Sporting Kansas City will soon be heading to Portland to take on the Timbers at Providence Park on Saturday night … no small talk is necessary. The league-leading Timbers threaten with a formidable front four of Fernando Adi, Sebastian Blanco, Darlington Nagbe, and Diego Valeri, all well-coached, and in one of the rowdiest and loudest houses in MLS – to come out with crucial early season points against a conference rival is a formidable task, even for undefeated Sporting Kansas City.
Peter Vermes’ side sports the top defense in the league and is coming off a satisfying 3-1 victory over the Colorado Rapids at home last Sunday that included three salivating goals from an attack that was building toward such a breakthrough in its first four matches. And the breakthrough has revealed a faster, quicker thinking squad that can transition into the attack more effectively than Sporting Kansas City clubs of the past few years.
“No doubt physical speed has increased,” said Vermes, alluding much to the addition of West African Designated player Gerso Fernandes into the starting 11, “but also speed of thought for the players to recognize what’s on.”
In scoring his first ever MLS goal, Gerso showcased his speed as he cleared the ball from just outside Sporting’s own box to checking-back forward Dom Dwyer, pursued the developing play with a middle channel run, then gave a burst of super-human speed inside of midfielder Roger Espinoza who had received out wide right from Dwyer. After Espinoza’s well-weighted ball into space, Gerso finished inside the near post with his left foot, beating US International goalkeeper Tim Howard for his first MLS goal and a game-winning 2-0 lead for Sporting. It was about 70 yards of fast-breaking. And it was breathtaking.
“It shows a great mentality by all our players to not only recognize the situation, but also to physical be able to do what we are asking them to do in our model of play,” said Vermes. “A lot of times you play that ball forward and think, ‘Ahh, that guy’s not going to get it, so I’m not going to run.’ You have to make that run, because when he does get it, he has to have options.”
The ability to transition or counter effectively and efficiently allows Sporting to relieve pressure on the defense and to put increasing pressure on the opponent.
“We wanted players to come in this year and [provide speed] to change the game, go on the attack, take care of the ball,” added Espinoza. “That was our mentality, that was our goal this season, and is still our goal going forward.”
Now opponents have to deal with not only Sporting’s ability to hold the ball in possession, but with their speed and precision when they get the ball anywhere on the field. It’s a progression in the team’s developing personality that signals a growing cohesiveness within the squad.
“Everybody is doing their job, and that allows you to do your job. If another guy runs 20 yards for you, then you are next,” said Espinoza. “You take turns, and you pressure at the same time, and that will save a lot of energy.”
Against Portland’s vaunted offense – 16 goals scored in 6 games – Sporting will need to be unified and balanced.
“They are really good at finding that space between the line of the midfield and the backline,” said center back Ike Opara, who will face a crucial battle with Adi. “We have to be in-tune to where they are and know the spaces they like to get into. They love to get the ball centrally with those talented playmakers [Blanco, Nagbe, and Valeri], so we have to figure out a way to control that impact.”
Both Espinoza and Opara agree on how Sporting can best negate Portland’s attack – play Sporting’s ever-evolving game.
“We have to be able to weather the storm, and when we have our moments, to drive that game when possible,” stated Opara. “That’s the way to keep the crowd out of it. It’s a tough place to play.”
And helping the cause will be the likely return of playmaking midfielder Benny Feilhaber to the 18 barring any regression in his hamstring from Thursday’s training on according to Vermes. Feilhaber’s return after missing two matches will only add to Sporting’s evolution, an evolution that will continue on this two-game road swing at Portland Saturday and then at FC Dallas a week later - two of the top teams in the league and in the conference. These match-ups will be a test for a Sporting side that is still early in its development, but it’s never too early for points in the standings.
“We will learn some things about ourselves, but we won’t get too high or too low regardless of the result,” said Opara. “We are focused on keeping our heads down and ready to get better each week. It’s a long season, we are trying to collect consistent points throughout.”