After winning the MLS Cup last December, Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes traveled across the world as part of a scouting trip. Along the way, he sought advice from international coaches regarding the biggest difficulty in defending a championship.
The answer, he learned, was nearly unanimous.
“The majority of them always say it’s maintaining focus and hunger within the group over the course of the entire season,” Vermes said.
The focus was absent on a hot, humid Saturday night. As a result, the defending champions are looking up in the Eastern Conference standings.
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D.C. United charged into Sporting Park on Saturday and left as the new conference leaders following a 3-0 victory.
“I think we’d by lying if we say we weren’t a little bit shell-shocked,” Sporting KC defender Matt Besler said. “You never expect to give up three goals at home.”
They came in a hurry.
D.C. United scored three goals in an eight-minute span in the first half — an onslaught that was as surprising as it was impressive in front of 19,963 fans at Sporting Park. In the process, it took a one-point lead over Sporting KC in the standings.
Vermes was direct with where he placed the blame.
“D.C. was good on three counters, which our back was absolutely horrendous on,” Vermes said. “They came down on three routine plays, and they scored three goals. They should’ve scored six maybe with the number of chances we gave them because of the way we were organized in the back.”
Vermes further hinted that changes in personnel could be coming to a back line that has served as the strength of the club over the past three seasons.
Asked if central mainstays Besler and Aurelien Collin would be given a game off to rest, Vermes replied, “I don’t know if it’s games off because of tiredness. It’s games off because of performance. If guys aren’t playing well, they’re not going to play.
“Tactically, those guys’ decisions were absolutely horrendous.”
When a reporter alerted Besler of Vermes’ comments and asked for an ensuing response, he paused before answering.
“I’m not going to stand here and get into tactics too much,” Besler said. “We gave up three goals. We gave up three breakaways at home. And it’s unacceptable.”
Sporting KC actually controlled the pace of play for the opening 20 minutes before United forward Fabian Espindola wriggled free from Collin and scooted a shot from one corner of the goalkeeper box inside the opposite post, beating 21-year-old keeper Jon Kempin.
Kempin started his second straight MLS match in place of injured Andy Gruenebaum.
It was a forgettable night.
Chris Rolfe extended the lead to 2-0 only four minutes later, and Perry Kitchen pushed it to 3-0 in the 31st minute. Luis Silva assisted on the first two goals.
The latter two came on counter attacks after D.C. elected to drop back its pressure with an early lead.
“It’s three goals given up by our back four. It has nothing to do with the other six guys,” Vermes said. “They had easy opportunities to deal with those situations. They’re routine plays. They’re not special situations.”
Content with its three-goal lead, D.C. bunkered numbers into its own half and successfully limited Sporting KC’s close-range scoring opportunities after halftime.
Sporting KC’s best chances came from outside the goalkeeper box. Graham Zusi clanked a 25-yard shot off the crossbar in the 60th minute, and Soony Saad missed the post by less than a foot from 20 yards out only two minutes later.
“They capitalized on their chances, and we didn’t. That was it,” defensive midfielder Lawrence Olum said. “I don’t know what it was exactly — maybe a lack of communication between all of us to know where they were. It’s a disappointment.”