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The Engineering of Sporting Kansas City’s 2020 Rise: A season review and playoff preview

“When you want to know how things really work, study them when they’re coming apart.” William Gibson, Zero History   

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Sporting Kansas City Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Two matches into a new season for Sporting Kansas City, the possibility of a much different MLS season from the fog of 2019 was in the air. The winds of change were favorable. And although no one knew all that 2020 would bring, rays of light had already begun to brighten the skies.

Going into 2020, the failure to replace Ike Opara’s athleticism at center back after the pre-season 2019 trade to Minnesota United lingered. The sometimes-sieve-like defense (Remember a 2-10 aggregate with Monterrey; multiple three-goal losses; four, five, and six-goal losses?) and a nagging propensity to leak late goals gnawed.

Yet, this… In an October 2019 article titled “A long talk with Peter Vermes” on by Thad Bell, Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes was asked if the record number of goals conceded that season was the main issue to be addressed for his team. Ultimately, and in a tone of something past frustration, maybe disbelief, he talked instead of how quality chances the team created were not being converted.

“The players have to do that, and, for some reason they are not able to stick the ball into the net,” Vermes stated. “That is on the players, and they are going to have to figure that out… when the time comes, you have to put it in… We need somebody of a high quality because right now it’s been proven that we don’t have that.”

Pushed further, Vermes elaborated that there were many areas where quality players must be brought in. Yes, Sporting Kansas City came apart in 2019.

Two matches into 2020, Kansas City was 2-0 with seven goals scored and one conceded, defeating Vancouver Whitecaps 3-1 (having avoided a late capitulation) and Houston Dynamo 4-0. New additions Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda had each scored twice from their striker and midfield positions, and the attack was buzzing and keeping the opposition pinned back.

To the elation of many fans – some who may have uttered, “It’s about freaking time.” – Sporting had opened the pocketbook to bring in LigaMx star Pulido and Kinda, though not many would have expected an ace who had toiled in the Israeli league, like Kinda, to be a target. It appeared that Technical Director Brian Bliss, Vermes, and their staffs had pushed the right buttons. There would be only one regular season match in which Sporting would not score in 2020 (or did they?).

But there were more acquisitions: Winger/striker Khiry Shelton had been reclaimed from his one-year stint in Germany; former draft pick Amadou Dia, a left back, had returned after three years with Phoenix Rising FC in the USL; and center back Winston Reid had been obtained on loan from the English Premier League’s West Ham United.

Those additions carried the team at times, accentuated what was already in place, and, combined with the refining and results of best practices, engineered Sporting KC to the top in a season of streaks, unending fluctuations, absences, and inevitable injuries.

“We stayed…”

Up the middle. That is where a team must be strong. Not only is it where the opposition must eventually dare to tread, but it is also from where leadership of a team often comes. Nay, must come. With Pulido up front, stalwarts Felipe Gutierrez, Roger Espinoza, and Ilie Sanchez in the midfield, team captain Matt Besler at one center back, and Tim Melia in net, the spine of Sporting was strong.

The side’s overall athleticism got a significant uptick with the additions of Dia, Shelton, Reid, and Kinda. Kinda’s skillful, dynamic, forward-looking play added a new element to Sporting’s midfield: unpredictability. Now, the opposition had to employ defensive resources to stop another potent piece of Kansas City’s attacking arsenal.

By association, Sporting’s “new” offense, featuring better hold-up play and more from Pulido and Shelton and a more dangerous attacking midfield (and an athletic team able to press more aggressively?), lessened the load on the back four.

And then they had a ready-made – due to the staff’s years of grooming and the players’ own diligence – mix of youth to inject into the side.

But personnel alone would not be able to navigate what was to come. Indeed, for Gutierrez was felled with an injury in preseason that would keep him out the whole of 2020.

Vermes and Director of Sports Performance and Science, Joey Harty, formulated the most challenging offseason fitness program ever and integrated measures to track player fitness, while focusing on what has long been a best practice.

When recently asked what he felt propelled Sporting to the top of the West after finishing 11th last season (the biggest improvement ever in MLS), Vermes gave a nod to less injuries and a rational mindset before pointing, “We stayed with who we are, and we believed in our club, in our culture, and in the way we play.”

Vermes may sound like a repetitive gong to some. However, he preaches his long-held beliefs passionately and gives credit where credit is due.

“I commend all the guys that returned from last year,” he said in Friday’s remote press conference. “Their mentality and work ethic in the off-season, pre-season, and throughout this entire year has been really, really good.”

The long-cultivated team mentality – sticking to the four cornerstones of team first, work ethic, intelligence, and a winning mentality – had to be at the fore. The belief in the 4-3-3 system with a few wrinkles was a constant. And it must be said, with the success Sporting Kansas City has had with all the aforementioned in the 11-year tenure of Vermes and his staff, any player would be a fool not to buy-in. He would be shown the door otherwise anyway.

“Strive for perfection in everything you do. Take the best that exists and make it better. When it does not exist, design it.” —Sir Henry Royce, English engineer and car designer

“We’re going streaking!!!”

(Apologies for the Will Ferrell (LAFC part-owner) reference… not really)

After the COVID-19 pandemic forced a temporary shutdown of the season post-second match, the MLS is Back tournament in July saw Sporting gain two wins out of three in the knockout round (when the games counted towards the regular season).

Combined with a 2-1 win at Minnesota in the first game after the Orlando bubble on August 21, five wins-in-six with a plus-9 goal differential cemented belief in the core values and confidence in the system of play. Additionally, Kinda and Pulido continued to be the difference-makers Kansas City had been sorely missing, and a more complete Shelton had likewise contributed three goals (Fun fact – there had been four different players who contributed the game-winning goal by this point. Only one was by one of the three mentioned here.) In the back, Roberto Puncec and Besler had shown well enough as a center back pairing, and Reid’s debut (paired with Graham Smith) in the match at Minnesota was a success.

Slowly becoming a factor was midfielder/forward Gianluca Busio. The 18-year-old Homegrown started the last two matches of this successful stretch and would be a staple of the lineup going forward after starting 10 matches in 2019. However, clouds would soon gather and produce a flood. Busio and the rest of Kansas City’s youth would have to keep their heads above the water in a 7-match-immersion starting with the August 25 hosting of Houston Dynamo.

“The way to succeed is to double your failure rate.” Thomas J. Watson, pioneer in developing computing equipment for IBM

Beginning with that 5-2 loss to Houston through a 2-1 home loss to Orlando City on September 23, Vermes’ ship began to list. The 1-4-2 record in the seven matches saw the end of long-time hometown hero Besler at center back and corresponded with largest absence and injury period of the season as Ilie missed five, Espinoza six, Reid three, and Pulido four of those matches.

Ironically (and so like the often-resilient Sporting under Vermes), the only win – 1-0 v Minnesota on September 13 – and one of the draws – 1-1 v FC Dallas on September 2 – featured all four missing. Both draws, in fact, were come-from-behind results. These fateful seven matches were filled with moments that forced the youth filling in to mature.

In becoming a regular First XI choice, Busio showed a versatility strong enough to play holding midfielder in Ilie’s absence, some spectacular vision, and a calming wisdom on the ball while growing in the mental parts of competing. Jaylin Lindsey (12 games played, 11 starts on the season), Cam Duke (8 GP, 2 GS), and Felipe Hernandez (16 GP, 8 GS) raised eyebrows a few times, but mostly played solidly enough, avoiding any “Boy, he sure looked like a rookie today” condemnations.

Similarly, the downturn forced veterans to step-up and own the moment. Winger Johnny Russell took a larger leadership role and found his form with the one match-winner and a two-goals in the 3-2 home loss to FC Dallas on September 19. Reid replaced Besler in the second half of the 2-1 home loss to Orlando on September 23, and in partnering with Puncec for the first time, shutout the visitors the rest of the way.

These moments would pay off in the coming stretch run to the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

Ready to run, run to Glory

With all back in the fold for an October 3 match at Houston Dynamo, Sporting’s well-pieced personnel that had grown through COVID interruptions and an inevitable drop in form were poised to determine their own fate.

The 2-1 win over the Dynamo also featured a Pulido brace, and it began a 6-1-1 stretch run to the end of the regular season. The only loss would occur when both Reid and Pulido and newly-injured right back Graham Zusi (out seven of the last eight) were missing, even though Reid would miss three in the stretch (Andreu Fontas filled in ably after a long injury layoff) and Pulido five.

Reid’s influence on the side timed perfectly with the need for a strong stretch drive. The New Zealand International played in five of the final eight, pushing the team to 4-0-1 record with 2 shutouts in those starts alongside Puncec, two for which Reid was named to the MLS Team of the Week. Reid’s presence also allowed Ilie (inspired after his father’s unfortunate passing) to play into his defensive midfield job more aptly (as opposed to having to do too much) by providing security at the back via Reid’s wily, proactive, and aggressive play.

In total, Sporting outscored their opponents 14-5 in the home stretch and would post four shutouts to finish 12-6-3 on the season. The streak was punctuated by Lindsey growing into the right back position, a 2nd minute penalty-kick save by Tim Melia in the October 7 win over Chicago Fire, the likely Kansas City goal of the year by Erik Hurtado four days later in a comeback win over Nashville, and a Decision Day 2-0 win in the heavy snow at Real Salt Lake that clinched first in the West.

Engineered for the playoffs?

Some questions, and some hesitation, remain though. Going into the pressure of the playoffs will unearth them.

Those first two matches were versus two teams (Vancouver and Houston, who finished dead last but beat Sporting twice during the season) who did not make the playoffs, even in 2020’s expanded version. None of Sporting’s matches were against 2nd and 3rd place conference finishers Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. The flank defenders – Dia and Lindsey – are still relatively green and untested against the top offenses in the conference, including league goal leaders Los Angeles FC.

Can this team win without the currently injured Pulido (on a week-to-week basis with an MCL injury)?

The answer to that is yes. Sporting went 4-3-2 without Pulido (although 8-3-1 with the Mexican International striker in the lineup). Furthermore, Kansas City features a balanced attack with Pulido, Kinda, and Russell leading the way with six goals each, followed closely by Shelton and Hurtado with five a piece. Assists show a similar picture.

The building of a more diverse and able roster, the giving of a solid foundation across the spectrum of needs, the subsequent perseverance amidst the COVID-19 fluctuations, mental growth, and team galvanizing and subsequent joy through the difficult stretches and the triumphs enabled, hardened, and pulled this Sporting side together. But the playoffs are another beast. The ball moves quicker, the stakes are higher, the impact of mistakes larger, the emotions of players more raw. Emotions, that just may be the key for this team.

Vermes learned a lot from 2019. And he would agree with Haresh Sippy, the chief founder of Tema India Limited who said, “In engineering, the joints are the most crucial. They have to be both firm and flexible, exactly like the joints in our body.” For in Bell’s “A long talk with Peter Vermes” article, Vermes stated:

“To me, strong personalities in moments when it is tough, they bend, they don’t break. People with weak personalities, they break. Right now, in [2019], too many times we have broken. We just broke.”

Fast forward to Friday’s remote press conference in which Vermes characterized the 2020 season with these words:

“We suffered quite a few injuries this year. But the difference is, the other players that maybe at times you wouldn’t expect to be able to carry the load or be able to play as many games in a normal situation wound up taking a big step forward. And, at times, not [just] playing well, but helping carry the team and contribute to attaining a really positive result… It says a lot about a lot of the younger players who got a tremendous amount of experience that was centered around getting results. That’s a big step forward for us.”

To engineer means to invent, design, analyze, build, and test the components of a manipulative to fulfill functional objectives and requirements while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety, and cost. Vermes and his staff engineered the 2020 Sporting Kansas City season from the last game of 2019 on through unprecedented times. Who in their right minds would not make Vermes a finalist for MLS Coach of the Year?

But it has not been just Vermes. Sporting Kansas City’s 2020 season has been an engineering collective, with each piece of the personnel inventing, designing, analyzing, building, and testing in the ever-changing context of 2020’s practicality, regulation, safety, and cost.

That same engineering collective, built to bend, not break, is made for the playoffs. Now it comes down to execution.