With just five games left this season, Sporting Kansas City finds themselves in about the same exact spot they've found themselves the two previous years: Right in the thick of the Eastern Conference and Supporter's Shield race.
The Kansas City Star
When you consider the stumbles and inconsistency this year as Peter Vermes moved away from the high-pressure transition attack and the team adapted to life without Roger Espinoza (all season) and Kei Kamara (half of the season), it's quite remarkable how closely Sporting KC through 29 games resembles last year's team. (Some of that is systemic league-wide parity; some is Sporting KC's talent.)
Here are a few things to consider as Sporting KC hosts the Philadelphia Union tonight.
While this year's squad is still very physical (14.9 fouls per games leads the league*), aerially dominant (20.9 aerial duels won per game leads the league) and shot-happy squad (15.2 shots per game also leads the league), it's tactical plan revolves around controlling tempo and build-up using possession (second-best in the league averaging 56.2% per game), long balls out of the back (KC leads the league with an average of 69 per game) and spending time in the opponent's half (29% of its actions happened there, second only to Los Angeles).
*This stat and all stats for this post come from the excellent site WhoScored.com. If you like soccer stats, go ahead and make that a regular visit.
Despite some early season scoring troubles, Kansas City have 43 goals -- good for sixth-most in the league and already more than last year's 42.
Despite some early season defensive follies, Kansas City have allowed just 28 goals -- good for a tie with Seattle for the league lead and only one more goal than they allowed all last season.
Despite some early points dropped to weaker sides this year and other stumbles (perceived and real -- both have a place in the conversation*), SKC sits on 48 points, just three points behind the New York Red Bulls (and KC has a game in hand). They'll likely need a Herculean perfect record to get to 63 points as they did last year, but the Supporter's Shield and home-field advantage in the East are still there for the taking.
*But not THIS particular conversation. This year might FEEL different to some because of inconsistency or enhanced expectations, but it's statistically comparable to the previous two -- and in some respects, goals scored, it's actually better.
This consistency is a testament to a very quiet, effective late run of results for Kansas City and proof that the tweaks to the tactical framework haven't really caused the massive differences in results that many feared.*
*Yes, I realize the two most recent results were the devastatingly aggravating Esteli draw and last Saturday's rain-soaked Toronto match. There's no hiding those two. However, it's easy to get lulled into overreactions by performances in a long soccer season. That 0-0 draw with Chicago feels a long way away. That's not to excuse either performance -- both weren't up to the quality Sporting KC fans expect. But this is not about expectations and, besides, the fact that neither of those games ended in losses should count for something.
• Over its last 10 games in all competitions, Sporting KC are 6-3-1 with three-straight wins (and a +5 goal differential in those three wins).
• Since being torn to shreds by New York on Aug. 3, Kansas City have allowed just four goals in the league and have not lost at home (3-0-1 including the Esteli result).
• Three of the team's last four losses have been on the road by a score of 1-0.
• Against playoff teams over the last 10 league games, Kansas City are 3-2 -- with both losses coming to Eastern Conference foes in late July/early August.
While the transition for Kansas City has had its ups and downs this year, the ups are currently winning the fight on points heading into the final rounds.