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“In the Box”: Sporting KC’s sheen not wearing off, it’s being polished

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Trying as it might be, there is room for optimism after only seven points in five matches.

MLS: Austin FC at Sporting Kansas City Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Only two wins. Only seven points in five matches. Seven goals allowed, one more than scored.

Coming off a first-place finish in the Western Conference during the COVID-19 shortened and travel-limited 2020 regular season that many thought to be an illusion, Sporting Kansas City has not done much to divert those thoughts.

The offseason acquisition of needed athletic center back Nicholas Isimat-Mirin has been nearly nullified by injury. Team defense has not seen a significant upgrade, arguably no upgrade at all. And some continue to lament the loss of attacking players Gerso and Erik Hurtado.

Those participating in the exchange of thoughts in the comments sections of thebluetestament.com’s articles (here and here) after Wednesday’s 1-0 loss at Houston Dynamo have made many salient points, and many of them are not complimentary of Sporting’s performances.

Yet, Sporting Kansas City’s sheen is not wearing off. Like that dream car still languishing in the garage not quite ready, it is being polished.

Athletic beast, good-on-the-ball Isimat-Mirin and the calm, cool, pass-master Andreu Fontas showed well in the first 153 minutes of their center back pairing before Isi went down with a hamstring injury 63 minutes into the second match.

Fontas has become an orchestrator at left center back, helping Sporting not only move the ball in attack, but to penetrate more often into striker Alan Pulido and wingers cutting in. When Fontas’ eyes fix on a target, Ilie often reads his intentions and slides out of midfield space into the back line, allowing Fontas to carry forward or make that interior pass. The outcome is that Kansas City has become less reliant on emergency defending due to poor ball management in the back.

When Isi returns, look for him and Fontas to cure into a prominent center back pairing.

Gianluca Busio, at 18-years-old, has lifted his intensity, his determination, and, along with those, has elevated his impact on each match. Now, nearly every touch Busio takes shows his attacking intent and every effort says, “You aren’t stopping me.”

A great save by the ‘keeper or inches away from scoring many times in the most recent matches, Daniel Salloi is a dangerous, much more confident attacker now. The 24-year-old’s goal in the opening 2-1 win at New York Red Bulls was an overweight, near obese, monkey off his back. Getting consistent minutes has Salloi combining, cutting in, and firing those clever shots he pulled off back in 2018. An inch or two in the right direction and he will near those 2018 (11 goals, 7 assists) numbers.

Line by line, growth is happening for Sporting Kansas City as “new” players gain their glow.

Although injuries to Isi, attackers Johnny Russell and Pulido, and first-choice goalkeeper Tim Melia have likely curtailed early-season results, some have returned and are nearing form and others have stepped in for the unfit and shined in moments.

Russell, back on the right wing, earned an MLS Team of the Week nod for his performance in the 2-1 home win over Austin FC last Sunday. A dynamic movement wide, next time slicing inside on his left foot, then even playing more of a central role, kept Austin guessing and Russell finding space to optimize his skillset. Hopefully, the groin injury suffered during the loss at Houston will not keep the diminutive Scot out long.

Of the injuries, Melia’s took fans the most by surprise and caused a little more than some fair-sized gulping. Arguably, it has been his absence that has been the least impactful because of 20-year-old John Pulskamp (a fun guest on the Shades of Blue podcast btw.). Already, Pulskamp has established himself as a strong shot-stopper and has handled the heavy responsibilities of goalkeeper admirably for a third-string backstopper.

In example:

And no forgetting Kaveh Rad who has taken lessons learned from significant minutes in preseason to when it matters, performing sometimes more than ably in place of Isi at right center back in his one start and 117 minutes total.

That is the fourth (or fifth) time Isi and his injury have been mentioned here. Peter Vermes would certainly feel like fortune’s fool if the French back, signed to stem years of backline woes, never comes to extended health this season. However, Sporting may actually be pretty fine if he does not. Although it was against Houston (read not Seattle Sounders, Los Angeles FC, or Los Angeles Galaxy), Ilie was terrific defensively pairing with Fontas at center back. The Spaniard read the game like a master, timing his interventions perfectly and showing some physicality and attitude doing it. Perhaps the knowledge that he was the last line of defense emboldened his play.

But (Did you know?) Ilie has some decent speed afoot. Check out his recovery runs in the 67th and 72nd minutes. Whoa! And, the man has cajones (and skill of course). Who else on Sporting’s roster would have pulled this off successfully:

Even the turd of a match that the Houston tilt at times was, had its moments of polish and reasons for optimism.

Of course, Sporting lost on the scoreboard due to Houston’s Derrick Jones powerful run and Max Urruti finishing a chance (unlike KC’s struggles). But Sporting outperformed Houston (by a wide margin) in every positive offensive statistic, despite failing the eye test too many times.

And Sporting showed they could react to what Houston gave them and still create dangerous opportunities. The Dynamo were not going to let Alan Pulido come back and facilitate attacking movements, so they hounded and surrounded every time the ball came to him. Consequently, Sporting pinched in the wingers more than usual, used the wing backs to combine with them inside to create space wide and force Houston out to deal with it, and encouraged Salloi and Shelton to sometimes play the de facto #9. Opportunities evolved. Even ones like this 22nd minute combination:

It was the old reliable up, back, and through. Sporting is best when they see and then move the ball quickly through penetrations into or across the middle of the pitch. The abilities of Fontas, Ilie, Gadi Kinda, Busio, and Pulido to take advantage of inside channels and the abilities of Russell and Salloi as inverted wingers to cut inside fit perfectly in these movements.

Recently, Manager Vermes stated that Sporting are “still finding” themselves. The words ring true. The ups and downs of results have revealed both bad and good, but mostly the first five games and their contexts have inspired polish.

Kansas City was ahead at home to Orlando City in their eventual 1-1 draw and on the road to Real Salt Lake in their 3-1 loss. Yet, the two wins were come from behind affairs revealing that Vermes’ side have a belief and a fighting spirit.

The injuries have allowed some of the roster – built much of academy products – to rise and gain valuable experience. With the heat and humidity of summer coming, perhaps this developing youth will mean rotation to save veterans’ legs, without significant drop off, for a strong stretch and then playoff run October through December.

Speaking of veterans, right back Graham Zusi returned to the lineup for the first time since October in the Austin win. His threat of pinpoint crosses – he was dropping dimes all night – is a dramatic threat that opposing defenses will need to sacrifice defenders to snuff out. The perfect complement to what Sporting does best.

All in all, the polishing clothes are all over Sporting Kansas City’s skin, although ours can become rather thin as we await the finished product we can spit shine and drive around bragging about. Sunday afternoon hosting Vancouver Whitecaps is a chance to improve Sporting’s sheen.