There is no doubt about it that Sporting Kansas City are off to a poor start in 2019. Through nine games they have just 10 points and a 2-3-4 record. That record leaves them in tenth place, though they are just a single point out of seventh, which would put them in the playoffs.
A great deal of the problems can be chalked up to the massive amount of injuries that Sporting KC are dealing with. It got so bad last week that only six players were healthy and practice had to be cancelled.
Though the start is poor for Kansas City, it’s by no means historically bad. But is it so bad that things cannot be turned around? The best recent comparison is the Seattle Sounders who have started terribly over the last three seasons. Let’s take a look at the 2016 through 2018 starts for Seattle and include where they ultimately finished.
Seattle’s 2018 Season
Record through Nine: 2-5-2
Final Standings: 2nd Place (59 points)
Final Position: Lost Western Conference Semifinals
Nine games didn’t even end the skid for Seattle. They would go on to lose four of the next six (1-4-1) before finally righting the ship on July 4th. Of their three years with poor starts, this was the worst of the finishes as they didn’t make it to MLS Cup. They ran into the same Portland Timbers team who eliminated SKC on the way to the finals.
Seattle’s 2017 Season
Record through Nine: 2-3-4 (identical to SKC)
Final Standings: 2nd Place (53 points)
Final Position: Lost MLS Cup
Seattle’s schedule was a lot more back-loaded in 2017. They would go on to lose two more games before turning the season around (again on July 4th). They ultimately made MLS Cup and lost to a historically good Toronto FC team.
Seattle’s 2016 Season
Record through Nine: 4-4-1
Final Standings: 4th Place (48 points)
Final Position: Won MLS Cup
The first nine games aren’t the worst but Seattle really collapsed over the next 13 games going 3-8-2. That left them with a 7-12-3 record 22 games into a 34 game season. They didn’t get the season turned around until August 7th but they managed to get hot at the right time, make the playoffs, eliminate SKC in the first round (on a series of controversial offside calls) and get all the way to MLS Cup before taking home the clubs first league title.
Why Sporting KC are like these Sounders Teams
Primarily it comes down to injuries. The main thing all the clubs have in common is they were severely hampered by injuries. No one believed Seattle were as bad as their record seemed to indicate and many people are holding out hope that Sporting KC are in the same situation. Both of these organizations have a long history of success on the field and many will hold out hope Sporting KC will turn it around.
Why Sporting KC May not be like these Sounders Teams
There are several things that are notably different between these teams. The first is that the MLS Cup Playoffs are just very different now than they were the last several seasons. In prior seasons only four teams played in the knockout round of the playoffs per conference but now six teams will (though another team makes it in). Seattle only had one knockout round game over the three seasons and it was a victory over SKC where they advanced on a goal where they were clearly offside (this was pre-VAR) and SKC had their goal taken away for a razor close offside decision.
In addition to the knockout round changes, every MLS Cup Playoff game in 2019 will be single-elimination, as there are no two-legged series anymore. This will make home field advantage much more important. Ironically Seattle was the 2nd seed twice, so they might have been in okay shape.
Another difference between these teams is around their summer transfer strategies. Sporting KC tend to sign players who don’t make an immediate impact but instead are more involved the following season. Seattle on the other hand go for game changing signings. In 2016 they added Uruguayan Nicolás Lodeiro. In 2018 they added striker Raul Ruidiaz. In 2017 it wasn’t as big, but they added Victor Rodriguez and Kelvin Leerdam.
The final difference that jumps out is that SKC tend to start strong and finish with a bit of a whimper. In 2018 they had their summer swoon earlier than most years and really were in good shape at the end of the year. Maybe the swoon is in Spring and Sporting will kick it into high gear as players start to return, but that could be wishful thinking.
So in the end, all isn’t lost. Teams have come back from worse than the situation that Sporting KC find themselves in. They need to find a way to stop the bleeding while they wait for players to regain health. And once the players start to return, Sporting have to take advantage and win lots of games.
Waiting until July to start winning, while it’s been okay for Seattle, probably won’t work for SKC as the season is compressed with the new playoff setup. That compression could lead to more injuries and exhaustion too. The next few weeks will be important to SKC’s progress going forward, but poor results won’t be the end of the world.