As has been well documented, Sporting Kansas City have gone through a late season swoon every year since they won the MLS Cup in 2013. Four straight years of bouncing out of the playoffs in the first round. It’s really all about how teams react to their down moments. At this point, Sporting KC have not responded and have stayed down. They are 0-3-1 in their last four. With that, we’ll take a look at potential problems.
The first thing “ailing” the team is literally ailments. If you look at all the injuries across the team, they have missed a combined 68 games. Now that includes Saturday’s game against the Red Bulls (but I’m not even counting Besler who was on the bench but likely rested as he recovers from his hamstring injury). In past years, that type of production being missed would have decimated the team. Instead, despite the injuries, SKC were in first place before this four game stretch started.
To play devil’s advocate, of those 68 games, all of those players weren’t starters. Brad Evans accounts for eight of those and no one would argue he should be starting (especially if you watched him play with the Swope Park Rangers). Games missed by likely starters would really only include Felipe Gutierrez (15), Khiry Shelton (5), Matt Besler (2), Ike Opara (2), Jimmy Medranda (10) and I’ll add in Yohan Croizet (2) since he is the starter when Felipe was out. Those players combine for 36 missed games (not counting games where they were just rested and not listed as OUT with an injury).
The spiral down started when Sporting played three games in eight days. On the road to the Montreal Impact, then Real Salt Lake (both losses) before coming home and drawing Toronto FC. They have returned to the road with Saturday’s loss to the New York Red Bulls and now four days later will travel to the Houston Dynamo for a quarterfinal US Open Cup game. Then they’ll get 10 days off.
If SKC advance past Houston on the road in the Open Cup then they’ll have a lot more congestion in their future. That would force them to force another Wednesday game between Saturday games at Houston and at LAFC. Maybe it’s time, as Mike said the other day, to finally punt on the US Open Cup.
Why does Peter Vermes hate Diego Rubio? In 203 minutes in 2018 he has three goals and two assists (for comparison Khiry Shelton has two goals and two assists in 1,157 minutes). You’d think a player like Rubio could get on the field for Sporting KC. Especially with all the injuries and schedule congestion.
Let’s just assume Rubio is in the dog house. It’s not like Vermes is great about using his subs or rotating his squad. I would say his rotation has been better in 2018, but part of that is due to the above mentioned injuries. And in the games SKC has trailed they have more often used their subs. But it’s still inconsistent. Vermes has said he doesn’t want to change something that’s working, but against the Red Bulls it wasn’t working and he still didn’t make changes outside of the late Felipe sub. Even a defensive sub for a tired player before the collapse would have been preferable to just waiting to give up that inevitable goal.
When they are tied in a game it’s usually worse. Vermes seems content with a tie and will keep things the same to just hold on. With so many more players getting on the field this year, you’d think Vermes would trust his depth even if the sub isn’t offensive and is just to get fresh legs out there.
As a result of the previous three topics, Sporting KC look very tired. After some initial hesitation against the Red Bulls they went on to dominate the next 55-60 minutes. Then they suddenly looked exhausted. It could be the injuries and minutes but it seemed like a lack of subs and tactical changes. They were still pushing way up the field offensively but didn’t have the gas to get back on defense. On the second goal, Jaylin Lindsey didn’t track back quickly, causing Ilie to have to cover his space and leaving the middle of the field open for the pass that led to the goal. Instead of making a sub or changing tactics, they kept playing the same way and another goal was scored. Then SKC had nothing in the tank to press for an equalizer. It never felt like they were threatening New York.
Sporting KC had climbed to the top of the league in goals allowed at the beginning of June. They went into Portland and earned a 0-0 draw. That was the last shutout. That was June 9th. Since then the team has allowed at least two goals in each of the six games since then. It goes: 2, 2, 2, 4, 2, 3. The first two were 3-2 wins over FC Dallas and Houston. We know all about the last four.
Of course there have been injuries to all the left backs (that started long before this stretch), Besler and Opara. Jaylin Lindsey has widely been praised but he’s played in every game except the RSL loss. I thought he looked flat bad through most of the second half against New York though.
But let’s not forget, defense starts in the front. Shelton has missed a chunk of these games and he is clearly more defensive than Salloi and Rubio. While defense from your center forward is helpful, the midfield and the wings are required to chip in a lot at SKC. Johnny Russell has looked exhausted for a couple months to me. I constantly see him walking back on defense. Maybe him coming off the bench for 30 would be more effective than running him ragged for 90.
To continue the above defensive section, Yohan gets his own category. Nearly every time he loses the ball he mopes instead of getting back on defense. Additionally, he holds the ball far too long leading to him being dispossessed far too often for a player who is often one on one with defenders unlike Shelton who at least is losing possession to multiple defenders (usually).
But perhaps Croizet’s greatest sin is that he’s not Felipe Gutierrez. With the return of Felipe perhaps he can return to the bench soon and be a good depth option that isn’t required to play consistent minutes. Plus, if Sporting KC never get a striker maybe they can go back to experimenting with Yohan in that spot, which may secretly still be his best position.
Should Fans Panic?
At this point, it’s all about how SKC respond to this slide. By the next league game on July 28th the team could be very healthy and they could have acquired multiple new players. That would negate points one through four (well, maybe not squad rotation). The MLS season is long and every team has a poor stretch. It’s not going to get easier though. This team feels better than years past but only time will tell.