Unless this is your first year of rooting for Sporting Kansas City, you probably have spotted an alarming similarity between last season and this season. That similarity is even scarier than losing to the Colorado Rapids Saturday night. Last year, in late spring the team looked invincible. We piled up points with a stingy defense and an adequate offense. We looked like Supporters' Shield favorites for a month or two, but the wheels fell off fast and hard.
The defense took a hit when Matt Besler left for the World Cup, and Graham Zusi's departure to the same destination hurt both the offense and the defense. I (and I think most fans) figured the team could muddle through until the World Cup was over, but the very tired players that returned to us never really found their footing back in league play. Meanwhile, injuries to . . . pretty much everyone made the muddling more difficult.
When Sporting's acclaimed yet profoundly underrated defensive midfielder Uri Rosell was lost from the lineup--first to injury and then to a well-deserved payday thanks to a move to Sporting Lisbon--muddling through was the least of our worries. Sporting held on for its playoff life. Turns out, the defensive midielder--a position casual soccer fans scarcely notice--is pretty much the most important position on the field. The d-mid especially matters when a team plays a 4-3-3 formation like Sporting does with only a single defensive mid and the left and right backs bombing forward in the attack. Last year Sporting went from having the best defensive midfielder in MLS to well below average in that spot. The first result of the downgrade was a porous defense. The second result was a toothless attack without a player to launch counter attacks and set our offensive tempo. (<--That bit may sound familiar to you if you watched the last few matches)
As last season wound down, I watched in horror but not surprise as what once was the best defense in the league leaked goals like a sieve. A tired and well-traveled Matt Besler looked a shell of his former self in the center of our defense. Injuries at right back had left Vermes with no option other than a talented but raw rookie on loan from Brazil, which effectively turned that side of the defense into a turnstile for attackers. On the opposite side of the defense, Seth Sinovic ran himself ragged and looked the worse for the wear. In front of the defense, Lawrence Olum was the only option to replace the departed Uri, only Larry lacked the speed, passing touch, and ability to read the game Rosell brought to the defensive midfielder role. Small mistakes in the midfield snowballed into huge problems, leaving the defense in terrible positions. In the end, Sporting caught the last playoff spot and was put out of our collective misery in the first round by the New York Redbulls.
I've got to admit: there are some parallels between last season and this one. Those parallels may carry on biting us on the collective keister for the rest of the season; Lord knows, a reasonably smart analyst I listen to pointed out that Sporting wasn't playing very well back when they were winning. Sporting is, after all, an MLS team, and playing in MLS means operating with roster restrictions and a salary cap that leaves every team vulnerable to a couple critical injuries.
I've got a batch of brown ale fermenting away happily in my basement right now, though, so I'm feeling optimistic. Let me tell you why I think this season can be salvaged.
First, this is MLS, so six (Count 'em! SIX!) teams make the playoffs. In each conference. Sporting just has to be better than four very bad teams to get a spot. Yes, I know that Sporting has lost to two of those very bad teams (San Jose and Colorado) recently and twice to another of those very bad teams (Salt Lake), but as I write this Sporting sits fourth in the Western Conference standings. This team doesn't have to be great from here on out to have a chance at making the playoffs and winning MLS Cup. Sporting just has to be a bit better than some other teams that aren't very good.
Second, this is MLS, so what comes around goes around. Excluding the LA Galaxy, where Bruce Arena somehow combines the looks of Jabba the Hutt with the wisdom of Yoda (and a quality player development system) in building a roster, every other team Sporting is competing against either has the same problems we do or probably will soon. With only have 28 roster spots and a tight player budget, every team is one injured star away from a bad run of games. Other teams will fade as the season wears on, too.
Third, last year Uri wasn't going to return, but this year we have a chance of getting guys back. Mustivar's recent absence from the defensive midfield spot has revealed (once again) how important that position is for Sporting, but he should be back from his groin strain soon, or at least eventually. Ike Opara, who was on track to be the MLS Defender of the Year before his achilles injury, is due to return before the season is out [aside to everyone on Twitter bagging on Kevin Ellis for not being remotely as good as Opara in playing while Ike's out: see my points about short rosters and tight player budgets above; Ellis isn't a star, but he's the kind of inexpensive yet serviceable player a team needs to succeed in MLS]. Notwithstanding Chance Myers limping off with a muscle strain last night, he's working his way back to fitness and form. Opposite of Chance, last season's iron man, Seth Sinovic, finally returned last night. Guys like Anibaba, Anor, and Okugo are still out there, healing. There's even an outside shot that Roger Espinoza could be available for the playoffs. Will some or all of those guys get healthy and instantly play great: no. Heck, poor Seth didn't look like he had his legs back under him last night. It takes a guy a few matches for a returning player to get his timing and fitness back. Unlike last year, though, the team will add players back into the mix as they get healthy, whereas last season the injuries were season ending and the transfers were permanent.
Fourth, Sporting has already reached the US Open Cup Final. That's more than a big deal. I'm not saying that we should be satisfied with just reaching the Open Cup Final, but if Sporting beats the Union to win the oldest trophy in American soccer and goes on to make the playoffs in MLS, that's more than a pretty good season.
Fifth, did I mention that I have a brown ale brewing in my basement? I didn't do anything like that last year, so at least I'll have homebrew to sooth my injured fandom if the season continues to go sideways.
Are three game losing streaks fun? No. Does this season suddenly look a lot like last season? Yeah, in some ways I'm afraid it does. Fortunately, there are ways this season looks different than last year. Let's hope that this isn't déjà vu all over again.