What Are They All About? Sporting Kansas City
A new beginning. This past weekend the Chicago Fire rounded out their preseason schedule with a friendly against USL affiliate Tulsa Roughnecks FC. A 2-1 victory for Chicago came on the back of goals from Elliot Collier and Nemanja Nikolic. It was also the first match of 2018 played in front of the Section 8 and Sector Latino faithful at Toyota Park. A familiar and comforting atmosphere served as the match’s backdrop, but it also reminded the squad that the MLS season is finally here. Chicago will host Sporting Kansas City in their first match of the campaign (5:00 pm CT at Toyota Park) after having a bye week to accommodate the Colorado Rapids’ CONCACAF Champions League journey. With the rest of MLS having played, the Fire will likely be looking up the table no matter what happens in their fixture and you can expect this to serve as extra motivation for the home side.
On the opposite end of the field, SKC dropped their first match at home to NYCFC last weekend and is already behind the Western Conference eight-ball. Although Sporting featured in the 2017 playoffs, a play-in round exit to regional rivals Houston really put a damper on a season in which their expectations may have been higher than their ability allowed for. The West has only gotten more competitive with the addition of LAFC and massive overhauls at San Jose, LA (Galaxy), and Portland, so SKC will be heading to Bridgeview with the hope of gaining some inter-conference points and proving that their opening loss was a fluke. With Peter Vermes entering his tenth season at the helm of the team formerly known as the Wizards, he and his charges will certainly not be panicking after a small bump in the road, but they also won’t want to be gazing at a goose egg two matches into the campaign. Will the Process get off to a flying start in this third (and supposedly trophy delivering) year, or will Zusi’s new beard spoil the party? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
SKC Form Guide: L
Previous Result: A 2-0 home loss to NYCFC.
Formation: 4-3-3; Melia; Zusi, Opara, Besler, Lobato; Gutierrez, Sanchez, Espinoza; Croizet, Rubio, Russell
Strengths: Despite an early playoff exit, SKC did win the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup (their fourth overall Open Cup title and their third in the last five years) and came out on top in the allocation money standings after some shrewd moves. This is certainly a year in which Vermes will look to continue the defensive stability that has seen Sporting feature in the post season for the last seven years, while using his pile of MLS allocation money to bolster a struggling attacking unit. Let’s see where they might succeed this Saturday.
Stingy Defense: Last season SKC allowed the fewest goals in MLS, and it wasn’t even close. Being beaten just twenty-nine times earned Tim Melia the goalkeeper of the year award and salvaged a season for a team that just couldn’t seem to score. For comparison, treble winning TFC allowed thirty-seven goals, while the rest of the playoff bound sides were at least in the forties. The defensive unit that earned fourteen clean sheets in the 2017 campaign is still together and although 2017 defender of the year Ike Opara and Matt Besler are a year older, they should still be considered the best center back pairing in the league. With Chicago no longer featuring David Accam, having yet to find a number ten, and Nikolic struggling to make an impact in this fixture last year, Sporting will like their chances of leaving Bridgeview with a clean sheet.
TAM, Bam, Thank You Ma’am: Although we’ll cover their scoring woes below, Peter Vermes cannot be accused of ignoring SKC’s glaring problems. With the expansion of allocation funds around the league, the addition of discretionary allocation monies, and the assets garnered from the sales of Benny Feilhaber and Dom Dwyer, Sporting dove head first into the DP market. They were able to buy down the contracts of Gerso Fernandez, Graham Zusi, and Diego Rubio to make room for Felipe Gutierrez and Yohan Croizet, two attack minded designated players, as well as buy down the contract of incoming Scottish forward Johnny Russell.
Croizet came up through the Metz academy in France before spending time in Belgium’s lower divisions with Excelsior, Leuven, and Mechelen, and while his resume may not jump off the page, he is just twenty-six and Vermes has shown time and time again that he can polish diamonds in the rough. Gutierrez, on the other hand, has a wealth of experience in some of the world’s most demanding leagues. Beginning his career at Universidad Catolica, the Chilean quickly impressed in his native country and earned a move to FC Twente in 2012, going on to earn the Eredivisie MVP award in 2014. He’s since spent time with Real Betis in La Liga and Internacional in Brazil. A technically gifted player, he’s earned thirty-five caps for Chile, including World Cup appearances and featured frequently in the 2015 Copa America, which Chile won.
In order to finish the chances created by the aforementioned midfielders, Vermes approached English Championship side Derby County to secure a striker. Russell came up through the Dundee United academy and went on to play for the first team before making the move to England. Although averaging six goals a season is not ideal for a striker, many of the qualities Russell exhibits (physical presence, first time finishing, knack for getting on the end of crosses) fit well with the SKC system.
All three new comers hit the ground running against NYCFC and although they will need an adjustment period they each showed signs of brilliance despite the result. Gutierrez had the most impressive match of the group, contributing forty positive plays going forward (completed passes, shots, crosses, and successful dribbles) Ultimately, this trio should alleviate much of the pressure that was heaped on an under-performing Diego Rubio and an out of position Daniel Salloi. Look for Sporting to score far more frequently than last season.
Weaknesses: Although SKC’s consistency over the last decade will likely see them finish in a playoff spot, their lack of seriously challenging for MLS Cup since their 2013 win should be worrying given how much investment has been made in the team. They seemed a step or two off of the pace last season and were lucky to squeeze into the playoffs, finishing the regular season with a five-match winless streak. Let’s see where they might struggle on Saturday.
Scoring Woes Continue: For as good as they were on the defensive side of the ball, SKC struggled to find the back of the net in 2017. They notched just forty goals during the regular season and crashed out of the play-in match against Houston without scoring. Although their offseason moves should address this shortcoming eventually, there was a sense of déjà vu to Sunday’s encounter with NYCFC as the hosts couldn’t seem to exhibit any quality in the final third. The biggest problem is the continued absence of a functioning number nine since Dom Dwyer’s departure for Orlando.
Diego Rubio was initially signed as a DP by SKC and contributed just one goal in fifteen appearances during his 2016 maiden voyage. 2017 saw six goals in sixteen appearances (an ACL tear kept him out of the squad) but strange misses and a lack of chemistry indicated that his time in Kansas may have been coming to a close. However, with no suitors to be found (Chicago of course has had its fair share of failed South American DP strikers) he’s still at SKC and continuing his regular (lack of) form. He started and went sixty minutes in the opener, contributing just five successful touches in that time, all of which were lateral or backwards passes. He did not attempt a shot, much less register an attempt on frame, and Verme’s substitution left the Chilean about as pleased as the Cauldron has been with his performances.
It wasn’t just Rubio that strung together a lackluster performance. Of SKC’s eighteen shots in the match, just three registered as being on frame (two from Gutierrez and one from Salloi). Too much dwelling on the ball and a lack of accuracy plagued Sporting and they won’t enjoy reviewing the tapes after Vermes’ post-match comments citing a lack of urgency. You can bet that shooting drills were mixed into the training schedule this week and perhaps a few phone calls are being made around the league to find someone with a spare lone striker. If Veljko Paunovic and the Fire deliver on their promise to play a high-pressure possession-based style this season, SKC could be in trouble on Saturday.
Midfield Congestion: The other area where Sporting might struggle on Saturday is in the center of the park. Sanchez, Espinoza, and Gutierrez seem to have a great chemistry, and each has the pedigree to back up the clout that surrounds them, but their ability to dictate the match in the first two thirds of the pitch against NYCFC had as much to do with their opponent’s shortcomings as it did with their own strengths. Neither Alexander Ring nor Yangel Herrera are out-and-out holding mids. Patrick Vieira is more concerned with playing on the counter than he is with possessing the ball. But when SKC comes up against Chicago, they’ll have to contend with Schweinsteiger, McCarty, and Tchani, none of which will want to see blue shirts in possession of the ball. Decisions are going to need to be made more quickly and in less positive directions than SKC might like, and the typical “pick up the ball and spray it wide approach” (evidenced by heat maps from any of KC’s matches over the last few years) may not work at Toyota Park. Not only because of the aforementioned midfield diamond, but because Vincent and Ramos can defend as well as they can threaten going forward. Forcing SKC to play more narrow than they like, paired with the fact that their central striker is virtually ineffective should be worrisome for even the most optimistic of Sporting fans.
Prediction: Chicago’s lack of creativity and their personnel shortcomings simply aren’t good enough to unlock the best defensive unit in the league. However, SKC won’t solve their attacking issues simply through extra practice during the week. This match will be about as pretty as the weather in Bridgeview. Chicago 0-0 Kansas City.