There seems to be something missing with Sporting Kansas City

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Something’s wrong with Sporting Kansas City, which really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. In the offseason, the team lost Kei Kamara to Norwich City, Roger Espinoza to Wigan, and Julio Cesar to Toronto, and while Peter Vermes’ side had the talent to survive, the question was whether they could maintain the high standard they’ve met over the last two seasons.

Through four matches, the answer to that question has been a resounding no. The reigning Eastern Conference champions lost in Toronto on March 9 ahead of two matches which showed an inept team unable to craft decent chances in the final third. In 0-0 draws versus Chicago and at New England, Sporting has only eight shots on goal despite averaging 58.9 percent possession (even though the Revolution had the possession advantage on Saturday).

In fairness, players and coaches were quick to attribute Saturday’s result to the wind in Foxborough, and if Sporting’s disappointments were confined to 90 minutes, the match could be written off. But the team has struggled for all but 45 minutes over four games:  The second half of their opener at Philadelphia. Through the first half in Chester, KC made the Union look potent.

For better or worse, Vermes doesn’t appear to agree that Sporting’s struggling. Here’s what he said after Saturday’s 0-0:

“The weather was horrible and it was a miserable environment to play a game in, but the guys did an excellent job to get out of here with a shutout and a point,” Vermes told the Kansas City Star after the match. In their previous trip to Foxborough, Sporting had beat New England, 1-0.

Kansas City has one of the most talented teams in Major League Soccer, so any time they underperform over a four-game stretch, it’s time to start considering where they may be misfiring. That process may lead to the conclusion that everything’s find, but it’s best to go through it before the result start to catch up with you.

So here are possible factors:

  • Kei Kamara’s gone – The Sierra Leone international wasn’t that great of a finisher, but that may have been the only fault in his game. Physically able to win almost any battle, Kamara also had the athleticism to play wide. He provided a presence in defense and on set pieces. Sporting miss his outlet along the left as they come out of their end. They also miss his presence as a direct option as they fumble for ideas in the final third.
  • C.J. Sapong’s been marginalized – Claudio Bieler’s been fine, but forcing Vermes to find another role fo C.J. Sapong, his addition as been a net loss. At first, it looked like Sapong’s role would be off the bench, but in the last two matches, Sapong’s been back in the XI. Unfortunately, he’s been played wide, and while there’s hope the third year forward could develop into the outlet Kamara was, having him so far from goal eliminates the opportunity for this sometimes blunt attack to rely on a target man.
  • Formation dilemma? – Kansas City’s place atop the East has been fueled by a shift to a 4-3-3 formation, but the current personnel is being shoehorned into the approach, a process that’s producing curious deployments like Sapong out wide. The personnel is screaming for a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, with Graham Zusi supporting Bieler and Sapong while Feilhaber and Paulo Nagamura play ahead of Oriol Rosell. But instead of moving to this system, Vermes has stuck with a 4-3-3 that has forced Sapong wide and players like Bobby Convey and Soony Saad into the starting lineup. Perhaps there’s something Vermes sees in training that precludes the move, but reliant on a 4-3-3, Vermes is trying to force some square pegs into round holes.
  • Espinoza’s gone – It’s unclear how Espinoza’s departure contributes to Sporting’s problems executing in the final third, but it should be acknowledged: Sporting lost one of the best midfielders in Major League Soccer. One possible relation could be how Espinoza helped Sporting win the ball higher up the pitch, allowing his team to attack a team given less chance to settle into its defensive shape.

And there may be entirely different issues. Players could just be under-performing. Perhaps somebody is injured, but the club hasn’t let us know. Maybe this is just a funk.

Regardless, Kansas City has a problem. They’ve played 360 minutes of soccer this season, and they’ve only been good for about 45 of them.

Against a schedule that’s featured Philadelphia, Toronto, Chicago and New England, Sporting should be doing better.

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.

Southgate can see Defoe in England squad long-term

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Gareth Southgate praised Jermain Defoe after his contributions to England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania on Sunday, but accidentally put a condition on his position in the squad.

The 34-year-old scored the opening goal and contributed heavily to the buildup of Jamie Vardy‘s score, and Southgate was happy that his decision to play an in-form striker paid off.

“If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be,” Southgate said. “We’re never able to pick a full cohort, so it’s important we can call upon the likes of Jermain and he can have the impact like he did today.

“I think we’ve got to look every time we get together as to who is in form. I don’t know if we can have a distinct pecking order because players who are playing well deserve the opportunity. If we are going to be successful, we have to have that competition for places. The reality is we will always lose players to injury.”

[ MORE: Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery before England game ]

A reporter asked him to clarify why he specified that Defoe should be scoring in the Premier League, and with his club Sunderland under heavy threat of relegation, Southgate admitted he let one slip.

“I walked into that,” Southgate said. “I guess the ideal world for all our players is they are playing regularly at a high level. The flip-side is we don’t have a huge pool of players to pick from.  We have to balance off a few different things. I can’t constrain myself on selection entirely, but I know ideally what I’d like to have. His performances and his goalscoring form this season have counted for him.”

Defoe has 14 goals in 28 Premier League appearances for Sunderland this season, but he’s proved the Black Cats’ only threat as they sit bottom of the league table with 20 points. Defoe has become the center of opposition game plans, and as a result he’s slowed down, with just two goals in his last seven games, and the club has little else to pick up the slack.

Still, at 34 years old, many wonder how much longer Defoe can contribute, and if he’ll be a viable option for next year’s World Cup.

Group F gets messy as Slovakia and Scotland grab wins

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England is in control at the top of Group F, but below them things are beginning to get complicated.

Despite the absence of Marek Hamsik due to a last-minute injury, Slovakia defeated Malta 3-1. They took the lead just 97 seconds in as Vladimir Weiss put the visitors in front with a beautiful curling strike from outside the box. Malta struck back through domestic striker Jean Paul Farrugia in the 14th minute, but that was all Malta could muster.

Slovakia would go ahead just before halftime as FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus put them in front in the 41st minute. The speculative shot from Gregus came from a great distance out, and as it skipped across the ground, it appeared Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg saw it late, as his dive was poor and it skipped off his hands and in.

Both teams ended with 10 men on the field, as Farrugia was sent off with 16 minutes to go for a second yellow, and Adam Nemec saw the same fate in injury time, but before he was sent off, Nemec was there to kill the game off in the 84th minute.

That put Slovakia up to nine points, and it moved them into second place thanks to late drama in Glasgow. Chris Martin gave Scotland all three points with an 88th minute strike as the home side won 1-0 over Slovenia, who dropped from second to third with the loss. The Fulham striker got a beautiful feed through the back line from Stuart Armstrong, and while his shot wasn’t terribly accurate, it was enough to win the game as Slovenia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik gave it a poor effort.

The win for Scotland pulls them above Lithuania and into fourth, a point back of Slovenia in third.