Sporting Kansas City midfielders Benny Feilhaber and Graham Zusi stood behind a stationary soccer ball on a field in Tucson, Ariz., and argued over who would strike it. As the club arranged a free-kick play during an exhibition match, the disagreement remained friendly, Feilhaber would say, but it had moments of sincerity.
It was the first such difference of opinion this season. It won’t be the last.
After an offseason in which Sporting KC added wingers Brad Davis and Justin Mapp, the options for free kicks are plentiful. And nobody is willingly stepping aside.
“Every once in a while, you’re going to have to win an argument if you want to take one,” Feilhaber said. “It’s just part of the competitive nature that we have.”
Here’s a rundown on the cast of options:
▪ Feilhaber tied for second in Major League Soccer last season with 15 assists.
▪ Zusi led the league in chances created in 2012. He had 99 that year, which was 20 more than any other player.
▪ Davis, a two-time MLS champion with Houston, has 122 career assists. That’s third most in league history.
▪ Mapp has recorded at least eight assists in a season five times in his 14-year career.
“We’ve never really been a team to focus on just one player,” Zusi said. “I think Brad and Justin bring something different to our team, but they’re also guys who buy into our philosophy.”
So how will those free-kick decisions be made? Well, it all ultimately falls at the coach’s desk.
A set piece is the only play in soccer than can be scripted. A large portion of the final practice of every week is devoted to set-piece plays, and it’s one of the few segments closed to media viewing.
The playbook has expanded this season. Davis and Mapp are both left-foot dominant, offering coach Peter Vermes the chance to mix and match in the same manner a baseball manager would tinker with his bullpen.
“When the opportunity is there, we’ll decide who will take those,” Vermes said. “The difference now is we have a guy who (is left-footed) … so you have a lot more flexibility and creativity.”
The four options seemingly possess a similar pass-first mentality. In a combined 40 seasons between the four players — Feilhaber, Zusi, Davis and Mapp — only three times has any of them produced more goals than assists in a single year. Davis did it in his first two seasons, and Zusi’s only second-year point was a goal.
An abundance of passers. Who will score?
Dom Dwyer led the team with 12 goals last season — after scoring 22 the year before — and will start at central forward. But the team must compensate for the production of Krisztian Nemeth, who transferred to Qatar after serving as the second leading scorer in 2015.
“We have to help Dom with bodies in there — first to get on the end of passes and second to draw players so that maybe Dom can get on the end of things a little easier,” Feilhaber said.
“I think it’s going to be everybody’s responsibility to get in and around the goal and score goals for themselves.”
Sporting KC season opener
WHEN: 6 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: At Seattle Sounders
TV: Fox Sports 1