Even as the defending champions were beaten last week in Seattle, Sporting Kansas City showed all the characteristics of their typical, Eastern Conference-dominating selves. They didn’t win the possession battle, but they were stingy in defense, rugged in the middle, and at least tried to keep the ball. That’s what we think of when Peter Vermes’ team comes to mind, so even as they lost 1-0 to the Sounders, the fact that a team without four regular starts could maintain its identity was an encouraging sign.
That sign was still there on Saturday as Sporting dropped points at home to FC Dallas, but giving up a late goal to Matt Hedges in a 1-1 draw, the champs were left to rue their inability to generate a second goal. Despite 64 percent possession and an 8-1 edge in shots on target (18-7, overall), Sporting couldn’t craft the quality opportunity they needed to get a second past Chris Seitz. With Aurélien Collin’s 81st minute opener coming off a Benny Feilhaber corner, a team that’s managing its regulars’ minutes has only scored from open play once in three games (counting CONCACAF Champions League).
The effect, however, has been a lack of good chances in the team’s two MLS games. In Seattle, a strong defensive performance from the Sounders and the absences of the team’s starting full backs left Sporting a shell of their former selves (albeit a dangerous one). Against Dallas, it was Graham Zusi’s turn to sit, meaning the team was without the man who pulls the strings in the final third. With Óscar Pareja content to see his team set back and play without the ball, Sporting couldn’t break through until a late corner, even if they saw a number of other close calls.
With Feilhaber’s set piece delivery and a target man like Collin, it’s not the worst situation for Sporting Kansas City, but it is an instructive one. Over the last two years, as players like Kei Kamara have left the team, Sporting has become more dependent on building play on the ground. That means not only more dependence on Zusi but also things like the runs Paolo Nagamura brings, the holding play of Oriol Rosell, and the space created as Seth Sinovic and Chance Myers bomb up the wings. Together, the mix forms a delicate balance MLS rosters might not be able to maintain when players have to be cycled out.
Tonight, the team’s key component was out. No Zusi? No open play goals. Without Nagamura and Myers, however, the team was also missing some important complementary components. We’ll see how many can return for this week’s trip to Cruz Azul.