We have arrived at the halfway mark of the MLS regular season and a review of the season so far is in order. With no further ado, let us dive in.
Standings, Results, and Playoff Chances
Let's get the most painful part upfront. Sporting Kansas City has been unable to produce on any consistent basis this season. They have lost a stunning nine games, drawn four more, and accumulated a paltry four wins (4-9-4).
These results leave them in the bottom three teams in the league in terms of points-per-game (PPG) at 0.94. They are 12th in the Western Conference with a total of 16 points. They sit just above the Portland Timbers and the San Jose Earthquakes, on 16 and 15 points, respectively. Note that SKC has also played at least one more game than everyone else, meaning we could easily slide back to the bottom of the Western Conference.
While playoffs are mathematically possible, they are doubtful. FiveThirtyEight gives SKC the lowest probability (8%) of making the playoffs of any of the MLS teams. I think any team under Peter Vermes will fight like hell to at least sneak into the playoffs, but the honest observer would say this season is a lost cause.
Truthfully, the only bright spot in performances has been the thrilling Lamar Hunt US Open Cup run. Two big time come-from-behind victories have powered SKC into the quarter-finals against a USL League One (third division) team. Assuming SKC can avoid the trap of playing to their opponents skill level they should be able to make it to the semi-finals. Would winning the cup make this season “good”? No, probably not, but I’ll be damned if it wouldn’t help.
How Did We Get Here?
The first, and I would argue, the most significant factor in how we got here is because of the devastating rash of injuries. Let's dig into who all has missed games this year and its effect on the team:
- Alan Pulido: Pulido is “likely” out for the season while recovering from knee surgery. This one has been an enormous problem. It's not just that you are losing Pulido, it's that with the way MLS roster rules are constructed there is no way to bring another Designated Player (DP) (read: a game-changer). There is very little doubt in my mind that if Pulido is healthy this season this team picks up a few more draws/wins and is right in the middle of the playoff hunt.
- Gadi Kinda: Kinda is also out for the season while recovering from knee surgery. Maybe if one of Pulido or Kinda had been out, this team would have been okay. Alas, with both of them out, the team is desperately lacking in players who can unlock the opposition defense. Add on top of that, the same DP problem applies for Gadi Kinda as Pulido when it comes to roster construction.
- The Rest of the Forward Line: Daniel Salloi, Johnny Russell, Khiry Shelton, Nikola Vujnovic, and Ozzie Cisneros have all spent time on the injury report leading to many games with only one or two natural forwards available to play.
- Every other player: This is a bit of hyperbole, but suffice it to say we have seen an outrageous number of names on the injury report over the season. The carousel of starters lead to it feeling like a slightly new team every time they take the field. As to be expected the accompanying lack of chemistry leads to missed chances and many turnovers.
At the beginning of the year, I was feeling more critical of Peter Vermes than I am now. The reasoning was pretty simple. PV at the start of the season looked like he was going to run out a high-press 4-3-3, no matter if it was the best option for who was available. The lack of flexibility led to players playing in weird positions and styles that were not their strengths. Also, Shelton starting every game despite being an active liability in front of the goal (this one has not really changed). During this time I truly thought we might be seeing the end of the PV era...
...but when more players got injured, I think something broke in PV. He changed the formations, the style of play, and he put out new players. We went from a 4-3-3 to often seeing a 4-5-1 and even an occasional 3-5-2. We went from a high-press to a low-block, bunker-and-counter team. We saw the Homegrown players start soaking up minutes and playing like they were you know... getting minutes. These changes played to the strengths of the available players and showed flexibility I have been craving from PV for years.
Our Defense Has Been Bad
It's strange to think back on the early SKC era when it felt weird when SKC did not hold a team to a shutout. In contrast, in the last few years, this defense has been leaky, and this year is certainly no exception. Here are a few numbers for you to chew on:
- SKC has allowed the second-most goals in the league at 29 in 17 games.
- SKC in all of 2021, conceded a mere 40 over 34 games.
- Comparing it to the MLS Cup-winning 2013 season, SKC only allowed 30 over 34 games.
- SKC is allowing way more than their season-expected goals against (xGA) at 29 actual vs. 23.1 xGA.
Despite all of the above, there have been some bright spots, and I want to celebrate a few players who have shined despite the team's overall performance.
Most Valuable Player: Johnny Russell
There can only be one honest answer. Johnny Russell has put this team on his back this season and is the only reason we are not at the bottom of the table. He has come up with five goals in league play, usually single-handily and against the run of play. He picked up two more in the Open Cup match against the Houston Dynamo. Even more, he always is giving it 110% effort and rallying the team around him. Finally, he is pushing teammates, he is fighting for his teammates, and he is captaining the team through a tough season.
Best Utility Player: Cameron Duke (also known as Jacob “The Answer” Peterson Award)
With an injury riddled team we needed a player who could step in all over the field to cover. And boy did Duke rise to the occasion! He has played an outrageous six different positions this year, including: CM, CAM, RB, LB, LW and RW. Four of those he played in one game. That is an impressive understanding of the system and shows a high soccer IQ to adapt to the intricacies of each of those positions.
Most Impactful New Player: Logan Ndenbe
When SKC went out and got three U-22 initiative players this offseason, no one really knew if they would be immediate starters or projects. While Robert Voloder and Marinos Tzionis have both shown flashes of the talent that made them transfer targets neither has claimed a starting role. Ndenbe is different, he came in and locked down the role against an experienced MLS left-back in Ben Sweat. It is easy to see why when we watch him play, his pace, passing, and defensive ability all mark him as more mature than his mere 22 years of age would suggest.
Comeback Player: Felipe Hernandez
I will be honest, I think comeback player awards are stupid... butttt I really wanted to talk about Felipe. I wondered after he was suspended for gambling last year if he could come back and still play. Obviously, he has risen to the occasion and been a consistent midfield contributor. It’s a feel good story and I love it!
What’s Next for The Team?
There have been a number of rumors swirling around about SKC bringing in some players to help the team during the summer transfer window. Taylor Twellman initially broke the news about Erik Thommy and William Agade, which was later confirmed by Tom Bogert. They are a CM/winger (Erik Thommy) and CF (William Agade) respectively and you can learn more by reading the deep dives linked above. There is the possibility for a third as well in Sonny Kittel but most reports have him going to D.C. United. For what its worth, any transfer would be unlikely to be available for squad selection before early-to-mid July when the transfer window opens.
Open Cup Run
Single elimination tournaments are anyone’s trophy. With a semi-finals berth in-reach we could still see the team hoisting some silverware this year. In any case it will be a thrilling run which continues this Wednesday against Union Omaha.
Playoffs Playing Spoilers
Realistically, SKC is probably not going to make the playoffs this year, but they can make it hell for the teams close to the line. I know it is not as exciting as making it for ourselves. But I will not shed a tear if winning a few games could keep, say the Seattle Sounders, on the outside looking in.
Wrapping It All Up
This season has not been what I was hoping for this team, but all is not yet lost. And even if we cannot win anything this season it has been good to see some growth both from the players and Peter Vermes.
One final note, I should be writing more again. I have missed it but I had some medical, as well as other personal items, that were taking up a lot of my time. Now that those things are calming down, I am excited to once again to regularly contribute to this awesome community. Stay classy Sporting Faithful!