After an underwhelming 2-0 home loss to New York City FC on MLS’s 2018 opening weekend, Sporting Kansas City has scored seven goals, gained back-to-back wins, and has jumped into a tie for first-place in the Western Conference. And much of the two-game run has been on the shoulders of its midfield trio, a trio that has been become a fluid, interchangeable, three-headed monster.
But if you want to put a label on each in this long-time-in-forming-midfield, you could …
The #8 box-to-box midfielder and general destroyer would be Roger Espinoza, the 31-year-old MLS, two-time Honduran FIFA World Cup and Wigan Athletic FA Cup winning veteran.
The #6 holding midfield general would be Ilie Sanchez, the 27-year-old Spaniard, a FC Barcelona-raised veteran of the Spanish and German leagues who came to Kansas City last year and provided stability and an enviable calm and wisdom on the ball, solidifying a critical area for Sporting KC.
But neither of them, like Sporting’s “#10”, have a football school named after them (The Municipal School of Football Felipe Gutiérrez in Lautaro, Chile), and neither has been named the MVP of the Dutch Eredivisie nor won the Copa America.
The #10 playmaking midfielder would be newcomer Felipe Gutierrez, the 27-year-old veteran of the Chilean Primera league and La Liga in Spain, in addition to his time in the Netherlands, and the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Yes, you could put traditional labels on them … But you would be wrong.
Ilie, though the most clearly defined of the three, is very capable of playing short passes into the box for a penetrating forward or long balls that split defenders for an onrushing back or winger.
Espinoza, thus far in 2018, has two assists (well on his way to exceeding his career high of five) and has regularly sprayed the ball all over the field (a la Ilie), often making the pass that leads to the pass that becomes the assist.
Gutierrez, surprisingly, has no assists in the record book. Yet. He is the flair, the flick over the defense to the forward bursting into the box, the incisive sharp-angled pass to a diagonal running player in the midfield, the diagonal ball behind the wide back putting the winger into the box. On the dribble, he is the deceptive step-over, the quick change of pace or slight of foot that throws off the defender, the space-exploiting penetrative burst forward. And he is all over the field doing dirty work, currently leading MLS with 20 tackles and ranking sixth with 29 duels won.
“[Felipe] is going to have teams worrying, which means more room for me, more room for Ilie and the front three guys,” said Espinoza. “That’s great that he brings all those qualities - very technical, good passer of the ball, gets on the end of things, gets in the box, and tries to score. When we are defending and teams pin us in, he’s right there helping too.”
Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes has often referred to Espinoza and Gutierrez as two #10s, while pundits (like our own Thad Bell) see them more as two #8s.
Espinoza sees their roles differently.
“Eights are the new number 10s. Back then, the number 10 was pretty much a guy who didn’t defend as much, didn’t play tactical, they were everywhere. The game has become more tactical, so they decided to turn the number 10s into the number 8s,” he said. “So you have to do both roles. It’s a little difficult. If I’m in a position where I can be a number 10 and be able to connect with the front three, then I’ll be a number 10, and Felipe covers with Ilie and vice-versa. That’s the role we have to take. It’s a lot of responsibility, but we like it.”
An 8 or a 10 or a 6 is not expected to score goals. That’s mostly the job of the wingers and the center forward, the #9, in the 4-3-3 that Sporting KC employs. Here, Gutierrez has distinguished himself, despite not being touted as goal scorer.
After a brace against Chicago Fire in week two’s 4-3 away win and his game-winner against San Jose Earthquakes last Saturday in the 3-2 win, Gutierrez is second in the MLS scoring chart and is the first Sporting KC player ever to score three goals in his first three regular season appearances.
However, a look at his background shows that past is indeed prologue. Growing up in Chile – his one-year-older brother serving as the encourager since birth – and even into his academy days with the local professional team, Gutierrez played as the #9. As he progressed, his size (5’7” now) necessitated a move to the midfield where he played centrally (like his Brazilian hero Ronaldinho) and on the left. Yet in 2009 at the age of 18, he joined CD Universidad Catolica, the 12-time Chilean Primera Division champion, where he scored 10 goals for the club in the top-flight Primera Division and followed that with a team-leading seven goals in 16 games the next season before transferring to FC Twente in the Netherlands. Though Gutierrez did not bang in goals regularly for Twente, he did earn league MVP honors in 2013-14.
“When I was younger, I did assist and make goals. Now it’s more complicated, a lot of big players and really good defenders,” Gutierrez stated. “But this year, I don’t know what has happened. I can’t explain how I make all the goals.”
Even Vermes, whose search for a dependable goal-scoring #9 has thus far been fruitless, has been somewhat pleasantly surprised, although he knew his late offseason-signing from La Liga’s Real Betis had the ability to score.
“…I’m kind of excited for the team and for him that he’s got the confidence right now that he’s finding good spots. But a lot of it has to do with the fact that he’s making the movement to get into those places, and we are a good team that actually finds the ball into those spaces,” Vermes explained. “He’s getting there, that’s more than 75% of the battle. The ball could be great, but nobody’s there. Or the guy is there and the ball doesn’t come. The last piece is him finishing it, and he has a good nose for the goal.”
The type of finish for the San Jose game-winner reveals not only a nose, but a savvy for seeing opportunity and space as the Chilean international picks out a corner:
In Sporting’s 4-3-3, the three midfielders are the key to… well, everything… on the attack and in the defense. There is a lot of responsibility. And seven goals allowed – the most in MLS – in three games reveals all is not complete with the talented trio. Yet.
“We need to work together because we put all the effort, but in the end our discipline, tactically (defensively) has to be a little better. I have to know them. They have to know me. We have to create this good connection because when Roger is pressing somebody, I have to cover him and Felipe has to cover me,” said Ilie, focusing on the principle of pressure, cover, and balance. “It’s simple. We just need help from our coaches. We have the effort, and Felipe and Roger have the quality. I’m excited with this midfield that we are creating.”
Said Espinoza, “We have to stay as a unit. If you block the through passes between us, it’s going to save a lot of energy. We don’t have to be tracking back. That’s what you practice throughout preseason. Stay as a unit. You have the back four (five with Ilie) and the front five, but at the same time, we are three in the middle there. We need to take control of that part of the field.”
For Felipe it’s about comfort and the pieces fitting together.
“I feel really comfortable with them... Ilie makes us have a really good balance, and he also likes to play. That’s really important,” he said. “And Roger has a big attitude every day… You can see in every game that he fights for every ball like it’s a final. That’s very important for us.”
A #6. A #8. A #10. Does it really matter who is who as long as the Sporting Kansas City midfield trio, a trio that has been become a fluid, interchangeable, three-headed monster, brings a unified storm each week to the opponent’s doorstep?
“We are kind of the mediator for the front three and the back four or five. So [we] dictate the majority of the game,” said Espinoza, after acknowledging that the front threes’ pressure is crucial defensively. “Any soccer game, if you win the midfield, you are not guaranteed to win the game, but you get yourself a lot better chance to win the game.”
With Felipe getting more comfortable every game – and with his family arriving in the country last week after him not seeing them for two months (“It was difficult. I’m really happy for that.”) – the final piece of the trio seems set for the long haul, a haul that could include many more goals, assists, tackles, and duels and wars won.