The defending Major League Soccer champions own the league’s most road victories and boast one of the most intimidating home venues in the sport. It’s an ideal blueprint for another championship run.
Well, not necessarily. The home stadium hasn’t been quite so friendly this season.
Sporting Kansas City has won only three of its nine matches at Sporting Park this season — a statistic that players, coaches and ownership label confusing if not altogether unacceptable.
The team that picked up its fourth straight road victory Wednesday in Columbus — the best streak in franchise history — hasn’t been able to replicate that success inside its own venue, which is set to welcome its 46th straight sellout Saturday when the LA Galaxy visit Kansas City.
“The results have been disappointing for me,” Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman said at a fan forum. “Amidst all the adversity and everything that’s going on, that’s something I think we really have to focus on — making sure that when the fans come here, they see our team flying, playing a the highest level and producing results. That’s something we’re going to continue to push on.”
Adversity certainly can’t be ignored. A multitude of injures and other absences have resulted in 19 different starting lineups in 19 matches. But that hasn’t seem to play a factor on the road.
Manager Peter Vermes voiced similar displeasure with the team’s home record this season (3-1-5), and he offered a more pointed reason.
“I think one of the reasons why we’re able to get the results we do on the road is when we go to other people’s places, they have to play. They can’t just sit back for 90 minutes and bunker in 30 yards from their goal,” Vermes said. “Obviously they feel more comfortable doing that away from home because their fans aren’t going to boo them. When they (don’t bunker) against us, the game is being played the way it should be.”
That’s not a new strategy. Visiting clubs have long come into Sporting Park, sat back near their own goals, looked for counter opportunities and happily accepted a road draw.
As a result, the park averages only 2.2 total goals per match. The average MLS game features 2.9 goals.
For Sporting Kansas City to increase its offensive output against teams determined to play defense, it must exhibit better ball movement and more patience, Vermes said.
“I can’t tell (other) teams how they have to play,” Vermes said. “I only know that we have to come up with solutions to break that down. I think we’re getting better at it. I think now that we add more and more of our players back, we’re going to have more solutions on the field to come up with the opportunities we’re looking for.”
The date with the Galaxy may result in a more open game. The Galaxy ride an eight-match unbeaten streak into the match and have 17 goals during that span.
“They’re a team that comes to play all the time. I think they’re still one of the best teams in the league,” Vermes said. “They have a lot of experience. Robbie Keane is the best forward in the league. He has the experience. I still think Landon Donovan is an incredible player going forward. They’re a good team, and they press the ball, too.”
A more aggressive road team. And a higher quality one.
A welcome sight in The Blue Hell.
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LA GALAXY AT SPORTING KANSAS CITY
WHEN/WHERE: 5 p.m. Saturday, at Sporting Park
TV/RADIO: ESPN2; WHB (810 AM)
ABOUT LOS ANGELES GALAXY (7-3-6): The Galaxy has not lost an MLS match since May 17 and will bring an eight-game unbeaten streak into Kansas City. Robbie Keane leads the team with nine goals. Landon Donovan has scored three goals with four assists this season.
ABOUT SPORTING KC (9-5-5): After a pair of road victories, Sporting KC returns home with a five-match unbeaten streak. Goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum is set to make his first home MLS start. Midfielder Paulo Nagamura will sit out with a lingering ankle injury. The club made a pair of additions this week in midfielders Jorge Claros and Martin Steuble. Claros took part in the team's training session Friday, but he's unlikely to play Saturday.
BOTTOM LINE: Two of the hottest teams in the league square off with national TV cameras set up inside Sporting Park. Both teams feature an aggressive pressing style, which should make for an eventful afternoon.
PREDICTION: Sporting KC 2, LA Galaxy 1