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.