Believe me, I’m not taking credit. I’m just pointing out a self-serving fact … take it for what you will.
I put down random ideas that jump in my head when writing articles. And I wrote this as I batted around ideas before the MLS playoffs began for Sporting Kansas City: “Could Felipe Gutierrez be the key to an extended playoff run for Sporting KC? He is on the upswing when it comes to his play on the ball. And even though he is ferocious in disrupting opponent’s play in more subtle ways than his counterpart, Roger Espinoza, he has yet to regain the offensive fervor he had in his early season binge. Felipe bringing that fight a bit more on the offensive side could make a huge difference in the playoffs.”
Three assists on the five Sporting goals in the two-leg series win over Real Salt Lake later, the Chilean International’s play has been critical in his side’s push into the Western Conference Final series with Portland Timbers that begins this Sunday in Portland.
The #6/#8/#10 midfielder and Designated Player began his Kansas City career with a bang after joining the club in early February from Spanish La Liga side Real Betis on a three-year contract with a club option for a fourth. Scoring five goals in four matches, Gutierrez was named the MLS Player of the Month for March.
But fate would interrupt his new-found success as an injury, listed as a sports hernia, kept Sporting’s Newcomer of the Year out of action from April 8-July 14, a stretch of 14 games. Without Gutierrez, Sporting went 6-3-5. With him in the lineup, Sporting went 12-5-3, including its 3-0-2 season-closing push to the top of the Western Conference. Additionally, with Gutierrez in the lineup, Sporting averaged two goals per game in the MLS regular season. Without him, 1.78, a statistic that includes the April 20 home 6-0 blowout of the Vancouver Whitecaps. Throw out those six goals, Sporting averaged only 1.46 goals per game sans his attacking verve, vision and precise, insightful passing.
Gutierrez does not like to talk about injuries, perhaps because they have impacted the feast and famine nature of his recent club career. In May of 2016, Gutierrez made a dream move to Spain’s La Liga with newly promoted Real Betis after a strong four-year stint with FC Twente in The Netherland’s Eredivisie, despite a knee injury that had kept him out most of the last two months of the season. He quickly won a starting spot. Nevertheless, by December, he was dropped from the squad. Another knee injury kept him out during January, after which he returned for two matches before being dropped from the squad again until the end of the season. Gutierrez was then loaned to Brazilian club Sport Club Internacional where he struggled to find a starting position, making 16 appearances and scoring one goal. Though Real Betis offered a purchase option, Internacional decided against buying the midfielder. But Sporting Kansas City had already come calling.
Having traded playmaker Benny Feilhaber to Los Angeles Football Club in the offseason, Sporting KC was looking for midfield help. The widely-talented Gutierrez, who had played in systems similar to Sporting’s possession-based, yet pressing 4-3-3, fit the bill.
“[The relationship] started in November or December. My agent told me about the option to come here; in that moment I was on holiday in Brazil,” said Gutierrez.
Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes, however, revealed that the interest in the midfielder went back a few years. “But financially and mechanism-wise,” he said, “we couldn’t actually put him on the roster.”
Yet MLS was not Gutierrez’s first choice.
“When you are my age, Central American players always want to be in Europe,” said the 28-year-old. “I wanted to stay in Europe, so we waited for that. But it didn’t come.”
“The other really good option is to be here. I talked with [current teammate and fellow Chilean] Diego [Rubio] about how the family is here,” Gutierrez said, alluding to the team mentality. “He said it was really good; that was another really good tip to come here.”
“Our interest was real and was a long-term idea,” Vermes stated. “I think he was looking for something that was going to be more stable than him being bought by a club and then loaned out, a merry go-round.”
In limbo, and seemingly not satisfied with the situation at Real Betis, Gutierrez went to January training in Spain. But he was waiting for Kansas City. Something had stalled the talks.
“Then, by the end of January, the option to come here was really, really clear. And I said, ‘Yes, I want to come to MLS,’” he revealed. “I talked with Peter, too, on the phone and [told him] because I like everything and how they work it here, the soccer, the stadium.”
The Family Man
On the field, the move to Kansas City was smooth. But the two months without seeing his family was trying. Many times, this writer has seen him hand-in-hand with his two boys (4 and 2 1/2), a proud and steady dad on the job. His love for his family is clear.
Have a great day today Cauldron City. pic.twitter.com/iJGE4PimoR— The Cauldron (@KCCauldron) November 14, 2018
When they finally arrived, “I was excited in that moment,” he said. And Kansas City has taken its hold.
“Living here is easy; it’s comfortable in every way – the school, the life, the traffic. I love to live here. It’s a really nice city,” he said. “I talked with some people and ask them, ‘Hey, do you like Kansas City?’ They say, ‘No. I like it more in other cities.’ But for me, I like it a lot. I don’t know how other people can live in New York.”
If he needs anything, Sporting Kansas City is there to lend guidance, and he is learning English, mainly through jokes with the Sporting physios, he quipped. It is that type of togetherness that Gutierrez seems to thrive on. As his club heads into the away-and-home playoff clash with the Portland Timbers, Gutierrez sees family as a strength.
“We are a team. We try to go in the same way, everyone, in the defensive part, in the offensive part,” he said. “We don’t have the star players compared to other teams, but we play like a team.”
“Is that how you like it?” I asked. He replied with palpable sincerity, “I love that.”
Even the most casual of fans has to return that love to Gutierrez now. It’s money time, and Gutierrez has brought the fight on both sides of the ball. His three assists in two playoff games have helped KC cash in and reminded all of his varied skill set.
Not only does Gutierrez make Kansas City’s attack more dangerous, he balances the midfield and completes the triumvirate of multi-dimensional players in Sporting’s 4-3-3 setup that depends on a talented and varied midfield to press opposing teams (shielding the back four as the wing backs attack). Gutierrez can consistently play a defense-defying ball like Feilhaber could to feed the wings and striker. Witness his passes to Daniel Salloi and Diego Rubio in the 4-2 home win over RSL nearly two Sundays ago (not to mention his ball played to Rubio to help draw the game-winning 67th minute penalty):
“[With Gutierrez in the midfield] we can tweak the way we play. We can play in the other half of the field; we can drop off,” added Vermes. “He and the other guys we’ve added have made us more malleable. We are little more like silly putty right now than maybe a statue.”
Gutierrez can also do what Feilhaber did most famously in the semi-final of the 2013 playoffs with a skillful chip into then-forward Dom Dwyer for the match-winner - play that ball that makes you go “Wow!” Witness his two precise and delicate chips for Yohan Croizet early in the season. Like Feilhaber, he is strong-willed and confident (though quiet about it). Yet, the assured way he carries himself and, particularly, the knowing cast of his eyes speak volumes.
On the field, he jaws at opponents, and he is a fervent advocate for his team to the referee. He is a mix of his midfield partners – active and persistent and strong in tackles like Roger Espinoza, calm and insightful on the ball like Ilie Sanchez. And due to his activity, he can pop up anywhere to defuse an attack or ignite one himself. Lastly, put him in front of the net, and the ball is most likely in the back of the net. Overall, his abilities on the ball, his vision, and his defensive persistence have raised the midfield, and the team, to levels never seen before in Kansas City.
In that Sunday 2nd leg match, Felipe led Sporting with four chances created, an 87.9% passing accuracy, five tackles and four fouls won, 14 successful passes in the final third, and an 1101 Audi player index (254 more points than runner-up Salloi). His first leg performance was similar.
A Different Level: “It’s what we have to do.”
After the match, Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes reiterated the significance of acquiring Gutierrez.
“His quality showed today, really high quality showed today,” Vermes said. “He did some things in the game – some of his passes, some of the ways he played balls. That’s a different level player. That’s one of the reasons why we got him.”
But first: Portland. Artificial turf. Travel. A boisterous, hostile crowd. All must be faced Sunday before the home leg on Thursday, November 29. Does Gutierrez think Sporting KC has what it takes to make it to the final?
“I don’t think nothing about that. We have to do our job how we’ve done it the last three or four months,” he said. “You have to prepare your head for [whatever is coming]. It’s not difficult or easy, it’s what we have to do.”
Gutierrez has found a home and a family. He is playing free, and he is doing it.