“In the Box” is a dynamic Kansas City soccer column on The Blue Testament dropping news, fun, thoughts (and sometimes musings on life) most Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays by @spkclife and the TBT staff. Participation in the discussions via comment(s) are strongly encouraged.
The MLS season kicks off this weekend (yessssss, finally!!)
What is success for Sporting Kansas City in 2021?
Wow. The question is a simple one (see the intro article with initial comments here). In theory. The problem is the flurry of possible answers.
Thus, the spectrum of the question must be defined. Sporting Kansas City as a whole, the entire organization? There is no doubt that Sporting Kansas City is a successful organization. Sporting Kansas City, strictly in terms of the team itself? Yes.
Okay, then. Then is Sporting a success as a team if a fan goes to a game, is inspired by the play to be pulled to the edge of his or her seat, and eventually inspired to rise? Extrapolating the idea… if fans are inspired to rise to their feet in jubilation numerous times throughout a season – making those moments memorable for the fans – is that success? It is certainly a form of success. And it begs the next question… is success quantifiable?
Is the number of jubilant moments or the number of goals or wins a sufficient measure of success for a sports team? In general, that is how many people gauge a team’s success. Yet, a team can create many moments, many goals, many wins and, subsequently, be justly labeled a failure because the moments were not as many as last season. Context matters.
And there is more (just a bit, hang in there…).
The forming of a team’s chemistry, a team’s unity, a team’s ingenuity, a team’s player growth, a team’s ability to overcome obstacles can all be labeled successful, or not. Yet, in most cases, being successful in those areas naturally leads to more wins.
Consequently, one word rises above them all when measuring success: progress.
Building is progress. Progress is success.
So let’s get on with it. The best thing for Sporting Kansas City in 2021 is that opportunities for success abound: the Major League Soccer regular season (and a shot at the Supporter’s Shield), the U.S. Open Cup, the Leagues Cup, and MLS Cup playoffs.
Context. Where Sporting starts from is key.
Literally. The first opportunity for on-field success are the first three matches, which will determine whether or not Sporting KC qualifies for the Open Cup. A successful season, however, does not ride on the lingering impact of COVID-19 forcing this importance on the first three games. In other words, Sporting can have a successful season without performing well in the first three matches and thus not qualifying for the Open Cup. Neither is a deep run in the tournament, if they do qualify, a prerequisite for a successful season. Don’t get it wrong, a run to a 5th Open Cup title would naturally heighten any measure of 2021 success.
The Leagues Cup, pitting Kansas City and other MLS teams against LIGA MX sides, will come around in August. Historically, Sporting has performed well in similar competitions. And Sporting will be in mid-to-late season form, with any summer window additions incorporated into the side. Context. Thus, success is at least getting through to the semifinals in this eight-team tournament.
The MLS regular season will run through the above and into November. Sporting were the Western Conference champions in 2020. However, because of the adjusted COVID-19 schedule, Sporting KC did not play either of the two other top two Western conference teams they tied with on points during the 2020 season. Thus, the resulting championship – granted because of one more Sporting win than Seattle and Portland – is rendered irrelevant for the purpose of context.
Sure, winning the West or even the coveted Supporter’s Shield would be success. What is relevant is finishing as one of the top Western conference seeds for the MLS playoffs and hosting a playoff match. Anything less will be considered a failure of an MLS regular season for a Sporting Kansas City club that has missed the playoffs only one time in the last 10 years and been a top seed in five of those years, including two of the last three.
From Technical Director and VP of Player Personnel Brian Bliss through Manager and Sporting Director Peter Vermes to each member of the technical staff, Sporting has emphasized certain initiatives. Progress in those initiatives is key to success as well.
Sporting must make progress in these areas:
Hit on their new French investments, midfielder Remi Walter and center back Nicolas Isimat-Mirin. Walter is Roger Espinoza’s likely heir, and it is a critical role. Isimat-Mirin can solve years of center back issues. These investments must pay off.
Get many of the 12 homegrowns minutes and hit on the potential they have been evaluated to have, particularly assumed starters midfielder/winger Gianluca Busio and right back Jaylin Lindsey. Significant progress from one of the young attackers is important as well.
Settle on Ilie’s successor at the vital #6 position. Is it Felipe Hernandez? Busio? Walter, maybe?
Overcome any possible injury (I so want to say “Avoid.” Keeping it real though…) that keeps an essential player (read striker Alan Pulido, right winger Johnny Russell, goalkeeper Tim Melia, and attacker Gadi Kinda) out for a significant amount of matches.
Being rubber. Yes, being rubber, being pliable, able to adjust tactically in-match to what the opponent is doing. Dictating is the goal, but a team cannot dictate without being rubber.
Ummmm… MLS Cup??
Ahhhhhhh. It’s a tough call.
In our minds, success is measured ultimately. It’s okay to admit it. Because we expect the best of ourselves, despite our known (even to us) limitations. When we fail to reach our ultimate goals and dreams, we see it as failure in the moment, even in the days, weeks, and months that follow. It takes time to take pride in progress when one does not reach the ultimate goal.
MLS Cup is the ultimate goal of every single MLS team when the season begins. Only one team wins MLS Cup. Every season. But, and it is just as crazy, missing out on achieving the ultimate is what drives teams (and people)… it is a force.
Once again, context, where Sporting Kansas City has been, is key. Two times, Kansas City has won MLS Cup. The last now eight seasons ago. Eight. In 2004, Kansas City lost the final. Two other times, most recently in 2018, they made it to the Western conference final, on the brink of MLS Cup.
Last season, Sporting won the first round of the playoffs, only to be shoved aside 3-0 at home in the semifinal. A result that surely is serving as motivation for 2021. If Sporting hosts the semifinal again, a win in that match is the minimum for a successful MLS Cup playoff run.
But, yet, however… Eight years. That 2018 West final loss burns still too. Longtime SKC warrior Roger Espinoza is in his likely final season; he deserves (and wants) an MLS Cup. Sporting has invested heavily in the key pieces for an MLS Cup title. The semifinal is not good enough. A win if hosting the conference final should be a given. Given a home slate, an MLS Cup appearance is success in the MLS Cup playoffs for Sporting Kansas City.
Success for Sporting Kansas City in 2021 is:
Ø the semifinals of the Leagues Cup.
Ø a top Western Conference seed and a home playoff match
Ø building with key blocks (see above)
Ø MLS Cup finalist with a slate of home matches in the playoffs
That will give fans plenty of inspiration to rise to their feet.
Too much? Not enough? Get your voice heard below in the comments. And remember, your heart can bleed however it wants for Sporting Kansas City, as long as it bleeds Sporting blue.