Sporting KC

Sporting KC still searching for the right mix at center back

Sporting Kansas City's Lawrence Olum (16) and Portland's Diego Valeri go up for the ball in the second half of a game in July.
Sporting Kansas City's Lawrence Olum (16) and Portland's Diego Valeri go up for the ball in the second half of a game in July. jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

There was a pace to Lawrence Olum's step Tuesday, just a few days after he had been cleared to rejoin Sporting Kansas City practice as a full participant. He jogged off the field after the session, passing a handful of teammates who had opted for a slower march back to the locker room.

"You ready to go?" coach Peter Vermes asked.

"Yes, sir," Olum responded.

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With only two games left in the MLS regular season, Sporting KC is set to have its full arsenal of center backs healthy for the first time in months. In theory, with Olum now healthy, Vermes has five options from which to choose when he pens the lineup for Sunday's match at Real Salt Lake.

A luxury, right?

Well, maybe not entirely.

Look at it this way: As Sporting KC tries to lock up a playoff spot in the Western Conference, Vermes has only eight days left to discover what he's been unable to find over the first 32 matches — a consistent center back pairing.

Olum, Matt Besler, Nuno Coelho, Ike Opara and Kevin Ellis have all taken their turns. None have grabbed hold of the starting spot.

"We've had injuries like crazy in that position, but, yes, I would say we've also lacked performance at times during the season there," Vermes said. "Those things hurt you when you're trying to use consistency."

Sporting KC had it from 2012-2014, when the team won both a U.S. Open Cup and the MLS Cup. Besler started 77 games at center back over that stretch, an average of 26 per season. Aurelien Collin started 82, an average of 27 per season.

But in 2016, Coelho and Opara lead the team with 16 starts in the center of the defense. That's only half the club's games this season.

And as the consistency has dipped, so has the production. No team in MLS allowed fewer goals than Sporting KC from 2012-2014.

This season, however, Sporting KC is sixth in the 10-team Western Conference with 41 goals allowed.

"Look, we had a lineup on the back line — not just at center back but the entire back line — that you pretty much knew which guys were going to be playing on the weekend," Vermes said. "There's no doubt that was a big piece of our success."

The stalwart defense made Sporting KC perhaps the league's toughest team to play against. And it's that description that Sporting KC recognizes it must attain to have any chance of making a postseason run — a job that falls on more than the center backs.

"The primary goal has to be to get the zero," forward Jacob Peterson said.

"We can't give up easy goals," midfielder Benny Feilhaber said.

Eight days remain to correct it. A sixth straight postseason berth depends on it.

"Sure, you would like to settle on two guys," Vermes said. "But I don't think it's a concern. It might have been a concern throughout the season, but I think we're primed to play at a very high level."

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