Sporting KC beat Minnesota United, 3-1, on Decision Day. It was, at the time, the culmination of six months worth of effort to dig themselves out from a massive hole – one they found themselves in after starting the year 0W-7L-3D and looking, by the eye test, the boxscore numbers and the advanced stats, like one of the very worst teams in recent MLS history.
They obviously were not. Manager and sporting director Peter Vermes knew it, kept saying as much all year long, and justifiably spiked the football after a win that officially got his team into the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
But that’s not all he talked about.
“What I would also say is that I appreciate the fact that our ownership group had faith in the staff because it's very easy at times in our profession when you don't get results, to lose confidence and to lose faith,” Vermes said in between sips of his customary postgame glass of red wine. “Just as easily as a player can lose confidence because he's not playing well, so can everybody else.
“Obviously, [ownership] had questions. I had answers. We had great conversations. I think it ultimately led to where we sit today. So I appreciate that, but that's one of the reasons why I've been here so long and I've chosen to stay here.”
If the season had ended there, with the Decision Day win that got Sporting a home date with San Jose in the Wild Card round, that probably would’ve been enough. Because Vermes really did have answers:
- Goalkeeper Tim Melia, d-mid Nemanja Radoja, captain Johnny Russell and two DPs were hurt to start the year.
- Last year’s talisman Willy Agada was playing (poorly) through a stress fracture before being shut down for surgery.
- Linchpin center back Dany Rosero didn't debut until early April.
- Young fullbacks Logan Ndenbe and Jake Davis hadn’t yet found stride.
A conservative count indicates Sporting were missing six starters during most of that 10-game stretch. Of course they stunk.
But the season didn’t end on Decision Day. It continued into the playoffs, where Melia added another chapter to his PK shootout lore, and where Sporting closed the first chapter of what already feels like one of the best rivalries in the league with an exclamation point.
So here is Sporting’s 2023 in four acts:
- Record-setting calamity of a start.
- Team retreat to burn down a building.
- Slow and steady climb up the table as veterans return to health and return to the lineup.
- A taste of playoff glory.
I think if you’d offered that to The Cauldron before a ball was kicked in anger, they’d have taken it.
Formation & Tactics
It was, of course, a 4-3-3 with a single pivot. Sporting played with a true No. 9 when Agada was on the field; in basically every other minute of the season, they played with one form of a false 9 or another.
Obviously the best of those forms was DP Alan Pulido, who finally got on the field in April and ended up contributing 15g/6a across all competitions in just shy of 2,700 minutes. It was his best season since arriving from Chivas four years ago.
As always under Vermes, Sporting got more of the ball than their opponents, clocking in at 52%. That said, even when at full strength they weren’t the clockwork, unflappable group we’ve seen out of this team in the past.
A concession to that fact is they became very comfortable with letting opponents dictate things for long stretches. Sporting aren’t the high-pressing team they used to be and finished just 23rd in passes allowed per defensive action (a rough measure of how hard and high teams press).
As I said above, coming back out of that 10-game hole to start the year would’ve been enough to redeem Vermes’s project and this roster.
But they, of course, didn’t leave it there. First they Melia’d the Earthquakes in the Wild Card round, then they beat the ever-loving hell out of St. Louis CITY in the teams’ first-ever postseason meeting.
This wasn’t a “go on the road and scratch out a result, then take care of business at home” performance. This was a “go into their house and beat them until they stop moving and the fans leave early” kind of thing.
Look, there’s been a lot of good-to-great playoff games thus far this postseason, a lot of memorable moments across the league. And surely there’s more to come.
But I’m pretty sure, a year from now or five, that when I think back to the 2023 playoffs, this will be the first game that comes to mind.
Sporting had kinda sorta pulled out of their early-season death spiral by the time they made the trip to St. Louis on May 20. It was the first-ever meeting between the two teams, and it had instant stakes because of the palpable dislike among the fanbases (something Sporting had never really achieved with Minnesota – the two have played a ton of meaningful games over the past six years, but it never felt like a true rivalry).
SKC have had that kind of distaste before, most memorably with RSL and Houston. But both those teams have closer true rivals. So for the first 27 years of MLS, Sporting had no real date to the Hater’s Ball.
The first crunching red-on-blue challenge came about two minutes in. Twenty-five minutes in, Sporting were already down 2-0. When the whistle sounded after 90 minutes at CITYPARK, the scoreboard read 4-0 and not a single red-clad soul had sat down all night.
It was a slaughter.
Jake Davis is not the type of fullback who generates a ton of attacking highlights, which is unusual for Vermes’ system. What he is, is the kind of guy who…
Well, I’ll just say it’s kind of shocking he doesn’t come in and two-foot this kid at the end of the clip.
That’s not a knock on him – he’s an old-fashioned pitbull of a defender who wins his challenges and makes you feel it every single second he’s on the field. Dude looks absolutely miserable to play against, and he was on nobody’s radar as Graham Zusi’s successor heading into this season. He’d played all of 15 MLS minutes before 2023.
But he won the job early and it’s his now, likely for the next decade.
Ndenbe, who won the job at left back, is the prototypical attacking fullback Vermes loves. And just as he was breaking out and straight destroying St. Louis, he blew out his ACL and now is likely done for a good chunk of next year.
Such a bummer.
Five Players to Build Around
- Pulido (FW): They gave him a long-term contract, so, there it is.
- Dániel Sallói (LW): Had another quality year in the final third and with his underrated ball progression through midfield.
- Radoja (DM): A write-him-in-pen starter.
- Rosero (CB): One of the better players at the position once he got into the XI.
- Davis (RB): Solid, no-frills, plug-and-play fullback.
They need to start getting younger. Right now seven of their 11 projected starters are 30+ by the time the season’s two months old, a number that includes two of three DPs (Pulido turns 33 in early March, while attacking midfielder Gadi Kinda turns 30 two weeks after).
Radoja's turning 31. Rosero is 30, and his center back partner Andreu Fontàs just turned 34. Melia’s 37, while Russell turns 34 in April.
They have depth at some of these spots – I still think Agada’s a starting-caliber 9 in this league, and midfielders like Rémi Walter and Erik Thommy are good players in their respective primes – but this is still, by and large, a very old team, and what they showed since May (1.7 ppg and an appearance in the Western Conference Semifinals) feels like that’s their ceiling.
Getting some new blood into that XI, or at least into the rotation, can change that.