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Fear factor missing for Sporting Kansas City

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Difference maker(s), other traits needed to be truly “competitive” for fans. Now is time to splash some cash.

MLS: Western Conference Knockout Round-Sporting KC at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

On Being Competitive …

Before Sporting Kansas City traveled to Houston to face the Dynamo in the 2017 Western Conference Playoff Knockout Round October 26th (an eventual 1-0 loss), club Technical Director and Manager Peter Vermes expressed dismay, labeling reporters’ focus on the failings of the team as “insulting and disrespectful.” One can sympathize with Vermes sentiment as his charges had finished a thrilling run to the U.S. Open Cup Championship only weeks earlier (the fourth trophy in six years) and had just qualified for the playoffs for the seventh straight season (all in what was essentially a retooling year). Yes, Sporting Kansas City is continuously competitive, something all fans wish for their team. And other MLS teams are envious. We see you, Peter. But …

The players and Vermes himself repeatedly stated that the season-long goal was to earn a home playoff game as part of a two-game away-and-home series to give them the best shot at the ultimate prize of MLS Cup. Simple fact: that self-stated goal was not achieved. Everything else is irrelevant.

The “compete” mantra turned consistent (though muted) reality is no doubt appreciated and a reward to Sporting Kansas City fans. But it is akin to an employee being thanked by their employer for doing their job – a good employee says, “Thank you. But isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?”

By being competitive (But it must be asked, is placing 5th in the conference and 11th in a 22-team league in 2017 really “competing”?), Sporting Kansas City is doing what they are supposed to do. But rewarding their fans with the thrill of playing at least one playoff game at home by virtue of a top-two finish in the conference, making an extended run at MLS Cup, and truly being one of the elite in MLS is what the devout and faithful Sporting Kansas City supporters deserve, and is what it truly means to compete.

Fear - “Fear will always find you because it knows where you live.” a paraphrase

For four seasons straight – after the glory of the 2013 MLS Cup Championship – Sporting KC has exited the MLS playoffs in an away knockout round match. It is the streak that must not be named. How is that streak broken? Ironically, veteran right back Graham Zusi revealed the answer before the loss in Houston. When asked if Sporting Kansas City had someone on the squad that can pick the team up and carry it on their shoulders in the playoffs if need be, Zusi replied, “Absolutely. We’ll see who it is though.”

Zusi, in trying to answer in the affirmative, actually implied serious doubt. There was, and is, no one on this roster who can elevate the team’s play in tepid or high-intensity, high-need moments during the playoffs or the regular season, who can beat a team in multiple moments at multiple times. All prime-time contenders in every league in the world have that X-factor, if not multiple ones – Portland’s Diego Valeri, Vancouver’s Fredy Montero, Seattle’s Clint Dempsey to name just those in the Western conference, not to mention others who have done it for those sides repeatedly – Fanendo Adi or Sebastian Blanco; Yordy Reyna or Cristian Techera; Nicolas Lodeiro or Jordan Morris.

X-factors scare opponents. Seriously scare opponents. Sporting hasn’t struck fear in any opponents since the 2011-2013 Era when they rattled off two top-place finishes and one second place finish in the conference. The dynamic and multi-talented winger/forward Kei Kamara was the X-factor who could beat opponents on the dribble, set up teammates near the opponent’s goal, and finish consistently in a variety of ways. And he was a crowd-pleaser. When Kamara received the ball within 30 yards of goal, the crowd grew anticipatory, expectant, and were drawn to the edge of their seats.

The 6’3”, 190 lbs Kamara also had ample speed and all-around physical strength rarely seen in the league at the time. CJ Sapong, Aurelien Collin, Lawrence Olum, Ike Opara, Matt Besler, Teal Bunbury, and Kamara – all 6’0” or over – regularly dotted Sporting Kansas City’s landscape during those years. The 2017 squad inspired my usually dormant-when-it-comes-to-soccer wife to exclaim, “They’re all so small.” An exaggeration, but point taken. Of regular/somewhat-regular starters, only backs Besler, Opara, Saad Abdul Salaam, and rookie winger/forward Daniel Salloi hit that mark, besides goalkeeper Tim Melia.

Anyone who has competed in any sport knows beyond a doubt that competing against an opponent who is bigger and stronger is very difficult. Imagine a Jozy Altidore or Fanendo Adi or an Ola Kamara or Sapong playing the #9 center forward role for Sporting Kansas City instead of the string of diminutive targets of the past few seasons. Imagine Sporting Kansas City being dangerous on set pieces – 21.5% of all goals in MLS in 2016 were scored on set pieces. Imagine Sporting Kansas City being able to physical impose the game on their opponents, instead of the New York Red Bulls physically knocking speedy wingers Gerso Fernandes and Latif Blessing out of the game like they did in the U.S. Open Cup Final, a win for Sporting KC, yes, but a pattern, like the rest above, that was repeated during the season.

Specifically, Sporting Kansas City needs a playmaker, a striker, and another winger that can be difference makers. They need to strike fear in their opponents where they haven’t – with difference-makers who can regularly lift the team in open play and with speed and physical size all over the field, especially in the box. Sporting KC needs to exploit their opponents’ weaknesses regularly with a diversity of weapons to kill them off, whether it’s in a regular season MLS match as they battle for a strong playoff seed or a one-off playoff knockout round match.

A (Another?) Disturbing Trend …

Goals are the lifeblood of the sport of soccer. They are moments of exultation for players and fans alike. In 2017, despite an abundance of possession and chances created, Sporting Kansas City tallied only 40 goals in 34 games, their lowest in years (with 2016 just behind at 42). Teams above in the Western Conference scored 57, 50, 52, 60 respectively. Wow. Here are the players with the best strike rate (in goal per minute ratio) in recent Kansas City (Sporting or Wizards) history:

Sporting KC/Wizards Goal per Minutes Ratio

Player – year Goals in Minutes Played Ratio (1 goal every X minutes)
Player – year Goals in Minutes Played Ratio (1 goal every X minutes)
Dom Dwyer 2014 22 in 2724 1/124
Kei Kamara 2013 (short season) 7 in 1022 1/146
Diego Rubio 2017 6 in 1010 1/168
Dom Dwyer 2016 16 in 2823 1/176
Teal Bunbury 2011 9 in 1744 1/193
Krisztian Nemeth 2015 10 in 2037 1/204
Claudio Bieler 2013 10 in 2109 1/211

For comparison, the top three leading scorers in MLS had the following ratios: 1. Nemanja Nikolic (Chicago Fire) 1/123; 2. David Villa (NYFC) 1/116; 3. Diego Valeri 1/135. (Number four, Josef Martinez of Atlanta United had a whopping ratio of 1/80.)

Conclusion: Getting a consistent goal scorer will require spending money as all those players make big bucks.

Goal scorers must possess a “no one is going to stop me” mentality. Goal scorers are often bastards to compete against on the field. And sometimes that difficult personality shows off the field and in the locker room too.

Questions: Why did many of those players in the chart not last long in Sporting Kansas City blue? Was it because their attitude was not tolerated? Because they weren’t “Sporting fit” or didn’t fit into the system? Because they wanted too much money? Whatever the cause, it’s an alarming trend. And a detrimental one to team success. (And try not to think what Kamara did for Columbus/New England in 2015 & 2016 and all the things CJ Sapong does now for Philadelphia.)

Oh, and this … (goals are needed for wins):

Deeper Means Better

In so many ways … Vermes has long correctly stressed the importance of players pushing each other for spots. Sporting needs to be able to make substitutions that can push opponents and win games. Look no farther than the recent playoff loss to Houston:

Houston’s substitutes – Jalil Anibaba (29, 6’1” 185), MLS veteran of 166 MLS and 4 playoff games; Vicente Sanchez, wily veteran, Uruguayan native, scorer of 85 goals in the Mexican first division; Romell Quioto (26, 5’11”) 7 goals and 3 assists during regular season, Honduran international who has been a key factor in their CONCACAF World Cup Qualification run; Eric Alexander (29, 6’1”, 165) 191 MLS and 11 playoff appearances. (Side note: Houston, the 4th place team in the weaker Western conference, has 15 players 6’0” or taller. Sporting KC has 12, but four of those did not see significant minutes, or any, during the season.)

Sporting Kansas City’s substitutes – two rookies – Daniel Salloi and Kevin Oliveira (21), the former a 21-year-old who made some impact during the season and in the Open Cup run, but faded in MLS stretch run, the latter with a grand total of 16 minutes of MLS time played; Saad Abdul Salaam (6’ 4” 185) a 64-game MLS veteran, playing in only his third MLS playoff game but regarded as one of the top right backs in MLS in 2016 – but this was a late-game sub for a team that needed a goal

The reasons for the substitutes are irrelevant and immaterial to the point that Sporting has a lack of proven, impactful players, a point exacerbated by the substitutes in a do-or-die playoff game.

The good news is that Sporting Club is ready to solve the problems. From Robb Heineman, CEO of Sporting Club:

But will they go far enough? Now is the time.

Sporting’s spine through the middle is the strongest it’s ever been – Melia, Besler, Opara, and midfielders general Ilie Sanchez and midfield hound dog Roger Espinoza – but it is aging. Vermes has spawned an evolution in the team’s method of play by adding more speed and skill and enabling them to hold more possession and create strong chances while still having the ability to press high when needed. And a youthful core is on the rise. Now is the time to continue the evolution to truly compete in an ever-evolving league by getting bigger, faster, stronger, deeper, and by adding some spice, some difference makers, to the starting eleven to strike fear in and punish their opponents and to strike wonder and awe in their fans. Then Sporting will be better built for the regular season and the playoffs. It will mean splashing some cash and some skillful maneuvering within the confines of MLS’s salary cap and roster restrictions. But it needs to happen to reward their rightfully frustrated, yet devout and faithful fans who have sold out Children’s Mercy Park for 104 matches running; who have bought SKC merchandise and apparel at high rates ever since the rebrand; who have supported the club’s Victory Project in numerous ways, including selling out the Pitch Black event at $300 a head; and who have made the players’ home field one of the best atmospheres in which to play within Major League Soccer.