Sporting Kansas City leads Major League Soccer’s Western Conference with 20 points from a 6-2-2 record in 10 matches. Though Los Angeles Football Club lingers back four points with two games in hand, Sporting Kansas City is the Western Conference kingpin.
The traditional maxim of win at home and draw on the road is a legitimate formula for Sporting Kansas City to finish in the top two in the West and achieve its stated goal – to gain a home playoff game to best lay the path for an MLS Cup Final berth. Wins against West opponents are especially important within that aim, and, overall, Sporting is 4-0-2 in those matchups. Home domination, no matter the opponent or the overall goal, is a necessity for success in any sport or league.
However, past the quarter-mark of the MLS regular season, it is not fully clear who Sporting KC is (and how dominant they actually are) at home despite the 4-1-1 record at Children’s Mercy Park. Remove the statistical outliers of the 2-0 season-opening loss to New York City FC and the 6-0 demolishing of the Vancouver Whitecaps, Sporting KC holds a 3-2 defeat of San Jose Earthquakes, a 1-0 win over DC United, a come-from-behind 2-2 draw with Seattle Sounders, and last Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Colorado Rapids.
In the 80th minute of last Saturday’s match, Colorado’s Dominique Badji picked up a giveaway to break toward Sporting KC’s box. One failed tackle and one failed clearance later, Badji was in alone on Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia. From ten yards out, Badji struck wide of Melia’s left post. The match should have been leveled and two vital points should have been lost.
Even Sporting’s goal was nearly missed, but the 1-0 score-line remained intact in what could be called a dominant performance in many ways. Sporting Kansas City had two shots bound for the back of Tim Howard’s net cleared by Colorado’s Danny Wilson, and Howard made a strong save on a Graham Zusi chance in the second half, a total of four saves on the night, while Colorado forced Melia into only two easy saves. Total shots were 23-10 (7- 2 on goal) in favor of KC. Additionally, Sporting held 59% of the possession.
“We did enough to score more than one goal. Unfortunately, we didn’t. But we didn’t need to. We know we can grind out a win like that where you can score as we did, be at home, and still get three points like we did against an in-conference team,” said Vermes after the win. “Those are big points for us for sure… That was a difficult game tonight, but it was a great result for us.”
The “grind out” a win narrative was very much the same in the 1-0 home win over DC United, and both were all too familiar to the Sporting Kansas City of the past years where possession and shots and chances were all dominant without the game actually feeling and being dominant. Yes, with the additions of leading scorers Johnny Russell and Felipe Gutierrez (Sporting is 3-1-1 without the injured start in the lineup with a 11-3 goal differential.) both with five goals apiece, and the development of a more dynamic playing style with faster-than-ever changes in the point of attack allowing for more varied attacks on goal, Sporting’s play has evolved.
“I like the way that we are evolving. And we are getting challenged early on in the season with different tactical packages that teams are putting together, and it’s good because it’s making us see things that, as the season progresses, we will be even more ready for,” Vermes stated. “If we create the kind of chances we did tonight, you are not going to leave many games like that winning 1-0. It will probably be two, three, four because I believe we have the ability to do that.”
Take away the Vancouver match – not because the 3-0 lead before the two Vancouver red cards and the eventual 6-0 win aren’t significant, but because it drastically skews the numbers – believing that Sporting Kansas City will follow through on its “ability” to score goals to put teams away and show true domination at home becomes more difficult. Without the Vancouver totals and the NYCFC loss, Sporting is 3-0-1 with a 7-4 goal differential at home (only 1-0-1 and a 3-2 goal differential w/o Gutierrez).
Furthermore, the 3-0-1 and 7-4 goal differential is against the three teams (San Jose, DC United, Seattle) with the lowest points total (5) in all of MLS, and the fourth, Colorado, is one of the eight MLS teams with 8 or fewer points thus far.
Here’s the crux: The tenuous “domination” of a 1-0 win can quickly turn into a draw and two points lost. Last season, Sporting Kansas City was 10-1-6 at home, with a difficult 4-1-5 stretch from June 10 on. That’s 13 points lost at home. Sporting missed finishing in the top two of the West and hosting a home playoff game by four points.
“We can turn it up a notch, but I think we have been very dominant. There is our place, and we want to let the opponents know that when they step in here, we’re going to give them hell,” said striker Khiry Shelton. “And I think we do. Teams know it’s going to be one of the toughest games they play all season.”
Chances created need to be finished for Sporting Kansas City to be truly dominant, and with Gutierrez out, finishing is less likely to happen consistently. That is not a shocking revelation. But it does emphasize the need for another strong finisher. Holding on until Gutierrez returns from his sports hernia surgery is risky. And there is no guarantee he will return to form come August. Who will step-up? Center forward Khiry Shelton or Diego Rubio? Midfielder Yohan Croizet? Will winger Daniel Salloi’s upward trend continue and be enough? Or is the name of the player to make the difference unknown? Or is the goal-scoring by committee sufficient?
It will be a very interesting May, June, and July until the secondary transfer window opens and until Gutierrez’s return.