Jimmy Nielsen
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After brutal beginning, signs of life for Sporting KC

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Technically speaking, Sporting Kansas City are still a last-place club.

Toronto and New England still sit a point ahead of Kansas City in the Eastern Conference with Chicago just a point better. Sporting’s opponents on Saturday, the Vancouver Whitecaps (8:30 pm ET; watch LIVE online), sit right beside them in the basement on 14 points, having played two more games.

The table still reflects the remnants of a troubling five-game losing streak on the road, but in no way do Sporting KC (3-6-4) feel like a squad rooted to the bottom of the heap. Six-consecutive results in the league and seven in all competitions, both at Livestrong Sporting Park and on the road, has eased any concern about that.

“We know we’re not a last-place team,” said center back Matt Besler, whose return to the starting lineup has helped spark the team’s recent 3-0-4 run. “A month ago, when it seemed like everything was going against us, it was hard to say that. But we understand that, and we’re a confident team with the talent to start climbing.”

Talent aside, the circumstances are starting to line up for Sporting, too.

Kansas City have already played 11 of their allotted 16 road matches with only Portland, Houston, Salt Lake City, San Jose and Washington, D.C., left on the itinerary. An astounding 12 of their next 14 games are in front of their own fans at Livestrong Sporting Park, a stretch that won’t end until Sept. 17 and includes six home games in the month of August.

So while manager Peter Vermes’ men know they didn’t do themselves any favors with a bumpy start, Sporting understand roughly what it’s going to take the remainder of the season to reach their goals. LSP has to become the impenetrable fortress it was built to be, and any point they can squeeze out on the road will be bordering on surplus to requirements as the club attempts to return to the playoffs.

The key, as always, is to take it one 90-minute step at a time.

“That’s all we can do in this business,” Vermes said. “What I would say is the neat thing about this group of guys is that they haven’t lost the belief. They know that they can play. They know that they’re a good team. It’s now about grinding out results.”

Almost exactly a month ago — May 21 against the Seattle Sounders — something finally started clicking for a Kansas City squad downtrodden by a brutal month away from home.

After giving up 17 goals in their first seven games, Vermes dialed back the defensive pressure. He took a much more conservative stance on the road and asked his players, amidst a host of injuries suspensions and international call-ups, to concentrate on being difficult to break down and probing, yet prudent, on the counterattack.

The result has been nothing short of stunning. Since the Seattle match, Sporting have given up just two goals, one the result of a bad back pass and another to a marauding Brek Shea, and haven’t lost a game.

“We changed our style a little bit,” goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen said. “Instead of chasing the ball all over the field all the time, we are coming back on the field a little bit and getting better at when to pick our moments. When to go, and when not to go. I think we are playing with huge discipline right now.”

And, according to Nielsen, the main reason for that is crystal-clear definition of roles.

When defending, two of the three true midfielders on the field hold, the two outside forwards tuck in and the formation plays like a 4-5-1. When in attack, the shape expands to a more traditional 4-3-3 and the team’s fullbacks look for opportunities to overlap.

“You know what to do when you have the ball, and you know what to do when you don’t have the ball,” Nielsen said. “It makes it pretty simple for us.”

That straightforwardness has been crucial for a roster that’s been pockmarked by absences and extenuating circumstances while slowly inching back to full strength minus Ryan Smith. But, in the long run, that roster shuffling and the depth it created will be crucial to any run the club manages to put together.

Fortunately, Sporting’s trial by fire has them feeling prepared. They’ve tamed most of their defensive demons. Roger Espinoza and the rest of his international counterparts are back from the Gold Cup. Aurélien Collin, Graham Zusi and C.J. Sapong have grabbed fundamental roles via standout performances.

Now all that’s left is getting Omar Bravo, Teal Bunbury, Kei Kamara and Sapong truly rolling, extending their unbeaten streak and leaving last place behind starting with a home result against Vancouver.

“I don’t even think the confidence is fully there yet,” Sapong said. “It’s starting to get there. We’ve always known. Basically, this is just reassurance. … We’re just finding our identity.”

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