It's time for Sporting KC to get back to the good ol' days - four weeks ago. It's time to pick out the problems for the club on this three-game "losing" streak. Let's hash it out.
I've got to do a little ramble here, so just bare with me a bit.
Now, obviously three-game "losing" streak is said somewhat in jest, as Sporting Kansas City have really only lost one game in a row. But, with the way things transpired two weeks ago against Vancouver Whitecaps, it may as well have been a loss, thus connecting actual losses at Chicago Fire and Columbus Crew to make for a three-game losing streak. After an offseason that saw the Kansas City club make several key acquisitions, appear to be the trendy pick for "darkhorse" of the year, and a scintillating start to the season at Chivas USA, Sporting KC were flying high and climbing power rankings clear across the Internet.
Then, suddenly things changed for the worse almost as quickly as they had gone good. Depending on who you ask, you'll get this reason and you'll get that reason for the recent poor performances. There will always be some amount of merit to each, but more so in particular cases, of course. For instance, if someone tells you that it's Peter Vermes being a terrible coach or the players just don't care, you have full legal permission to smack them as if they just insinuated inappropriate relations with your mother.
So, really, what's the deal? Is it the configuration of players on the roster? Has Vermes made decisions that, while not anywhere near terminable offenses, might have not put the team in the best possible position to win? Or, is it just a bit of bad luck right now? And, can we expect them to snap out of it anytime soon?
They're On A 10-Game Road Trip Here, Folks
Seriously, it's a big deal.
One of the best things to come of Saturday night's postgame episode of The Daily Wiz's podcast, "Ted And Trent Talkin' Touches" was this little factoid from Vermes' press conference last Thursday, pointed out by show host and producer Trent McGee: every week the team loses two day of game preparation due to travel. Whether it be getting back into town after the previous game, or having to leave town a day early for the upcoming game, that's anywhere from 4-6 hours of training, treatment and film study Sporting KC no longer have the luxury of, while their opponents do.
And, this is still the same main core of players that struggled away from home in 2010, too. Going into the season, players and coaches alike all tried to downplay the difficulty of the road trip, and some fans even bought into it. I may have been duped into it a bit, as well, but never believed it would be easy. Perhaps now we are finding out just how difficult such a stretch of road games in Major League Soccer can be. The worst part? This has been the supposed easier half of the trip. Consecutive games at New York, LA, Seattle and Colorado are just over the horizon.
Player Injuries/Inconsistent Availability
Playmaking forward Ryan Smith - yet to make his first appearance of 2011, starting forward Teal Bunbury - missed 1.5 games due to dislocated elbow during preseason, firmly-planted starting rightback Michael Harrington - missed first two games of season with groin injury, starting forward Kei Kamara - missed game at Chicago due to international duty for Sierra Leone, designated player Omar Bravo - missed game at Vancouver due to red card suspension, now out 4-6 weeks following sports hernia surgery.
Again, another situation mostly out of the players' hands, but something else that has definitely had major negative effects on the squad to this point. It wasn't until Saturday's game at Columbus that the they actually started the same four defenders in consecutive games. Forwards? Same story; Columbus was the first game that the same three forwards started consecutive games. Midfield? Exact same story; Columbus was the first game that the same three midfielders started consecutive games.
con·ti·nu·i·ty - noun- uninterrupted connection, succession, or union
That's something that Sporting have had very little of to start the season. There have been three different starters in four games at rightback. Starting leftback Roger Espinoza started the game in Chicago at centerback because Julio Cesar Santos was injured and Shavar Thomas was on internation duty for Jamaica. Matt Besler, who was the most hated-upon defender of 2010 (non-Pablo Escobar division), has been by far the best defender of 2011. Seriously, he's been a stud cleaning up everyone else's messes.
Everybody looks to be in good health following the game at Columbus. Outside of tactical changes by Vermes, a third straight game with very similar lineup renderings could prove fruitful this Saturday at New England Revolution.
Again, those are issues of the hands of the players. Some might say they're a cop-out, and that's fair to a point. Ultimately, questions have to fall on the shoulders of the players expected to perform.
Julio Cesar Santos Does Not Look Like The Right Answer In Defense
For someone that came into town with such a heralded reputation (with good reason) and career, Cesar has been a rather large disappointment four games into his MLS career. So much so that newly-signed French defender Aurelien Collin could supplant him in the starting lineup as soon as this weekend.
As mentioned above, Besler has been near stellar so far, with Cesar looking very much the weak link in defense. Given his age (32), dwindling athleticism and pace, he has been made to look silly on quite a few occasions already. Countless times against Vancouver he was waltzed past to the endline, then spun left and right and left for dead as Vancouver forwards mozied on into the box unabashed. This, of course, played a big part in the monumental meltdown (that let's be honest - was more than just the last couple minutes of the game) but is not limited to that one instance.
It is very apparent that Vermes does not believe Thomas is the answer, either, because despite disappointing performance after lackluster performance, Cesar continues to start. Many believe, and as stated above, I agree that Collin could put an end to that sooner rather than later. His physicality (in daily training) that he has shown to this point is something Cesar just doesn't look to have right now. Not to mention his physically-imposing physique. Maybe a swift push from behind will be just what Cesar needs to get himself going right. In fairness, if I were making a couple-hundred thousand dollars to play soccer, I wouldn't need any extra motivation to dedicate myself to playing at the top of my level.
Tactically Attempting To Put A Square Peg In A Round Hole
Say it ultimately falls back on Vermes, because it does, but maybe the players on the roster aren't the most perfect pieces for this particular puzzle. Maybe (and we know this to be almost certainly true) Birahim Diop isn't a holding midfielder. Maybe there are four starting-worthy center forwards on the roster, two of which having to start out of natural position every game. Maybe the lack of defensive help from the midfield is preventing Harrington and Espinoza from being able to provide wide support in attack from their respective fullback positions.
All true, all issues currently hurting Sporting KC. The most beautiful thing about the game of soccer is that it truly is a game of dominoes. For every tiny thing that one player does, it directly affect three or four other players in a near split second. If Diop doesn't win the ball back in ahead of the backline, Besler or Cesar have to step up to challenge, the fullback on their side has to suck inside to cover, they're completely out of position to help the attack once possession of the ball is re-gained and the forwards have to provide the width themselves and can't fill the box with targets. That's not to single out Diop; that's just one example of how it all works.
I believe that attacking midfielder Milos Stojcev is the exact type of player that was missing from the team in 2010 to spring the plethera of forwards goalward. Do I believe that Stojcev himself is that guy? Still to be determined. He's shown the ability to make those things happen when given time and space, but doing so when keyed upon as the playmaker is what separates those that can hack it from those that can't.
Call Me Crazy, But It's Been Four Games, Guys
Should we be calling for Vermes' job at this point? No. Should those people doing so be taken to task and given one week fan bans? Yes. (Kidding, of course.) More realistically, should we be moderately concerned; especially with the upcoming string of games against top-end MLS competition? Absolutely. Do Sporting KC have a man in place calling the shots that can lead them to the light at the end of the tunnel? In Vermes I Trust.