Armchair Analyst: Expect more cultured SKC team in 2013
MLSsoccer.com continues to take a look back at the 2012 season that was for all 19 clubs in Major League Soccer, starting with Toronto FC and ending with the Supporters' Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. You can find the schedule and comprehensive reviews for each team here.
2012 record: 18-7-9 (63 points); 42 GF / 27 GA (+15 GD)
Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?
That’s what happened in 2011 for Sporting KC, when a veritable tidal wave of goodness washed over a franchise that badly needed it. First the rebrand (which seemed “meh” at first) somehow struck a chord with the fanbase. Then it became clear that their young talent was starting to blossom, including a legitimate MLS star and US national teamer in Graham Zusi. And they added significant foreign pieces in attack, midfield and defense. Finally, Livestrong Sporting Park opened, and each and every game there became an event.
Those of us who’ve been around since ’96 are still kind of in shock.
And the question heading into 2012 was, “Can they keep it up?” There was real concern that 2011’s success was a product of the weird schedule, and good karma, and a whole bunch of other factors that were mostly unquantifiable. If they took a step backwards on the field, what would happen off of it?
We didn’t come close to finding out. Sporting set a league record with seven straight wins to start the season, held onto the top spot in the Eastern Conference all year, won the US Open Cup (their first title of any sort since 2004) and generally looked the part of a true contender from First Kick onwards.
Then they met the Dynamo in the playoffs again and became another notch on Dominic Kinnear’s belt.
Give credit to the Sporting brass, though. They stuck with Peter Vermes as technical director through some very lean years, eventually hired him as coach and said, “Make this work.” And he has.
But now they need to take the next step, and have already made a bunch of moves this offseason in order to take it. The two biggest – signing Designated Player Claudio Bieler as a striker, and trading for New England’s Benny Feilhaber – seem to give them exactly what they were missing: A sniper in front of net to finish off the myriad chances they always create with their high pressure, and a midfield brain who can make sure they hold possession and force you to work as hard as they do.
MISS: Sapong can't find the net
The concern is that in replacing Roger Espinoza with Feilhaber and, as it currently looks, C.J. Sapong with Bieler is that you lose two of the things that have defined SKC’s success these past two seasons: insane workrate in midfield (Feilhaber’s no slouch, but he’s not Espinoza) and insane athleticism up top.
It will be a different-looking Sporting side in 2013, for certain, one that the Cauldron hopes can be a little more clinical in front of net. (To be fair, Sapong showed marked improvement finishing in his second year, and there's no reason to think that won't continue. Even so, Ruud van Nistelrooy he's not).
It’s a tradeoff that Vermes probably needed to make, though. Sporting’s only real way of beating you the past couple of years was to physically beat you to death, forcing turnovers that either turned into breakaway chances or set pieces. As the Dynamo have proved repeatedly, if you can just wait them out and protect the back post, you can get past them.
There’ll be a little more subtlety to SKC next year, and little reason to think it won’t work. Sporting actually dominated Houston in the second leg of the Eastern Conference first round thanks largely to a slightly more nuanced midfield trio that included youngsters Uri Rosell and Peterson Joseph, both of whom are expected to play bigger roles this coming year. Adding Feilhaber, one of the league’s premier set-up men, means more of that SKC side, and less of the one that was beaten badly in the first leg.
But will the high press be as effective? And will they finally start to finish? Will the moves, which look so good on paper, actually work?
Those are questions that might not be answered right away. But hey, Vermes has been given plenty of time to get things figured out before.