Well, it was bound to happen eventually — Sporting KC’s eight-game unbeaten streak and five-game road winning streak both came to an end in Vancouver on Sunday. It was kinda ugly.
Not surprisingly, several of this week’s mailbag questions either come directly from that result or were inspired by it. So, let’s open it up and see what we’ve got.
Well, if Andy Gruenebaum can’t go on Saturday (he has a strained muscle in his shoulder) and Jon Kempin starts, it’s a guarantee that Peter Vermes will toss out his 24th different lineup in 24 MLS matches. Crazy.
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But, as crazy as that is, the coming days will probably see this streak continue. Over the next month, KC adds the burden of CONCACAF Champions League fixtures (starting next week with a trip to Nicaragua to face Real Esteli) and embarks on a tough four-game stretch over 14 days (including three-straight on the road) to start September.
Eventually though, with the size of the roster and the players available, he’s simply going to run out of potential combinations at some point, right? I wasn’t a math major.
I’m still not sure there’s a double goalkeeper controversy — when Eric Kronberg’s healthy, he’s going to start.
HOWEVER... Kempin is Sporting’s goalkeeper of the future and he played extremely well against Vancouver coming on as a sub for Gruenebaum in his first MLS appearance. His reflex stop on a penalty kick even earned a Save of the Week nomination. (Which capped a week in which he was named MVP of the MLS Homegrown All-Star Game in Portland.)
While he was solid for 45 minutes, it’s not nearly enough time to know if he’s got the mental part of the game — a big obstacle for young ‘keepers — completely figured out yet. The next week could be a massive test for him.
Kronberg isn’t due back until September and Gruenebaum’s status is day-to-day. Kempin could be the only goalkeeper on the roster for a week that features KC’s two biggest rivals in the East (Toronto and D.C.) coming to town and that mid-week trip to Nicaragua.
If there is to be a triple-keeper controversy to be started, it depends a lot on his performance in those three games. If he plays and stays on form, it might be tempting. (It’s something Vermes has done throughout his career — see also Dwyer, Dom and Rosell, Uri.)
I just don’t know if a 21-year-old* is the right choice to lead the club for an MLS Cup run.
*Not bad for a guy who started the year at Jimmy Nielsen’s Goalkeeper Finishing School and was starting USL-Pro games in Oklahoma City last month. (He kind of skipped his senior year and moved right into post-graduate work, huh?)
Thanks to the loss of Rosell and the untimely injury to Paulo Nagamura, Vermes has been forced into rebuilding his midfield on the fly — all while trying to stay in the MLS Supporters’ Shield race. I think Vermes likely sees Mikey Lopez as the only fit player on his roster who fits into the Nagamura role.
That spot in the midfield is a tough job. It’s the glue position that holds the whole midfield together and requires a lot of small, positional dirty work/movement that allows the attacking midfielder (Benny Feilhaber, the creator) space to operate and the defensive midfielder (Jorge Claros, the destroyer) the freedom to take chances to break-up play. For good measure, it’s often the extra midfielder who makes late runs into the box. (That’s part of the job Nagamura isn’t quite as good at as others.)
Lopez has done some of that work and has given a lot of energy to the midfield, but the problem against Vancouver is that he wasn’t strong enough to do much to slow down Gershon Koffie, Matias Laba and Pedro Morales — for the record, neither was Claros who had just one more successful tackle (3) than Lopez and as many interceptions (1). Lopez had been better in the two previous outings against Toronto and Philadelphia, but neither were performances that would feature in his personal YouTube highlight package.
As we’ve seen recently with Dwyer and Igor Juliao (and to a lesser extent Kevin Ellis — who had been with the team a while — and as alluded above, potentially Kempin too), Vermes is willing to give his younger, less experienced players a chance with the starting lineup. It’s sort of like a dad with teenage sons* learning to drive for the first time. At some point, you’ve got to have faith you taught them well and that they can drive the car without crashing into a guardrail. (Dwyer has rewarded that faith; the jury remains out on Juliao.) Also: Vermes hasn’t had much choice, having already used 30 players this year.
*Juliao, literally, is still a teenager. Lopez just looks like one.
How much longer will he trust Lopez? With a tough opponent this week in Toronto, I would be tempted to go with a stronger unit like Olum-Claros-Feilhaber. A move like that worked well for Vermes in 2012 with Nagamura-Julio Cesar-Roger Espinoza all acting as inter-changeable, ball-winning midfielders during the push for the playoffs.
I think the ideal midfield for Kansas City, though, is probably Feilhaber, Nagamura and Claros. That’s the strong, creative and fluid trio Vermes has been trying to build.
Graham Zusi would add work-rate and creativity to the mix, but he’s not the ball-winner that position needs and has been more effective further up field for KC. Lawrence Olum would add the requisite strength and ball-winning, but his natural position would overlap a whole lot with Claros. Everyone else is either situational help or rotation options.
Nagamura is the key, in my mind. (It looks like Nags is nearing a return, which is good news.)
I’m not that worried about Dwyer. Sure, he hasn’t scored since I put a curse on him in July, but it’s not like he’s missing wide-open chances. He’s just not getting chances at all. Which isn’t so much a Dwyer problem as it is a team problem. (OMG, I’m now making excuses for Dwyer. I’ve officially had too much of the Kool-aid.)
As with the entire team in Vancouver, Dwyer didn’t play well. But, in the matches before, he was getting into dangerous position and helping create space for attacking chances.
Dwyer has been isolated (a common problem for SKC forwards) and working with a different group of forwards nearly every single game. As a result, he’s been far less active as teams have started stifling his supply line. The league’s leading shot-taker with 78 this year has only six in his last three matches.
It could be that teams have figured him out or it could be that he’s wearing down. After all, he’s played at least 80 minutes in the last 13 MLS games for KC. That’s an exhausting workload.
It would be nice during this short slump if Vermes had a center forward who had a slightly different set of skills to throw into the game and relieve him. But...
It’s hard to see it not being the end. He’s not in the traveling roster and not showing up on the injury report.
Now, it might just be a matter of whether Kansas City can work an exit deal out for him before the international transfer window shuts at the end of the month.