Sporting KC, D.C. United ready to square off in battle for first place

08/22/2014 7:37 PM

08/22/2014 11:42 PM

Sporting Kansas City opened the 2012 season without a loss in its first seven matches. But with one ensuing lineup maneuver — or lack thereof, really — manager Peter Vermes feared he lost the confidence of his players.

Just like that.

Three days after the club won its seventh straight game — a 3-1 rout in Vancouver — Sporting KC traveled for a match in Portland. Vermes elected to stick with a nearly identical lineup for both matches.

It failed. The group showed clear signs of fatigue, and Sporting KC suffered its first loss of the season.

“It was my fault, and I knew it,” Vermes said. “I knew once the game kicked off and we started playing a little bit, I saw it right away. I remember coming back, and I apologized to the guys.”

The lesson was this: Vermes concluded he needed to trust his players — even the reserves — in all situations. Two years later, he has utilized 24 different starting lineup in 24 Major League Soccer matches.

While much of that isn’t by choice — this year’s team has dealt with an abundance of international absences, injuries and red-card suspensions — Vermes said it is evidence of his own adaptation.

“That’s played out a lot more this year than in the past,” Vermes said. “That was a good experience back then. It helped.”

That approach has paid dividends in 2014. Sporting Kansas City leads the Eastern Conference heading into Saturday’s matchup with second-place D.C. United.

Vermes has emerged on the short list of candidates for the MLS coach of the year award. So, too, has the man he will oppose Saturday night at Sporting Park.

Ben Olsen has guided the league’s biggest turnaround this season. A year after D.C. United won only three games, it sits just two points behind Sporting KC in the Eastern Conference and can move into first place with a victory Saturday.

Olsen and Vermes have stood out with their success this season, but they’ve done it in two completely different ways.

The 2014 Sporting Kansas City product is a result of years of implementing Vermes’ “Sporting Fit” system that pressures opponents. It has evolved over the past five seasons, reaching a point in which the club rarely endures an off night.

“Peter does a good job of keeping us with the same mindset with anyone we play,” forward Soony Saad said. “... We respect anyone we play, but when it comes down to it, we’re going to play our style of (soccer), no matter who it is.”

The D.C. United resurgence has been much more sudden. The club made more than 15 offseason acquisitions after a dreadful year. Many of the additions were significant, such as Fabian Espindola and Eddie Johnson, but Olsen’s ability to mold them into a successful unit in such a short period of time has been noteworthy.

“They’ve got a lot of guys that know how to play in this league, that know how to win in this league,” Vermes said. “And that’s why you see they’ve been pretty consistent this year.”

Sporting KC has used the full allotment of its roster — with 30 players appearing in a match this season and 29 of those 30 earning at least one start. Both lead the league.

Unlike the D.C. United turnover, much of the personnel changes for Sporting KC can be attributed to unforeseen circumstances. The club expected Matt Besler and Graham Zusi to join the United States men’s national team for the World Cup, but season-ending injuries to Ike Opara and Chance Myers and short-term injuries to Aurelien Collin, Benny Feilhaber and Paulo Nagamura weren’t part of the plan.

Vermes called it the most challenging season of his five-year tenure with the club.

“At times, we’re squeezing everything we can out of the group,” Vermes said. “We’re squeezing everything we can out of ourselves as a staff.

“But I maintain that everybody has a good focus towards it. The biggest thing we have to keep is that hunger.”

To reach Sam McDowell, call 816-234-4869 or send email to smcdowell@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SamMcDowell11.

D.C. UNITED AT SPORTING KANSAS CITY

WHEN/WHERE: 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Sporting Park

TV/RADIO: KCMI (Ch. 38); WHB (810 AM), La Gran D (1340 AM)

ABOUT D.C. UNITED (12-7-4): The owners of the league’s top turnaround, D.C. United has managed to keep pace with the Eastern Conference leaders. Fabian Espindola leads the team with eight goals and eight assists. Former Kansas City Wizards forward Eddie Johnson will sit out Saturday. He was suspended two games for kicking the ball at Real Salt Lake defender Carlos Salcedo while Salcedo was laying on the ground.

ABOUT SPORTING KC (12-6-6): Goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum will miss his second straight MLS match, leaving 21-year-old Jon Kempin in line for another start. Sporting KC has lost only once at Sporting Park this season and is coming off perhaps its most impressive home showing — a 4-1 victory against Toronto FC last weekend.

BOTTOM LINE: While manager Peter Vermes insists the next match is always the most important one, there’s no doubt this one carries a little more pizazz. D.C. United can take over first place with a victory, or Sporting KC could really put a stamp on its first-place standing.

PREDICTION: Sporting KC 2, D.C. United 1

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