Quest for the Shield: How SKC and RSL were built

 

 

Peter Vermes didn’t jump into coaching nearly as quickly as Kreis, but it didn’t take long for him to move into the front office once his playing career ended in 2002. The former Wizard – Vermes was a crucial cog in Kansas City’s MLS Cup-winning side in 2000 – was hired as technical director after the 2006 season. Three years later, he took the coaching reins full-time, assembling a roster that fit his preferred high-pressure system, one that had a few early hiccups but is now the envy of opposing clubs.

COACH BIO

Even though Jason Kreis’ story is well known by now, it’s still largely an anomaly in professional sports. Since being hand-picked by RSL owner Dave Checketts to take over the team in May 2007 (he was just 34 years old at the time), he’s hardly missed a beat in turning a struggling franchise into one of the dominant clubs in the league. He’s meticulous, compulsive, intense, candid and, perhaps most important, obsessed with disproving his doubters.

Kei Kamara’s talent was never in question, but after bouncing between three teams in four years to start his career, some wondered if he was worth the potential headaches when Vermes sent Abe Thompson and allocation money to Houston for the mercurial striker in September 2009. Once in KC, though, Vermes managed to convince Kamara his best spot was wide, and the Sierra Leone international has gone on to establish himself as one of MLS’ most-dangerous forwards, scoring 22 goals and dishing out 11 assists since the start of 2010.

BEST TRADE

One of the first things Kreis did on the job was a bit of house cleaning, and in the process made a trade that defined the team. The club shipped midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy to Colorado for Kyle Beckerman, who has become one of the most crucial players on any team in the league, the fulcrum for Salt Lake’s system and a candidate to appear in the 2014 World Cup. This one was pure I-70 robbery, and perhaps the best trade in the league during the past five years.

Rarely do foreigners come into MLS and establish themselves among the league’s upper-echelon immediately, but that’s exactly what center back Aurelien Collin has done. Vermes said from the start that the flashy Frenchman was tailor-made for MLS, and he wasn’t bluffing. Collin started 21 games after arriving last April, scoring three goals and playing a crucial role in Sporting’s run to the Eastern Conference final. He’s picked up where he left off this season, partnering with Matt Besler on what could be the league’s top defense.

BEST INTERNATIONAL MOVE

RSL have done a lot of things right in recent years, but it’s tough to argue against the importance of acquiring Jámison Olave. Once an over-physical, hulking center back who struggled to stay on the field without picking up yellow cards or giving up costly fouls, Olave has matured into perhaps the steadiest defender in the league and an absolute revelation for RSL. His poise and power were essential during the club’s run to the CCL final in 2011.

Apart from old hands Jimmy Nielsen and Julio Cesar, Sporting Kansas City have one of the youngest starting lineups in the league. That’s what happens when you jettison the old guard in favor of new blood. Since taking over as manager, Vermes has cut ties with club stalwarts and fan favorites Jimmy Conrad, Josh Wolff, Kevin Hartman, Jack Jewsbury, and Davy Arnaud. Although each move was initially met with much skepticism, those decisions are looking better and better by the day.

BIGGEST CONTROVERSY

Part of the RSL renovation project in 2007 meant jettisoning players that simply couldn’t fit in the new system. So out went Jeff Cunningham and Freddy Adu, two of the biggest stars in the league and perhaps the few reasons fans went to RSL games during some lean times. Kreis also shipped out his best friend and USMNT veteran defender Chris Klein (he got Robbie Findley in return), and the controversy hit home: his wife didn’t speak to him for a week.

On a team built in large part through the SuperDraft – 13 players on the roster were KC draft picks – it’s hard to nail down just one selection. The list reads like a who’s who of young, top-level MLS talent: Roger Espinoza (1st round, 2008), Chance Myers (1st round, 2008), Matt Besler (1st round, 2009), Graham Zusi (2nd round, 2009), Teal Bunbury (1st round, 2010) and C.J. Sapong (1st round, 2011). The best of the bunch is Sapong, who went from relative unknown and “draft reach” to one of the top target forwards in the league and a potential national teamer.

BEST DRAFT PICK

RSL haven’t leaned too heavily on the SuperDraft recently, probably because the club brass have opted to shop abroad or for players other MLS teams deem expendable. The best pick made in the Kreis era was his first on the job: UCLA defender Tony Beltran, taken third overall in 2008. Beltran has emerged as a vital part of the backline, he’s started at least 17 games each of the past three seasons and his goal line save in the postseason last year against Seattle made him a cult hero.

Sporting KC only recently made the jump from pretender to contender, making it’s difficult to point to a single moment that held them back when most of their progress has been decidedly forward. Still, missing out on a trip to MLS Cup last season by losing to the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference final – at Livestrong Sporting Park no less – was a tough pill to swallow. Instead of heading to LA for a shot at a championship, KC was left with the feeling that they weren’t quite ready for the big stage.

BIGGEST SETBACK

Was there a recent disappointment for any MLS team bigger than RSL’s loss in the CCL final against Monterrey in April 2011? It was the one night during Kreis’ tenure that the stars were seemingly aligned and things didn’t go right for RSL, who slipped up for one second and got punished by the best team on the continent. RSL will return to the tournament this summer breathing fire, but that loss still hangs over their head.

Ironically, Sporting KC’s biggest strength may also be their biggest weakness. The high pressure Vermes’ side applies to opponents can be stifling, and they’ve become quite good in possession as well, but it’s physically taxing and opens them up to the counterattack, especially in wide areas. If teams can get behind Myers and Seth Sinovic – both of whom specialize in getting forward – there’s space to exploit. And if KC runs into any injury issues, can the bench pick up the slack without a significant drop off?

BIGGEST WEAKNESS

Injuries befall every team during the course of a season, but RSL seem to have been bitten lately more than the others. The Javier Morales injury last season took an emotional toll, and there have been other issues of late for Beckerman, Olave, Álvaro Saborío and Nat Borchers. The team mostly has the depth to compensate, but they need their stars on the field this season to make a real run at glory.
Two years ago, nobody knew who Graham Zusi was outside of College Park, Md., and MLS-obsessed pockets of Kansas City. Now, Sporting’s attacking fulcrum, resident dead-ball specialist and jack-of-all-trades is one of the league’s best midfielders. While most other positions on the roster have a ready-made replacement, Vermes can’t look down his bench to fill the void should Zusi miss time. Regardless, the recently capped US national teamer isn’t going anywhere soon after signing an improved contract this offseason.

IRREPLACEABLE PLAYER

Fabian Espíndola provides the team’s fire, Olave brings the muscle and goalkeeper Nick Rimando brings the savvy. But the heart and soul of the team is Beckerman, who enjoyed a career year last season and helped steady the ship after the Morales injury. When RSL lost to Monterrey in 2011 the lasting image was one of Beckerman crouched down on the field, in street clothes due to his fateful one-game suspension. He can wear whatever he wants when he’s not playing, but there’s going to be an RSL jersey under that suit for the rest of his life.