Of hangings and focused minds

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How in the world could Sporting Kansas City lose to woeful Orlando City 1-3 on Sunday and then beat the hottest team in the league, FC Dallas, by a mirror image 3-1 on Friday night? The difference could be home cooking. Margins are small in MLS, so the conventional wisdom is that home field advantage means more here than in other leagues around the world. Having seen Sporting drop their prior home match 0-5, I don't think home field advantage explains much of Sporting's rapid improvement.

Chance Myers re-returning to the starting lineup last night certainly helped. It may be hard to remember, what with the Achilles injury cutting Chance's 2014 season short and delaying his start to this season (and he still isn't fully back), but in 2012 Chance may have been the best right back in MLS. People were talking about him as a candidate for the US National Team, and rightly so. Chance starting made the man next to him on the backline, Kevin Ellis, vastly better by reducing the gap on the the right side of our defense.  Chance also made the forward in front of him (mostly Graham Zusi) better by providing an overlapping run and support in the attack. Heck, Chance made the forward on the opposite side of him (mostly Nemeth) better by being able to receive and hit long balls to quickly reverse the field.

As much as I love Chance, I don't think his return to the lineup explains the vastly improved performance last night.

The return of a seemingly rested and fit Paulo Nagamura did wonders for Sporting. Naga provided an edge to the midfield that we lacked in Orlando. At this point in his career, there's a big drop off from Naga at his best to Naga at his gritting it out. Last night Naga was at his best, which funneled Dallas' possession into Mustivar and created attacking opportunities for Benny, which ultimately lead to Sporting having over 60% of the possession and most of the dangerous attacking opportunities.

Zusi directly benefited from Naga's return. Naga playing in the midfield let Graham return to a forward position. Zusi certainly looked better as a wing forward last night than he did in the midfield in Orlando. I hate to bag on the guy, but Jacob Peterson looked a lot better occupying a spot on the bench (where he is a useful, hardworking, and versatile substitute) rather than in the starting lineup.

I don't think Naga's presence and play explains Sporting's improved play, though.

Dallas helped Sporting look better last night. Dallas let Sporting heap up tons of possession by starting with a five-man backline and surrendering possession to try to counter. A realist might say that but for Kempin making a big save after a bad turnover in the very first minute match, the Dallas plan would have worked beautifully--but this is the morning after a win, so I'm not going to be negative/realistic. I also don't think Dallas' tactics fully explain the difference, since we've seen similar approaches work over the past few weeks.

The big difference I saw from the team on the field wasn't in the personnel or tactics. The big difference was focus.

As the old saying attributed to Samuel Johnson notes, nothing focuses the mind quite like an impending hanging. I gather that we've given up executing losing sports teams, but after Sporting's recent run of play they were facing the very real prospect of missing out on the playoffs altogether if they didn't find a win. Everyone associated with the team, from the players to the coaches to the front office to the fans, could look at the Dallas roster and record and know that the win we so desperately needed wasn't going to be easy to earn.

Metaphorically speaking, the gallows were in view; pragmatically speaking, the team was focused.

This isn't a situation that's unique to Kansas City. If you have had an MLS Live subscription over the years, you've seen plenty teams near the playoff line beat teams with better records in September. Truth be told, part of what enabled the Earthquakes to embarrass Sporting at home a few weeks ago was that San Jose NEEDED to win back then, while Sporting sat in a seemingly secure position in the standings. Last night Sporting was the team that NEEDED the win, while Dallas was the team in a secure spot in the playoff picture.

I hope Sporting can remain crisp and disciplined for what remains of this season. If they do, this team could be very, very good. If they don't, this team could still miss the playoffs or, more likely, face a one-and-done playoff match on the road. A one-and-done playoff match on the road sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.

On the other hand, a one-and-done playoff match on the road might be just what it takes to focus our minds.

Go, Sporting!