Sooner or Later

As epic as the end of Sporting's season was, it's hard for me to get too worked up about my team losing after eleven rounds of penalty kicks. Every season ends sooner or later, and only one team gets to end by hoisting a trophy. I think Sporting had a legitimate puncher's chance in the playoffs, but I don't think they were going to win MLS Cup if they advanced in Portland. Sporting threw some haymakers, but the Timbers turned out to be able to take a punch. 

The truth is, Sporting eliminated themselves from the playoffs when they lost at home to the Rapids (and/or to San Jose twice, the Rapids once, Orlando once, etc.). By dropping to the play-in game, Sporting faced an improbable road after a hectic finish to the season. Even had they prevailed in Portland, the reward for victory would have been facing FC Dallas on short rest on Sunday--which would have been Sporting's 5th game in two weeks. A fatigued lineup with injured starters was never likely to run that gauntlet. 

Don't get me wrong: I'm a fan. I wanted my team to win, just so they would have a chance to pull off a miracle against Dallas. I don't mind losing too much, though. Going out in Portland lets tired players rest sooner. This gives the front office a chance to think about the roster. This gives me and the rest of the town a chance to enjoy another sport that's pretty cool. 

We renewed our season tickets. 

Go, Sporting!

 

The Hardest Way

I don't believe that winning anything in a competitive sport is ever easy. Even teams that dominate by virtue of superior resources and the resulting more talented rosters than their competition have to work hard for their wins. Yes, Chelsea may have bought their title, but the players involved still worked hard.

Sometimes winning is even harder than normal.  Perhaps injuries require second string players to step up, or a star has to grit it out, or other circumstances conspire to make a hard victory even harder than normal. Teams and players that do the hard work of winning, even when winning is harder than usual, are the stuff of legend. Search the internet for "Michael Jordan flu game" and you will see what I am talking about.

Then there's this 2015 Sporting Kansas City team.  They take the hardest route possible to victory, it seems.

There was no good reason for Sporting to enter the final day of the MLS regular season needing to defeat the defending champs to secure a playoff berth. Winning against the woeful Rapids midweek was never going to be easy (like I said, winning is always hard), but it would have been a damn sight easier than beating the Galaxy. Hell, a single draw to San Jose somewhere along the way would have done the trick.

Nevertheless, there we were, needing to defeat the team with the most name brand talent in the league--and somehow we did. That was the hardest possible way of making the playoffs, but at least it's A WAY of making the playoffs, so that plus a US Open Cup makes for a successful season in my book. [As it turns out, San Jose helped Sporting by losing to Dallas, so Sporting was in regardless, but with the games happening all at once on Sunday there was no way for the team to know that.]

The result of making the playoffs is a long and difficult road to a potential MLS Cup: a single elimination game in Portland on Thursday followed by a home-and-away with Dallas commencing on Sunday, and that just for the right to play in the Conference Finals.

As the last team make the playoffs, the bracket gives Sporting the hardest possible route to a championship.

Maybe that's okay with this team. 

A peculiar way to be mediocre

There are teams that manage to be generally mehover the course of a season, finding their way to a middle-of-the-pack finish by losing to the good teams and beating the bad teams. Sporting has clinched their mid-table finish this season by being better than the good teams and worse than the bad teams. Tonight's 0-2 loss to the Colorado Rapids sums up the season nicely. It's a mighty peculiar way to be mediocre.

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The Book

I feel like I've read that book before: Sporting Kansas City plays a sometimes decent but never great game against a team that nips a (deserved) goal and then bunkers to beat Sporting; a game where Sporting never really quite find their rhythm but often seemed about to find a goal--only they never did. I've seen that basic outline more than once, and I've never enjoyed the read. That's repeatedly happened against the Houston Dynamo in the playoffs--back in the days when the Dynamo were well-coached.. 

Well, if last night's San Jose Earthquakes looked a lot like the 2011 Houston Dynamo, that's no coincidence, because both are Dominic Kinnear coached teams. Kinnear pretty much wrote the book on how to beat Peter Vermes' system. During his time in Houston, Kinnear was Vermes' kryptonite for a few seasons. When Sporting finally beat the Dynamo in the 2013 playoffs enroute to the MLS Cup, I gleefully bought tickets to the Final and fully expected a win. By beating Kinnear's team we had already made it past what had always been our toughest competition in the past, so how tough could RSL be?

Based on two matches so far this season, it looks like Vermes' nemesis is back to full strength. Kinnear needed about half a season--say, until his Earthquakes came to Sporting Park--to figure out his new team. It sure looks like he's figured them out now, though. His bunker-and-counter style wasn't fun for a Sporting fan to watch, but it was well executed and thoroughly devastating. I don't think Kinnear's Earthquakes are a threat to go far in the playoffs, should they make them, but I definitely think they're a threat to eliminate Sporting Kansas City, should the two teams meet. 

Losing sucks, and last night's loss wasn't even very entertaining, but we still need a single point out of two home games to at least make the playoffs. Let's hope we get a point or three or six and slip in. Let's hope we get some guys (including Besler and Sinovic now) healthy for a playoff run. And let's hope the playoff run doesn't include the San Jose Earthquakes.

Landing punches

After Sporting lifted the US Open Cup midweek, I enthused that they have a puncher's chance at winning MLS Cup. Well, Krisztian Nemeth landed one hell of a punch against the Timbers last night.

Portland is a hard team to get a handle on--they have a talented lineup and an incredible home field advantage, yet they've managed to flirt with missing the generous redline of playoff qualification. The Timbers needed a win last night, and they almost played good enough to get one--but not quite. Instead, Sporting got the win and the Timbers got a lot to worry about as they push for a playoff spot at the end of the season.

The Timbers should have won last night. Sporting started two center backs who played 120 minutes midweek. Those tired legs had to go against the raw athleticism of Portland's Adi and Nagbe, and it looked like a recipe for disaster to me. Vermes began the match with his entire first-choice forward line of Nemeth, Dwyer, and Zusi on the bench. With Mustivar freshly injured, Espinoza still injured, and Nagamura facing a yellow card suspension, Sporting's midfield featured Benny in the defensive role with the youthful Mikey Lopez and Jordi Quintilla in front of him. Sporting started two rookie fullbacks and a rookie winger in what may be the most hostile road environment in MLS. An injury to Kevin Ellis required Sporting to finish the match with the 18-year old Erik Palmer-Brown in the central defense. That injury to Ellis meant that Dwyer didn't get to see action. Facing a desperate Portland Timbers team on the road with a lineup full of kids and a few exhausted veterans ought to have given Portland the win. It didn't work out that way.

If you watched the game or read anything about it, you know that Tim Melia stood on his head in goal. Besler and Ellis played well in front of Melia, but credit for keeping Sporting in the game has to go to the man between the pipes--yet again. A team with a solid defense and a keeper who can make the needed saves is a lot like a boxer who can absorb blows until he has a chance to land one knockout punch. Melia absorbed the blows last night. Then Nemeth landed the punch.

The ball was well within the Timber's side of the half line when Zusi (subbed on at halftime) played a simple pass to Nemeth (subbed on in the 73rd minute). I was hoping that Nemo would maintain possession and give Sporting a chance to hold on for a goalless draw, but Nemeth had other ideas. He dribbled half the length of the pitch to get off a shot that has to be a Goal of the Year contender. He beat 4 Timbers 5 times to score, with poor Diego Chara whiffing twice. That was all it took. Sporting battened down the hatches, and they're leaving the Rose City with all 3 points and a 1-0 win.

Even more than Sporting's dramatic wins this season, last night's result has to be striking terror into the hearts of coaches of potential playoff opponents. The home team outplayed Sporting's hodgepodge lineup for most of the match, but Sporting still won thanks to timely defending, spectacular goalkeeping, and a sublime individual effort. A team that can hang on in a match and then win on a freakish play is a terror to face, and Sporting looks pretty terrifying right now.

Nemeth is the most obvious game-changing talent on this roster--having struck twice with stunning goals in the span of four days this week--but Feilhaber, Zusi, and Dwyer have shown that ability as well. If Ike Opara can return, he's both an improvement in the defense and a nightmare to defend on set-pieces. That would be four players capable of finding a goal against the run of play for Sporting with their individual talent. That's a lot of punching power.

I don't think Sporting is anywhere close to the favorite for MLS Cup--but I don't think anyone will want to face them in the playoffs, either. Sporting isn't the most likely team to win MLS Cup, but they have one hell of a puncher's chance.

Go, Sporting!

Growth

A second Open Cup and a third trophy in four years may or may not make Sporting Kansas City a dynasty, but it is a step in that direction. This championship, even more than the others of recent years, feels like it could grow into something more than a single trophy. Maybe not something more right away, but something more down the road. The first two trophies in Sporting's recent run came in the friendly confines of Sporting Park. Winning at home is hard, but winning on the road is even harder. Philadelphia isn't the roughest place to play in MLS, but it's not a walk in the park, either. For the players, coaches, and staff to figure out how to win a cup on the road is a step toward claiming a spot among the soccer elites in America.

Not to make light of the challenges we faced in prior years, but the Open Cup in 2012 and the MLS Cup in 2013 were won by Sporting teams in great form. In both instances, those teams were playing at their peaks as the championship match approached. Neither of those teams were apt to suffer the kind of beatdowns by lesser opponents that this year's Sporting KC team has received.

Those past championships featured injuries and absences--Lawrence Olum had to play in both of those matches, once for Collin and once for Rosell--but nothing like this season's team. Sporting started the Open Cup Final without Opara and Espinoza, and by the time the match was over we were without Mustivar, Seth, and Chance as well--that's an enormous amount of talent to lose, fully half of our first choice field players. Yet the guys on the field managed to hold on to the draw and then claim the trophy on penalties. This roster needs to improve over the offseason if we want to realistically dream of winning Doubles or Trebles, but the roster is pretty darn capable and tough as it is. Last night proved that.

No one would claim that Sporting has played the best soccer they are capable of since mid-August. We certainly didn't play our best soccer for the Open Cup Final. Last night's victory was an ugly affair. Sporting earned 7 yellow cards on 24 fouls over 120 minutes--that's not elegant soccer. Sporting's lone goal was something to see: a brilliant curler from Nemeth set up by a heroic run from Chance and a classy pass from Zusi. Alas, aside from spectacular saves from Melia, that goal was pretty much the extent of Sporting's match highlights before the penalty shoot-out. Those penalty shots were amazing, though--obviously a product of time and effort in the film room and the training ground. Finding a way to win without the team's best performance is something that has to happen for this or any team to string together championships. No one is at their best every night, so you had bettered know how to make your B-game be good enough if you want to be a sports dynasty. We did that last night. It wasn't always fun to watch, but it is an encouraging development.

Sporting Kansas City isn't a dynasty yet. We need more hardware in our trophy case to make that claim. With another MLS Cup and maybe a Supporters' Shield, we could place ourselves in the same category as the Galaxy. A CONCACAF Champions League title would put Sporting ahead of every other MLS team in history, and handily enough last night's victory qualifies us for that competition.

With the growth Sporting has shown this season, I wouldn't rule out winning any or all of those trophies over the next couple of years. An MLS Cup is a long shot this year, but if Opara and Espinoza can return (and if the rest of the roster is healthy), we have a puncher's chance. The Supporters' Shield is out of reach this year, but if this team can use last night to learn how to grind out wins from what could be draws and draws out of what could be losses, it has a chance at the Shield next season. The Champions League will be a heavy lift for any MLS side because of the salary cap (which is a big part of why no MLS team has ever won it), but an MLS team that can win ugly has a chance against the vastly higher paid Mexican teams--and Sporting is learning how to win ugly.

Of course, the odds are Sporting won't win any of those trophies--the other teams are plenty good, and they are trying, too--but Sporting has a better chance than most other teams. We saw that in Philadelphia.

I don't know what the future will hold, but right now I do know who holds the US Open Cup--and that's enough for me.

Go, Sporting!

The night before the Open Cup

It's the night before the Open Cup! What's a Sporting fan to do? I wish I was in Philadelphia--that's never before been true!

I'll be sleeping in my lucky Sporting shirt (wish I'd bought boxers too!),

And every dream within my head will be tinged in Sporting Blue.

I've been reading every preview, listening to every MLS podcast,

If my newfound knowledge would be useful, Vermes only needs to ask!

We should put our faith in Benny, trust Besler at the back,

And let Mustivar and Ellis stymie the Union counter attack.

Dom will get us many goals, and Nemo can chip in too,

Zusi will surely find the net before the match is through.

Naga will hold our shape together and scoop up each loose ball,

While Chance  and Seth both attack and defend, really do it all!

And for good measure, we can count on Melia between the pipes,

With a bench of young guys ready to earn their stripes.

I do not loathe the Union, unlike our last Open Cup Final foe

(I was there when we beat the Sounders only three short years ago),

But this is still the first time I've wished for anything to go wrong

For my favorite Rookie of the Year ever, our old friend CJ Sapong.

I'm so eager I can scarcely wait, less than twenty four hours yet to go,

Until we bring back our Cup! I know it will be so!

Winning tomorrow's trophies today

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Winning trophies in any soccer league is hard; winning trophies in a league like MLS is even harder, because the salary cap and roster rules keep you from just buying the most talent. For an MLS team to win any of the major trophies--the Open Cup, the Supporters' Shield, or MLS Cup--requires preparation and planning and hard work and a dash of luck. I don't know what luck the future may hold for my team, but on this lovely autumn evening I saw evidence of preparation, planning, and hard work that will give this team a chance to get lucky in the future. Vermes thrilled me and shocked many by rotating Sporting's lineup to face the Seattle Sounders today. With Besler and Benny both already ruled out due to accumulated yellow cards, Vermes elected to also leave Nemeth, Zusi, Myers, Sinovic, and Melia off of the roster sheet altogether. Dwyer and Mustivar started the match on the bench. The only regular starters who actually started against the Sounders were Nagamura and Ellis. Naga gave way for Mustivar at halftime, and Dwyer played the last 20 minutes, which was enough time for him to net the equalizing goal.

Whether out of desperation or pragmatism or confidence, Vermes sent a squad of youngsters and backups to face the fearsome Seattle Sounders, the team resurgent in the Western Conference since Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey have returned to play. Yet those rookies and youngsters and backups earned a well-deserved draw and the resulting point in the standings.

That is how you win trophies in MLS. Not a trophy today, obviously, but trophies tomorrow.

The obvious trophy Sporting is trying to win 'tomorrow' will be handed out on Wednesday: the U.S. Open Cup. Assuming everyone is healthy, Sporting's first choice lineup should be rested and available Wednesday in Philadelphia. That's no guarantee of victory, but it's a step in the right direction. Getting a point on Sunday and a trophy on Wednesday would be one hell of a week, and we can worry about Saturday in Portland later.

Beyond the Open Cup, there's two more trophies up for grabs this season. The Supporter's Shield is probably out of reach for Sporting, but any long-shot chance this team has at the Shield at least survived tonight's match. MLS Cup is always a bit of a crap shoot, but the only way to have a chance at winning in craps is to be in the game. Sporting didn't have to get the result tonight to make the playoffs, but getting a point and keeping Seattle from getting three helps Sporting's playoff positioning.

More important than just playoff positioning, Sporting's new found depth will be dang handy for the stretch run of the season, particularly with a midweek make-up match against Colorado on Wednesday, October 21st before the season finale against the Galaxy on Sunday the 25th. Once in the playoffs, the grinding schedule of quick turn-arounds will be helped with roster depth. Sporting developed some of that needed depth tonight.

The trophies I am most excited about are the ones that could be won in a more distant tomorrow. Yes, predictions are hard, especially when they are about the future, but Sporting's youth looked pretty good tonight--good enough to make me dream of what the future may hold.

Erik Palmer-Brown may be just 18-years-old, but at times he was the best player on the field tonight. He was more than a match for Dempsey and Martins, the most feared forward duo in MLS. At other times, 22-year-old Amadou Dia was the best player on the field, and his assist on the leveling goal was brilliant. To be fair, there were times when EPB and Dia were the worst players on the field,  but they're young enough to get better. That will be fun to watch (and here's hoping that EPB doesn't make a move to Europe anytime soon, even though it's obvious why there are teams across the pond eager to pay for him).

You know who else is young enough to get better? Jordi Quintilla (21), Mikey Lopez (22), Jon Kempin (22), Connor Hallisey (22), and even Kevin Ellis (24) and Saad Abdul-Salaam (24). All of those players turned in performances varying from solid to very good tonight, and not against a bad opponent. It's not as if the core of the Sporting lineup is over the hill, but having another group of younger players developing is never a bad thing--in fact, it's a very good thing. That's the way a team has a chance to win championships year-in and year-out.

If Sporting wins trophies next year, I get to link to this blog post and claim that this is where it all began. I hope I get to do that. It looks like the pieces are there for future success. Now it just takes a little luck.

Go, Sporting!

 

 

Must-wins and maybes

This Sporting Kansas City team has been so up-and-down recently that they are hard to predict. I really have no idea what to expect this afternoon when me and 20,000 of my closest friends welcome the Seattle Sounders to Sporting Park. All I know for sure is that win, lose or draw Sporting will still be in a playoff spot after this afternoon's match. I also know that the last two games of today's MLS triple-header won't change that position. Today's game isn't a must-win. We're darn fortunate that today isn't a must-win, because Sporting frankly isn't very likely to win this match. With Besler and Feilhaber suspended, both the goal-prevention and goal-creation parts of the game look ominous for the Boys in Blue. With the Open Cup Final looming in Philadelphia on Wednesday, it would be perilously easy to look past this match, so there's a real risk of a lack of focus (kind of like we saw in Houston). Meanwhile, the Sounders have come out of their midseason doldrums and once again look like a legitimate threat to win the league (aside: it's funny how often a run of bad play in MLS corresponds to star players being lost to injury or suspension).

If I hadn't sworn off of trying to forecast Sporting results, I would predict an epic home loss today. Given the team's injury situation, I would call this season a success if we win the Open Cup and catch a playoff spot (any playoff spot), so I'd even be okay with receiving a drubbing today for the sake of lifting a trophy midweek.

Maybe I'll just go out to Sporting Park and watch my team play hard in a doomed effort. Maybe I'll see the talented but so-very-young Erik Palmer-Brown taught lessons in craft and guile by Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. Seriously, is there a worst central defender pairing you can imagine to match up against that pair of talented forwards than the undersized Kevin Ellis and the under-experienced EPB? There could be many, many goals scored for the bad guys today.

Maybe Nemeth will be rested another match to keep a tweak from turning into a serious injury. Nemo's absence would further undermine an already challenged Benny-less attack, but if there's any concern at all Nemeth should be rested. Maybe I'll see Jacob Peterson starting on the wing again. I love Peterson as a bench guy, but he is exposed for his lack of pace without the advantage of coming on against guys who have already been running for 60 minutes. The oft-injured Bernardo Anor isn't much faster, and we could easily see both of those plodders start today's match. Maybe we'll see Sporting lose a lot of footraces today.

Maybe Jordi Quintilla or Mikey Lopez will make an unexpected start in the midfield and show us why Vermes hasn't been ready to play either of them much before now. Maybe Zusi will be dropped into the midfield and we will be reminded of why he usually plays on the wing.

Maybe Vermes will field a mostly second choice lineup to rest starters ahead of the Wednesday match. That wouldn't be much like Vermes, but I couldn't argue with that decision.

Or maybe guys will step up today. That would be very Sporting, to be focused and in synch when that's least expected. Maybe we'll crush the Sounders today. I hope so, but I just don't know. IF we do manage to win, I hope that it's not at the expense of the Open Cup Final.

I just don't know what to expect, and that's kind of fun. It's going to be a beautiful day for a soccer match. I intend to enjoy myself however that match turns out.

Go, Sporting!

Different ways to be bad: reflections on #SportingKC #HOUvSKC

Even Peter Vermes calls Sporting's performance in losing 1-0 to Houston last night a bad one. PV's right, of course, but I'm enough of a contrarian to be pleased that we at least found a new way to be bad. Remember how Sporting capitulated at home to San Jose? Remember what happened in Orlando?  Sporting looked plenty bad in those games--bad in a way that involved giving up bucketfuls of goals. The Dynamo aren't exactly a potent attacking side, but holding any team to a single goal on six shots (four on goal) is improvement of a sort after the defensive woes of recent days.

Sure, Sporting played a wretched game of soccer in Houston. They couldn't build a decent attack because they couldn't possess the ball. They couldn't possess the ball because they couldn't string together completed passes. Sporting, as they always seem to do against Houston, played the slow and physical game that suits the Dynamo so much better than it suits Sporting. We lost as a result, and deservedly so.

What Sporting didn't do in Houston was leak goals. Playing bad soccer while only giving up a single goal is a novel concept for this team. They have to play better to make the playoffs, but it's easier to improve from this kind of bad than the kind of bad that loses at home 5-0.

This is improvement of a sort. I hope the improvement continues.

Go, Sporting!