To say the Sporting Kansas City season hasn’t started as expected is a bit of an understatement. Their latest 3-1 loss to the Chicago Fire seems to have stirred quite a bit of emotion in the fan base. I’m not saying I’m not upset, but there are plenty of quality reasons for this start. So let’s run through my list of excuses to make us all feel a little better.
Let’s forget the Uri Rosell injury, based on his opening game performance against Atlanta United, that may be a net positive. But the team was missing five more players, all of whom happened to be the top five scorers from 2021: Daniel Salloi (16), Johnny Russell (15), Alan Pulido (8), Gadi Kinda (5) and Khiry Shelton (3). Should they still grinded out a draw maybe, sure (I’ve got some excuses for that coming up). But ask any team to go without their top attacking talent and it’s going to be tough.
Imagine the Kansas City Chiefs without Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyrek Hill... let alone two more key players (uh, spoiler, I don’t care about the Chiefs). Replace this example with any teams top five attackers and they’d be hurting.
The New Guys are REALLY New
The newest attackers, Marinos Tzionis and Nikola Vujnovic weren’t expected to be starters, but role players. They have been thrust into action, Vujnovic just days after arriving in the United States. I think they’ve performed admirably, but imagine how much better they’d be surrounded by bonafide stars. It will take time for them to learn the Sporting Kansas City system and know their roles at all times in the game. Peter Vermes even said his usual ‘wait 10 games’ mantra is out the window because these guys, as well as Logan Ndenbe and Robert Voloder, arrived so late.
The MLS Season is Long
SKC are just four games into a 34 game season. Teams routinely are garbage early (see: Sounders, Seattle) and surge late. Sporting KC have usually been fast starters and have faded. Maybe, instead of running their guys into the ground early or taking chances with injuries, PV is holding back knowing there is plenty of time to get into the playoffs.
In 2021, Real Salt Lake were the final playoff team with 48 points. Sporting already have three, so they just need to average 1.5 points per game the rest of the year. That would equate to winning half their games (unlikely, but not impossible as they won 17 last year) and losing the rest (also unlikely). If this drags on much longer you can start worrying, but right now, I’m not panicked.
Speaking of panic, I asked Peter Vermes the following in the post-game presser: “The team was without their top five scorers from last season. Fans seem to be kind of panicking at the first four games of the year. Obviously, your teams characteristically start a lot quicker, what would you say to them to calm their nerves.”
After a healthy pause, Vermes responded, “I’m not here to try and send a message to anyone other than the fact that I would say that there are all different ways and different situations that you have to go through in a season. Unfortunately we are dealing with a situation where six guys are being out that are regular starters. And sometimes you have to change the team up. Right now that’s what we’re having to deal with early on. If you’ve been a supporter of the club, then there is no reason you shouldn’t continue to support the club. There are a lot of games left. Obviously we have work to do. We’ll get there. I have no doubt we have guys that are good enough and we have staff and players are going to work hard to get better game after game.”
I’d argue at least one of those guys isn’t a starter (Shelton), but otherwise, I think he’s spot on.
A New Formation
Against Chicago, Sporting made a rare switch from their regular 4-3-3 to a 5-4-1. It was out of necessity of having only three healthy forwards, including Ozzie Cisneros who has never played in MLS. So either they throw an untested kid out there with two other forwards who have barely played (Tzionis and Vujnovic), or they push a non-forward up to that line and try to keep playing their regular style. When they pressed kids into that situation against Leon last year, they were destroyed and lambasted for that. It may have worked since it wouldn’t have been a full lineup switch, but the same could be said for this formation they did use if not for a couple reasons.
First, Tim Melia simply let in a ball he never should have. If that soft goal doesn’t go in early, their plan to bunker and counter may have still resulted in the goal they snagged. Second, a soft penalty. Kortne Ford did technically touch the Chicago player, but he flopped to the ground and embellished the contact. As the broadcast said, VAR wouldn’t have injected to call it a PK, if that wasn’t the call on the field. Finally, I’d argue that field was hot garbage. Apparently they grow the grass longer at Soldier Field and SKC would usually do the same to their grass to prepare, but they couldn’t get it to grow in the winter in KC.
It could also be argued Melia let in that third goal under his body, which he’s probably usually save and that goal was really a result of them pushing forward for a second, and if not for the PK call, they’d have not needed to do that. So inside of new formation I snuck several other reasons. A perfect storm of circumstances, if you will.
I’m not without nerves about this season. Losing Alan Pulido before things started hurt. But a combination of Salloi, Russell, Tzionis, Vujnovic and Shelton should help. When Kinda returns, he should boost the midfield. Not to mention, young guys like Cam Duke, Felipe Hernandez, Jake Davis and Logan Ndenbe are getting valuable minutes and should be better for it as the season wears on.
Most fans and pundits predicted somewhere around a 4th or 5th place finish. If Sporting go on a run, which they surely will at some point, they could still easily finish that high.
I believe it’ll get turned around. The team’s mentality seems right. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them start to figure things out even with a banged up lineup. I have fairly low expectations for this weekends game with them likely to still be short handed (plus add in international duty to those injuries) and with RSL coming to town, who somehow always have KC’s number.
Then again, it’s possible the team never gets healthy and this is 2019 all over again, but I think this team will be better than that. And even that team didn’t get eliminated from the playoffs until the penultimate game, and that season was brutal. It’s MLS, you are almost always still alive. To the “Fire Vermes” crowd, I’ve written that article before, go refresh your memory.