Another excellent regular season. Another disappointing playoff exit at home.

A gif is worth a thousand words:

Sporting did a ton of things right in 2021, building a team that had an MVP candidate (Daniel Salloi), a multi-million-dollar transfer to a Serie A club (Gianluca Busio) and enough depth to survive injuries in the backline, in central midfield and at center forward while still maintaining their perch near the top of the West. They finished the year on 1.71 ppg, which is the third time in four years they’ve topped that mark.

But in each of those seasons they were eliminated in the playoffs as home favorites. They’re just the third team in MLS history to finish three straight playoff appearances with a home loss.

Formation and tactics

4-3-3 always. Peter Vermes has been willing to tinker with a lot over the course of his 13 years in charge, but he hasn’t gone away from that.

He also hasn’t really gone away from the press. As per Second Spectrum, Sporting were once again at or near the top of virtually every relevant pressing metric and once again they turned that into a lot of possession – 54.4%, good for second in the league. That is how they played through most of the regular season despite a ton of absences.

One of those on-again, off-again absences was new center back Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, which meant erstwhile d-mid Ilie Sanchez spent a lot of time in the middle of the defense. Between him and Andreu Fontas, there were a ton of pretty, build-from-the-back sequences from Sporting in 2021.

Come the playoffs, though, Vermes switched it up as Sporting played a low block and countered Vancouver to death, relying upon long switches from RB Graham Zusi to Salloi on the left wing. It was unexpected, but for one game at least, it worked perfectly.

Highlights

It’s hard to come up with one particular highlight from the regular season, which was more consistently solid than highlight-filled. Force me to choose one game, though, and I’d probably go with the 3-1 win at Seattle in late July.

The Sounders had conceded just nine goals all year to that point and had established themselves as pretty prohibitive favorites in the West. It wasn’t a shock to see Sporting win, but the ruthlessness with which they did so – even without DP No. 9 Alan Pulido, and yes, we’ll be talking more about his prolonged absence later – was eye-opening. It felt like a statement.

The other obvious highlight was the playoff win over the Whitecaps, which featured the Full Zusi:

The long, pinpoint switch, which he hits better than any fullback in MLS history, followed by the scorcher from 30 yards, which he’s scored multiple times throughout his career.

It was a wonderful moment in front of fans who’ve truly loved and appreciated the guy for more than a decade.

Lowlight

The next game. I’ll let Johnny Russell take it:

“That wasn’t even a shade of us, today. We sat back way too much. We looked like a team that didn’t want to lose instead of a team that wanted to win."

Gigantic ooof.

I genuinely have no idea why Sporting were so flat and lifeless in that 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake to end their playoff hopes, but that’s how it went. RSL were completely comfortable in their build-up throughout, and then lethal in transition for the final 15 minutes as they brought in game-changing subs and Sporting just didn’t.

For all his greatness as a manager and GM, “game-changing subs” is not a concept Vermes has mastered. Look at how out-of-gas both Salloi and Zusi were on this sequence:

Salloi gives up the chase after a few steps, and Zusi is just left for dead. Justin Meram ended up looking like prime Eden Hazard.

It’s hard to imagine Sporting winning a big game – with three impact subs coming off the bench – the way RSL won this one. If they’re going to climb back into the ranks of true title contenders in the years to come, I think that’s something Vermes needs to figure out.

Revelation

Salloi making the leap and having a Best XI-caliber, 16g/8a season after registering ONE GOAL AND ONE ASSIST IN 35 GAMES!!!! over the previous two years probably counts as a revelation, right? He was deservedly an MVP finalist and spent most of the season just being really, really good and occasionally great.

Obviously, with the way Vermes’s 4-3-3 works and the type of No. 9 he prefers, the wingers are supposed to do a lot of the heavy lifting with regard to putting the ball in the back of the net. And we’d seen it from Salloi before – he scored 11 goals in 2018, remember.

But this was a whole ‘nother level. He was awesome.

Disappointment

The defensive reinforcements didn’t really work out, did they? Isimat-Mirin spent way too much time hurt and looked “fine” rather than “damn, this guy’s really good!” when he was healthy, and LB Luis Martins brought a bunch to the table in attack, but took a bunch off of it in defense. With the midfield becoming slightly gappier and easier to play through – Remi Walter did not fix things there, and neither did Jose Mauri – and Ilie spending so much time on the backline…

Sporting spent a lot of time defending by keeping possession and dominating the ball. They spent a lot of time defending via the press, and being really good at it. But once that press was broken they were once again one of the worst teams in the league defending in transition, and that just keeps being how their season ends.

2022 Preview

Five Players to Build Upon:

  • Salloi (LW): Just entering his prime and had a Best XI-caliber season. Looks like he finally got right with the Soccer Gods after two years in the wilderness.
  • Kinda (AM): Not as good as last season, but he’s in his prime and is very clever about picking his spots for late-arriving goalscoring runs, and is very good at keeping it simple with his passing.
  • Russell (RW): He’s 31 and will presumably need a little bit more rest, but he just put forth his best season and remains one of the league’s best wingers.
  • Fontas (LCB): The 32-year-old Spaniard was excellent on both sides of the ball and earned my Defender of the Year vote, even if he did tail off pretty sharply come autumn.
  • Isimat-Mirin (RCB): The hope is the 30-year-old can be healthier and develop better chemistry with Fontas next year, and in the process create a championship-caliber defense.

Offseason Priority:

I actively go out of my way to look for guys under 30 for the “five players to build around” section and I couldn’t do it with this team. I couldn’t even get to three! And besides Russell, Fontas and Isimat-Mirin, Zusi is 35, Tim Melia is 35 and Roger Espinoza is 35. Pulido is 30, and both Zusi and Espinoza are out of contract with discussions to return.

Sporting are old. Wear-and-tear hits old teams harder, especially in a high-energy system, and especially when Vermes makes the fewest subs in the league by a mile (just 84 on the year; Adrian Heath made the second-fewest with 112). I don’t think it’s a coincidence Sporting finished the year by losing four of their last five, two of those via late meltdowns.

They’ve got to figure out how to get younger and better in key spots. Maybe that comes from familiarity – guys like Walter, Mauri and Isimat-Mirin deserve a bit more time before we decide they’re not as good as the guys they came before them – but also, maybe that won’t come at all? Sporting’s on the knife’s edge here at least a little bit.

And that’s before really discussing the Pulido situation. KC have clearly been better when he’s on the field, but he’s now 30, injury-prone and has actually only been on the field for just 2500 minutes across two years. That is not enough, and as we saw vs. RSL, just hoping he can be fit enough to go for the playoffs and shake off the rust is not a good way to make a deep run.