Justin Mapp have seen their time in KC derailed by injuries.

Obviously with the core getting older, expecting them to continue to produce at the level that they have can't be expected, miles over a career add up. Maybe the likes of Feilhaber who didn't get a ton of minutes early in his career in Europe can last longer, but there comes a point where youth needs to start coming in.

Unfortunately for KC the youth that has come in hasn't been able to successfully displace the depth. Of the five players under 30 to get the most minutes this past year, over half of them were new to the team this year, the likes of Saad Abdul-Salaam and Soni Mustivar, players who had previously been on the list have fallen down the depth chart this year. Meanwhile others, like Connor Hallisey, Amadou Dia, Toni Dovale, Jordi Quintilla, and others were brought in with the hope/expectation that they could be key contributors, but have all failed to live up to expectations and haven't lasted more than a couple years. That's put more pressure on the aging core to eat up as many minutes as possible, potentially leading to more tired legs later in the season.

Sporting's strategy overall has not changed that much, bits and pieces of Vermes' playing style for the club has changed, but the overall formation and style hasn't. The club still high presses, it still works to disrupt opposing offenses regularly, and it still defends from the front.

There isn't really one thing that you can point to for the reason for the collapses in the season because Vermes hasn't changed enough things that much. It's not necessarily that teams have caught on to the changes Vermes has made, because they're not that big from year to year. It's not necessarily Vermes' subbing strategy because that too really hasn't changed over the years. It's not necessarily that the players are being overplayed, because it's a strategy that Vermes has used regularly throughout his career, although the aging core of the team is probably one thing that can be pointed at.

It's a combination of all of these things, it's because the league that catches on to your playing style quicker because of better coaching, better players, and better scouting. It's because Vermes comes in with his game play every day and doesn't deviate from it most times, many times that can seem like punching a brick wall. It's because the core of the team isn't in their mid-20's anymore, surrounded by the older pieces that complete the team. It is all these things that have helped Sporting Fit turn into Sporting Flat late in the season.