When Peter Vermes grabbed the microphone, he knew exactly the message he planned to articulate. It was Sporting Kansas City’s annual season-launch party Wednesday, and there are scripts for these types of events. For the past few years, the club’s coach has mostly stuck to them — Vermes has thanked the fans, reminded them of their importance and then tried to drum up some excitement for the impending season opener.
This time, there was a departure. An explanation. Something just shy of a guarantee.
Speaking in front of about 1,000 fans, Vermes addressed the storyline that looms over the 2018 season.
Can Sporting KC score more goals?
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“We realize as a team (that) last year, we were actually very, very good, but we came up short on one very specific part of the game, and that was goal scoring,” Vermes told the crowd. “I’m not shying away from this.”
He continued, “These guys behind me, I promise you they’re very aware that we need to score more goals. We have acquired players to help us do that. We have players on our team that will do that.”
To that end, Sporting KC added at least one player at every position on the field, whether it be a starter or depth piece. But the primary financial resources this winter were devoted to changing the look of the offense. Sporting KC scored just 40 goals in 34 matches, ninth in the 11-team Western Conference.
When it takes the field at 6:30 p.m. Sunday against New York City FC, the club will start at least three — maybe four — new acquisitions to cover the front five spots of the formation. In the team’s final preseason game, Vermes used Khiry Shelton as a striker, Johnny Russell and Yohan Croizet on the wings and Felipe Gutierrez as the top midfielder.
None were on last year’s roster.
“They need time to get acclimated for sure, but they are all very talented,” goalkeeper Tim Melia said. “It’s going to be a year that the guys are getting up and going and looking to score goals. There’s a lot of different options up front. There’s a lot of talent, different types of services (and) different types of abilities that each individual has.”
It’s a major shift in personnel, perhaps the most noticeable one in Vermes’ tenure as Sporting Kansas City’s coach and technical director.
But is it enough? Will it directly lead to a better offensive output?
Sporting KC did not obtain the high-dollar striker it sought this offseason. While Vermes stopped short of saying the club has tabled those plans until the summer transfer window, he emphatically threw his support behind the current center forward depth chart of Diego Rubio and Khiry Shelton, who rocked back and forth as the top option during preseason.
“It’s extremely disrespectful to the current guys we have on our roster to not understand that we have guys that can stick the ball in the goal,” Vermes said.
That was, however, the concern in 2017. Sporting KC found no difficulty in creating chances and actually finished second in MLS in the category. But even after it earned long spells of possession, the goals did not come.
Sporting KC was shut out 12 times last season. On five occasions, Melia recorded a clean sheet in goal, but the team earned only one point because it also didn’t score.
“If you look at our chances last year, we were up there with the tops in the league,” veteran Graham Zusi said. “So whether it’s just a little more concentration in and around goal or luck — one of the two — maybe it will turn around.”
It is a team-wide point of emphasis, with the players cycling through more finishing drills during its preseason camp. And it will take a group of them to solve the problem.
Rubio and Shelton — whoever earns the start — will receive the bulk of the responsibility. Rubio scored six times in 11 starts last year. Shelton scored six in three years in New York City FC.
But the new players will be tasked with contribution. Russell, who played a decade in England, is noted for his pace and his ability to serve a cross. Croizet prefers to challenge defenders 1-on-1. Gutierrez, as Zusi put it, “can cut on a dime.”
Even midfielder Roger Espinoza, who has five goals in eight MLS seasons, took responsibility for the team's numbers last summer.
It’s a scoring-by-committee approach. The question lingers: Is that by preference or necessity?
“I truly believe we have enough players to score goals,” Vermes said, adding, “I know it’s a major topic of discussion, and I get all that. But last season is over. This is a new season. We got a lot of games ahead of us. Let’s see how it starts to shape out.”