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Sporting KC – A delicate balance or a master class in management?

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Culture, roster, and mentality getting results. But questions remain.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Sporting KC Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

One match short of midseason 2018, Sporting Kansas City sits atop the Western conference and is second in the Supporter’s Shield standings, in position to leap over Atlanta United who has played one more game. Moreover, at 9-2-5, Sporting KC has only two losses and a +15 goal differential with 31 goals scored and 16 allowed, with a two points-per-game and a 1.94 goals-per-game average. It is the best position this side has been in for the last five seasons.

The statistics say the 2018 version – a delicious mix of new additions, youth, and a solid veteran spine – of Sporting Kansas City is special. But statistics can lie. Yet there is more. Much more. Through Vermes and his staff’s gradual tactical evolution and Midas touch with offseason recruiting, a lack of team depth has been addressed; the attack has improved markedly; and difference-makers have emerged. Everyone is contributing: the production of newcomers Johnny Russell and Felipe Gutierrez (five goals each, Russell with five helpers) and 21-year-old Daniel Salloi (5 goals, 6 assists); the not-so-subtle and the subtle deeds of midfielders Ilie Sanchez and Roger Espinoza; the able fill-ins of homegrowns like Jaylin Lindsey and Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal; the much-discussed tactical contributions of forward Khiry Shelton; and the aplomb of the backline core and goalkeeper Tim Melia.

And intangibles have come to the fore. Kansas City has passed tests so far this season that reveal themselves to be special in talent or character or unity or all three.

Comeback wins at Chicago Fire (following a disappointing home debut loss), at home versus Houston Dynamo last Saturday (after a lackadaisical first half) and away triumphs at LA Galaxy and league top-dogs Atlanta United in April and May have revealed the ability and mental character of this side. More so, primetime responses following poor performances vs. Seattle Sounders and Columbus Crew at home, April 15 and May 27 respectively, have set this group apart, prompting Manager Peter Vermes to state that “there is a different vibe with this group than we probably have had in a while with our teams” after the 6-0 home defeat of Vancouver Whitecaps back on April 20.

On the heels of the Seattle home draw, the performance against Vancouver elicited a summary on what separates this 2018 team from pretenders: “Sometimes teams respond in the wrong way: guys start hiding and they don’t face things with honesty and say, ‘Hey, we really screwed up there,’” said Vermes. “Tonight [April 20], we came from that game and we came to play… It means something to them. When there is a part of the game that doesn’t go so well, they look to right that ship the next time out.”

But there is a problem there. If the “vibe” and character of this side is so strong, why did the lapses occur? Why has the team “lacked urgency or effort” or not “executed” or been “noncommittal” in various games as Vermes has stated? The accountability and the righting of the ship needs to happen on the field, in the game. It cannot be allowed to always slip over into the next week or match. A one-game, or even one-half, lapse can cost a team valuable points in a league like MLS where parity still reigns. The castle walls can quickly come crumbling down. Sporting KC’s stated goal in the past has been a top-two finish in the conference to garner a first-round bye and home-field advantage for at least the first playoff series to best position themselves for a deep run at the ultimate goal of MLS Cup. Last season, Sporting finished fifth, traveled to Houston, and lost a first-round away playoff game for the fourth consecutive season. Currently, only nine points separate Sporting KC from current conference 5th place sitters Portland Timbers who have two games in hand.

Yes, players and coaches are human, given to lapses. And Vermes has done a good job of getting the team to right its wrongs: Witness the week of training with its strong focus on competing after the performance vs. Columbus and the implied halftime rousing last Saturday. But team success is ultimately about the players; it is they that perform between the white lines, not the coaches. At all levels, coaches can destroy or get in the way more than they can build. Thus, in the locker room, in the creation and action of atmosphere, players rise to the fore.

A question arises: Is Sporting Kansas City’s player leadership strong enough?

Team captain Matt Besler and the veteran core of Sporting KC has been consistent for seasons now, save for the jettison of midfielder Benny Feilhaber this past January. An observer can clearly see that midfielders Roger Espinoza and 2nd-year man Ilie Sanchez are on-field leaders along with Besler and Melia, and Ilie’s role has grown this season.

Two minutes into stoppage time of last Saturday’s 3-2 comeback stunner, Ilie ran thirty yards directly to Salloi after the young forward had been dumped in the left corner. On the surface, it appeared the motivation was an endearing concern over Salloi’s health.

“No, no, no. I knew that he was okay. I ran there to make sure that he could take a breath and make all the team take that breath,” said the Barcelona product, in his second season with Sporting KC, reflecting Vermes’ belief that Ilie sees “what the game needs” and his manager’s desire for him to take more responsibility.

“He’s constantly asking me to [vocalize]. I’m always asking myself too. It’s my personality. I’m confident doing that, and I think I can do it better,” Ilie relayed after the match.

In-game management seems to be covered. Is there a strong player-to-player in-game and at-training call for accountability that averts or limits mental or physical lapses?

“Accountability is extremely important in our business. It starts from me, and it goes down. It’s important to have people that aren’t afraid of dealing with the confrontation when it’s needed,” said Vermes before the season. “But I also think there has to be a culture of accountability, and I don’t think it’s just one person doing it. You have to be a good evaluator of whether or not you played well. If you didn’t play well, ‘I didn’t do this, I did this.’ And own up to it. That’s part of culture.”

Sporting Kansas City’s foundation is the culture that Vermes speaks of.

Ilie put it this way after Saturday’s win: “We have here four core values: winning mentality (pursuing excellence every day), [strong] work ethic, intelligence, and team first,” he said. “All the players know that and have those things in their character. The newcomers, they are working hard to be part of the group. It’s who we are.”

And newcomer, MLS veteran Brad Evans, who spent seven of his eight years with Seattle, lauded the culture early in the season, “There isn’t a guy who pulls away from the group. That was said on Day One of preseason from Peter: ‘If you don’t think you can be a part of this group or you are starting to pull away, then you are out of here.’”

With Vermes setting the tone, it is much on the veteran players like Captain Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Seth Sinovic, and Roger Espinoza to put those values into practice and create an inviting locker room.

“You are in full control as players to set that culture, so whatever you want it to be, you are in charge of making it that,” said Besler in a preseason interview. “That is one of the biggest checklist items that we have in the preseason: Set the culture. Set the expectations so that everybody knows it. And we go from there.”

The locker room environment is such that even players like Rubio, who has seen his playing time shrink to only 108 minutes thus far, seem satisfied. “This is the best group; everybody is friends to each other, and everybody tries to give advice and tips every day. That’s great,” he stated last Saturday.

But do the well-established core values and culture and the tight locker room translate to the field and foster accountability there? Even in a romance that energizes, renews, and seems never-ending, “love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight.” Will that winning mentality be enough when and if tough times hit? And why, last season, were the mentality and culture not enough to avert a mediocre 5-5-7 second half of the season that included a 0-3-2 collapse in the last five games wherein Sporting Kansas City fell from within a point of 1st place on September 24 to 5th (12-9-13) at season’s end?

The big question is: Are Vermes and his charges poised to make 2018 end differently than the past four seasons?

Many factors, beyond those above, play into the answer.

Is the mix of personnel or the difference in positional depth that allows for more squad rotation to possibly avoid season-end fatigue the soothing salve?

Will possible additions in the upcoming transfer window be disruptive? (History shows Sporting Club will do their homework and manage any disruptions appropriately.)

Is it a concern that Brad Evans, brought in much for his leadership abilities, has yet to play a minute?

Is the distinctly more challenging second half of the season schedule – Sporting will face the other top five teams in the Western Conference eight times and two of the top Eastern conference teams, after facing each only twice in the first half of the season – a test this team can pass as it fights for playoff positioning?

Will Felipe Gutierrez, who is perhaps on target to return before August 1, return to his MVP-level performance and smooth over the above concerns?

Discuss: Is Sporting Kansas City circa 2018 a delicate balancing act or a master class in overall club management and environment creation?