As a pass rolled off the arm of Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia, defender Matt Besler glanced down the field, hoping to decipher any potential lurking pressure. What he found instead was open space. A lot of it.
As he collected Melia’s pass at his feet, Besler had more than 25 yards separating him and the nearest Seattle Sounders FC player. Already, only 72 seconds into Wednesday’s match at Children’s Mercy Park, Seattle’s strategy was out of the bag.
The Sounders positioned themselves to bunker in their own end, unconcerned about generating offense. And for a half, it was effective.
Not after halftime. Gerso Fernandes recorded the franchise’s first hat trick in seven seasons, and Sporting KC cruised to a 3-0 victory.
The spark to the turnaround, apparently, was an impassioned halftime speech.
“Basically, (coach) Peter (Vermes) had to scream at us in the locker room,” Fernandes said with Vermes sitting next to him.
OK, there was likely more to it than that. But the about-face was significant, and for more than the three points it earned.
Quite frankly, it was something Sporting KC occasionally seemed incapable of doing last season — finding solutions against teams that bunker.
“I think in past years, we’ve had a lot of pressure (and) had a lot of shots, but maybe not quality shots,” midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. “In past years, that’s been the biggest program — we haven’t created quality shots.”
The concern re-emerged in the opening month of 2017, with Sporting KC playing to three scoreless draws in its first four matches. In two of those three results, Sporting KC’s opponent instituted a strategy favoring defense to offense.
With Wednesday’s victory providing a leading example, the concern is starting to subside. But why?
“We have different players. We have guys that are probably better equipped to break down 10 guys behind the ball,” Feilhaber said. “We have some players that can go 1 on 1 against some people.”
Fernandes is one of them. The team’s top-paid offseason acquisition has scored five times over the past eight games after zero goals in his first four matches. He plays considerably more direct toward goal than past wingers.
Defensive midfielder Ilie Sanchez, another offseason addition, accelerates the transition from defense to offense, allowing Sporting KC to use its newfound speed to disrupt defensive shapes.
“Well, it definitely is personnel. As I’ve said before, and no disrespect to the other teams we’ve had here before, (but) this is a good group,” Vermes said. “They’ve very good on the ball. And they have a very good understanding of how we want to keep it.”
The product of the ball movement is a variety of scoring sources. In 2016, Dom Dwyer accounted for 43 percent of the club’s goals through the run of play. In 2017, that number has dipped to 31 percent.
“It makes us more dangerous,” Vermes said. “It’s the movement of the players; it’s the unselfishness; it’s the running off the ball; all of those things are good. Hopefully we’ll continue to get better and get more and more confidence from what we’re accomplishing thus far.”