MLSsoccer.com will break down Sporting Kansas City’s season in three-match blocks during the 2011 MLS regular season. This is the first of 11 quick glimpses into Kansas City’s season, each of which will play a critical role in the team’s quest to return to the MLS Cup playoffs.
Tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference (1-1-1, 4 points)
March 19 at Chivas USA: 3-2 victory
March 26 at Chicago Fire: 3-2 defeat
April 2 at Vancouver Whitecaps: 3-3 draw
April 16 at Columbus Crew (1-1-2, 5 points)
April 23 at New England Revolution (1-1-3, 6 points)
April 30 at New York Red Bulls (1-1-2, 5 points)
Player to remember … Teal Bunbury (3 goals)
Bunbury’s health was a bit of a question mark after he dislocated his elbow and subsequently missed the first game of the season against Chivas. But in the two games since, the US international has put those questions to bed, scoring three goals and showing off the polish he added to his game during a productive offseason.
The 21-year-old is already just two goals short of his 2010 rookie total and has amassed one-fifth of his projected 2011 target of 15 goals. What's more impressive is that his three goals have come in just 135 minutes and he has exhibited a finishing touch that was often lacking during his first season in MLS.
If Bunbury can keep up his current scoring pace and continue to add even more dimensions to his play, the US national team will surely come calling for this summer's Gold Cup and Kansas City will have to begin thinking about what it will do without its prized asset.
Player to watch … C.J. Sapong (2 goals, 1 assist)
Sapong was an under-the-radar prospect when Sporting took the versatile attacker with the 10th overall pick in January’s SuperDraft. That low profile hasn’t lasted long.
With Omar Bravo predicted to miss three to six weeks with a sports hernia injury and Ryan Smith still working to achieve full health, Sapong projects to be the de facto third striker alongside Bunbury and Kei Kamara. So far he’s shown he’s perfectly capable of filling that role, knocking in two goals (one the winner against Houston in a US Open Cup qualifier) and adding a beautiful assist against Vancouver.
Sporting will need that production if they want to improve on their current start, and Sapong’s ability to hold the ball up and his strength in the air will help the rest of the forward line.
Two things that went right…
1) The goals are coming in bunches.
After struggling to consistently put the ball in the back of the net for much of 2010, Kansas City have found their finishing touch early and often this season.
The side managed by Peter Vermes leads MLS in goals per game and has gotten peak production from its strikers with Bunbury, Sapong, Kamara and Bravo combining for seven league goals and a host of other quality scoring chances. Even more impressive is the fact that Sporting have done all of this on the road and at times even down a man.
2) Road trip? So far, so good.
Circumstances aside, four points from three away games is a satisfactory start for the club.
If Kansas City keep their current pace and ends up with somewhere between 12 and 15 points from this 10-game road trip, they will be close to matching the 15-point haul the club claimed from 15 road games in 2010. And with a heavy home schedule remaining, Sporting would find themselves in great position to make a run during the second half of the season.
Now the hard part, actually securing the necessary results, begins on Saturday in Columbus.
Two things that went wrong…
1) Defensive collapses are short-circuiting Sporting's efforts.
Sure, the goals are piling up and four points isn’t a bad haul thus far, but Kansas City know they left some points behind in Vancouver and Chicago.
The red card awarded to Bravo has been heavily debated, but the Fire’s ability to slice up Sporting’s makeshift back line was what truly kept the visitors from a valuable draw. Drawing with the Whitecaps was an even tougher to swallow as two stoppage-time goals from Camilo snatched two huge points and momentum from the club’s grasp.
Fortunately, none of Kansas City’s defensive issues appear to be endemic or unfixable. Unfortunately, correcting them now won’t bring those valuable points back.
2) Kansas City's depth is going to be tested as its travels continue.
Vermes has been making team selections with a hand tied behind his back for a month now, and that doesn’t look likely to change soon.
With Bravo and Smith out of commission, Kansas City finds themselves with an explosive but thin front line. The defense is slowly rounding into shape, but injuries to Michael Harrington, Luke Sassano, Chance Myers and Júlio César plus the absence of Shavar Thomas on international duty has made chemistry and familiarity hard to come by.
Finding a consistent lineup – and the tactical awareness that comes with it – will be essential to the club's fortunes this year.
With seven road games remaining before LIVESTRONG Sporting Park officially opens, the going only gets tougher from here.
In Columbus, New England and New York, Sporting fans will receive an early indication of where their club stands in the Eastern Conference. All three opponents have managed just flashes of their offensive potential, but, more importantly, all three boast stingy defenses, allowing just 11 goals in 13 games combined.
After plenty of early success, Vermes’ squad will feel confident it can continue to put the ball in the back of the net. The real question is what will happen should those attackers find themselves handcuffed. Will Sporting be able to grind out and manage games with improved defensive performances or will those shortcomings in the back continue to haunt them?