This has been a strange start for KC. It wasn't a scorched earth road-trip from hell like in 2011 (1-6-2 over the first nine matches) or a destroy-all-comers and grind out quality wins like last year (7-2-0 to start the season).
The Kansas City Star
Instead, SKC have looked great (2-0 vs. Montreal), lethal (the 2nd half of the 3-1 win in Philadelphia), resilient (1-0 vs. D.C. United), toothless (0-0 vs. Chicago), disinterested (0-0 in New England), exposed (2-0 in Los Angeles), tough (1-0 in New York), slow (3-2 vs. Portland) and overmatched (2-1 in Toronto).
But the big takeaway? It's early. There have been positives, negatives and a lot to chew on as KC hits the second phase of the season. There are 6 months and 25 matches remaining. That's a lot of soccer still to go.
The season doesn't exactly break down into "quarters," but it does break evenly into two-month increments. Today, we'll get you caught up on the team's current form, give you some perspective, address some issues, make a few predictions and generally assess the direction Sporting Kansas City is heading.
A little perspective
While the club didn't get off to the same fiery start as last season and the last two games have been a bit disappointing, things are roughy progressing on track for Peter Vermes and Company. If the goal is to make the playoffs.
Kansas City is 4-3-2 with 14 points. Only two teams (Montreal and Dallas) have won more games than Kansas City. And SKC has more points than every Western Conference team except Dallas (20) and Los Angeles (14).
The club's average of 1.56 points per game puts them on pace for 53 points this season -- which would be two more points than they earned in 2011 when they won the Eastern Conference. (See, perspective.)
Furthermore, Kansas City currently has more points and a better points/game average through April than the two MLS Cup teams from 2012. Both were almost perfectly mediocre at this point. Los Angeles were 3-3-1 (10 points and 1.42 points/game) and Houston were 2-2-2 (8 points and 1.33 points/game).
Comparing them again to the teams KC are chasing: Through 9 games, Los Angeles dropped five of its first 9 games (3-5-1) while Houston was perfectly average with 3 wins/losses/draws.
So, KC are currently off its own pace from last year (when it faltered in the first round of the MLS playoffs) and slightly above the two teams who made the MLS Cup.
History has shown that just making the playoffs is all that matters -- and, like I said, KC is well on their to achieving that goal.
The bad news?
In the East, only New York (10) has played more games than Kansas City. Montreal, who sit atop the table with 16 points, already have two games in hand on Sporting KC.
What's more? May has historically been Peter Vermes' worst month as manager. Since taking over full time in 2009, Kansas City have won just twice in the month of May. Twice -- both of them "shockers." In 2009, the Wizards somehow picked up a 2-0 away win at Real Salt Lake and last year KC got the better of eventual Supporter's Shield winners San Jose.
Kansas City has a beefy May schedule looming: 5 matches -- including two against Eastern Conference rivals Houston. (The Chivas and Seattle matches just 3 days apart at Sporting Park won't be gimmies.)
Oh, and the congestion of summer -- Open Cup games, CONCACAF Champions League -- is still looming.
• Chance Myers getting a brace against Portland.
Here's the tale of Chance Myers in a single paragraph: Surprise No. 1 draft pick, spends two years injured, gets dubbed a "flop," losses his starting position after another injury, tears up the reserves (earning a bit of good-natured mocking from yours truly -- I seriously have always liked the guy and the way he plays), snags an unexpected hat trick in a U.S. Open Cup game, gets to start as the right back, becomes the starting right back for the MLS's best defense, his coach gives him backing to "attack" whenever he wants and, finally, after five seasons, scores his first goal. Then follows up that first goal with his second goal in the same game.
• The completely gorgeous argyle "pitch black" third kits. May they put the memories of the rainbow wave behind us forever.
• Graham Zusi becoming, arguably, the best American midfielder in MLS.
Let's try and forget
• The less we say about the Sporting Kansas City-New England Revolution game from March the better.
• Jimmy Nielsen's "Anne Hathaway" impression against New York. It was a stupid thing that Juninho did, but Nielsen play-acted a bit too dramatically.
• The image of Aurelien Collin and Matt Besler chasing Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Ryan Johnson, Darlington Nagbe and Rodney Wallace as they got behind KC's high defensive line. Hopefully, Kansas City learns from these early struggles.
• Can the team re-involve Claudio Bieler into the offensive fold? Against Portland, Bieler (the team's designated player and leading goal scorer) had fewer touches in the Timbers 18-yard box than central defender Aurelien Collin.
That's not a recipe for success. KC needs Bieler to score goals. Best way to do that is to serve him the ball in the box and let him do what he does.
• How will Vermes weave Jacob Peterson (now healthy) and Teal Bunbury (back in June) into the fold? And, what does their recovered health mean for Benny Feilhaber (he's not been as influential the last few games as most would like) and C.J. Sapong (who is still learning the winger position).
• Is Kei Kamara coming back (his loan officially ends on Monday, May 6) and, if he doesn't, what will KC do with the transfer fee?
• Kamara isn't coming back to Kansas City. The club will use the transfer money from Norwich City to invest in a wide midfielder to "officially" replace him.
• Ike Opara gets a bit more playing time -- even before Matt Besler likely goes off to join the U.S. national team in June.
• We've not heard the last of Bobby Convey in the Starting XI.
Stats vs. Eyeballs
Here's a blind comparison between two Sporting KC players through the first nine games of an MLS season.
Player A: 124 defensive actions*, 58% passing, 810 minutes, 15 fouls committed, 19 fouls suffered, 1 yellow card, 13 shots, 0 goals, 0 assists.
Player B: 93 defensive actions, 78% passing, 809 minutes, 14 fouls committed, 14 fouls suffered, 1 yellow card, 8 shots, 0 goals, 0 assists.
*Defensive actions: Cumulative tackles won, defender blocks, interceptions, clearances, blocked crosses and recoveries. They aren't "perfect" indicators of individual performance -- they don't account for ground covered or how well positioned the player -- but are pretty instructive.
Besides the extra 31 defensive actions for Player A and the 20% increase in passing for Player B, those resumes are fairly identical on paper, right?
Player A is Roger Espinoza from KC's 7-2-0 start in 2012. Player B is Paulo Nagamura from KC's 4-3-2 start this year.
Espinoza, generally, is a beloved figure for his high-octane performances. Nagamura is, generally, derided for by the best I can tell "not being Roger Espinoza."
Here's the thing, despite the similar statistical resumes, they aren't exactly playing the same role. Which makes comparing them based on their stats or watching them play isn't exactly fair to either player.
Espinoza had Julio Cesar to serve as the planet he could orbit around -- which allowed him to have free license to barge around the midfield (or wherever really) and deal with winning the ball back. His hustle and bustle allowed KC to have an often lethal transition game. Nagamura would then drop into whatever gap was created to retain Kansas City's midfield dominance.
Nagamura in 2013 has a trickier role. He's essentially filling Espinoza's destroyer role and Cesar's holding role while also playing the box-to-box gap-covering role he manned last year. Newcomer Oriol Rosell -- a fine holding midfielder who still needs to learn how to play with defensive consistency -- has shared in some of those jobs, but he likes to get forward far more often than Cesar ever did. (The third midfielder, Benny Feilhaber, doesn't provide much defensive assistance in this grouping -- thus putting even more pressure on Nagamura to cover.)
With Rosell joining the forward runs of Myers, Seth Sinovic and (against Portland especially) Collin, Nagamura is often left to occupy yet a fourth role: Last-gasp defender. That's a lot to ask of a guy who's already getting asked to carry a lot of responsibility on this team.
Checking in on KC's loaned-out players
Dom Dwyer, Yann Songo'o, Jon Kempin and Christian Duke are all playing for Orlando City this year in the USL-Pro. (Orlando City is SKC's affiliate club.) The four have all contributed to Orlando's storming 4-1-1 start to the season. Dwyer, especially, has stood out with a league-leading five goals in six games.
Songo'o has started every game in defense and pitched in with a goal of his own.
Duke and Kempin -- both local products raised in KC's academy system -- were starters before going down with injuries in Orlando's fourth game. Neither has seen the field since.
Dates to remember
May 5: vs. Chivas USA
May 6: MLS Transfer Window closes. Kei Kamara's "loan" with Norwich ends.
May 8: vs. Seattle
May 12: @ Houston
May 19: @ D.C. United
May 26: vs. Houston
May 28: MLS teams enter 2013 U.S. Open Cup
May 29: U.S. Men vs. Belgium (friendly)
June 1: vs. Montreal
June 2: U.S. Men vs. Germany (friendly)
June 7: U.S. Men @ Jamaica (World Cup qualifier)
June 11: U.S. Men vs. Panama (World Cup qualifier)
June 12: U.S. Open Cup 4th Round
June 18: U.S. Men vs. Honduras (World Cup qualifier)
June 22: @ FC Dallas
June 26: U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinals
June 29: vs. Columbus