The comparisons started well before Sunday, but after Sporting Kansas City extended its winless streak to five games with a two-goal loss to Orlando City SC, people began insisting that the collapse of 2014 was in full swing this year as well.
Apparently Sporting KC took those opinions to heart.
Returning home for the first time in a month, Sporting KC proved there’s much left in the tank with a decisive 3-1 victory over second-place FC Dallas, a team that had won eight out of its last 11 games.
“I’ve said this before, but the highs can never be too high and the lows can never be too low,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said after the match. “But there’s also an expectation that we have every time we step on the field in that we want to win.
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“Obviously we haven’t been in very good form as of late, and we realize that. We’ve given up some soft situations in games, but that’s not who we are. The guys have a real concern in that they are going to make sure that doesn’t happen on a regular basis, and they have the ability to get back to where they were.”
Here are three takeaways from the match:
1. The three points were crucial but…
It’s one thing to hold on to dear life and walk away with three points on a fluke goal in another lopsided affair. It’s another to dictate the game for 90 minutes, with 63 percent of the possession leading to 18 shots, nine of which ended up on target.
“If you would have told me before the game we’re going to win and play like crap, I would’ve taken it,” Sporting KC midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. “The most important thing is to win to get out of (the funk). But something we all talked about after the game is that we played really well today. We came out and dominated the game from start to finish. We deserved to win.”
The manner in which Sporting KC went about its business Friday night indicates there’s much more to be said about this team.
From the first whistle, Sporting KC settled into a comfort zone we hadn’t seen since June. The attack was forward enough to create opportunities, yet smart enough to recognize when FC Dallas was baiting them into a counter opportunity. Defensively, Sporting KC was poised from the get go. When there were turnovers, Sporting KC weren’t scattering to respond. To boot, Graham Zusi said it wasn’t just an improvement in reaction but in anticipating before turnovers took place.
Look, one win doesn’t mean that all of Sporting KC’s problems are fixed and that they’re a lock for the playoffs. Yet the overarching narrative that last season’s disaster is present in 2015 ends at a few parallels that, while still need addressed, are not unsolvable.
“I feel like it’s been different, these losses in the last month or so compared to last year,” Feilhaber said. “To me it’s very different in the sense that the way we were losing last year, it seemed like teams were just playing right through us — like Swiss cheese.
“This year, yeah, we’ve had some bad breaks and have been a little unlucky here and there — some calls haven’t gone our way — but we’ve been able to get some guys back from injury, which has been key. Soni (Mustivar) being injured for a couple weeks was real big for us. There’s guys still injured that we get back, like Roger Espinoza and Ike Opara. But getting Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic back, building that chemistry again through the middle of the midfield once Soni came in, it’s just different than last year.
“Hopefully we’re over that hump now.”
2. Big-time players step up in big games
Perhaps it’s better to say that big-time players step up in must-win games, because that’s exactly what Sporting KC’s key contributors did on Friday night.
Benny Feilhaber grabbed a brace to become the first Sporting KC player since 2005 to score 10 goals and 10 assists in the same season.
Graham Zusi had a bit of unfortunate luck in front of goal thanks to FC Dallas homegrown goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez, but it was his tempo that lifted Sporting KC in the second half. In fact, it looked like circa 2013 Zusi for much of the match.
Dom Dwyer scored a fabulous, top-shelf goal to put the match away just three minutes after the visitors made it a one-goal game. Even more encouraging, Dwyer wasn’t on an island for large stretches of the match, as he had been over the last several games.
Soni Mustivar, the heralded unsung hero of Sporting KC, locked down the midfield so well that FC Dallas had just three total shots. His stats won’t jump off the page, but his tireless work rate helps the rest of Sporting KC function.
3. Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic are coming into form
And at just the right time, too.
Myers and Sinovic have lagged behind the competition for much of the season, the former coming back from a major injury that sideline him for a over a year and the latter returning from a midseason concussion with lingering side affects.
But with six regular-season games to play, both players are settling into the roles they played prior to their injuries. Myers has caught up to speed physically and is providing an outlet up the field. Sinovic is overcoming a few mental gaffes in his game and is working in tangent with Matt Besler to help lockdown teams on the left flank.
As Peter Vermes mentioned after the game Friday night, Sporting KC had seven players on the field from the 2013 championship team. If they can consistently do that down the stretch, Sporting KC could find the type of rhythm needed for a playoff run.