Sporting KC

How good is Sporting KC? The next two games should provide a clearer indication

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer and his teammates face a pair of challenging road trips in the next eight days.
Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer and his teammates face a pair of challenging road trips in the next eight days.

Sporting Kansas City players and coaches gathered into a corner space inside the Swope Park training facility Wednesday morning. Over a meeting that spanned half an hour, the Portland Timbers were among the talking points — their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. Afterward, a 90-minute training session began to put a game plan into action.

This is all part of the weekly routine, which typically commences days earlier, after Peter Vermes and his staff pore through game footage. For seven days, the focus sits on Portland and little else.

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But while Sporting Kansas City’s center of attention may be perched squarely on Saturday night’s trip to Oregon, it’s the next eight days that provide deeper intrigue.

Sporting KC will play in Portland at 9:30 p.m. Saturday and a week later travels to face FC Dallas. Those two opponents sit atop the Western Conference standings, with Sporting KC nestled behind them in a tie for third.

In other words, the next eight days could provide an indication of where Sporting KC falls in the mix of Western Conference powers.

“It’s probably the two hardest games on our schedule, and we have them back-to-back,” Sporting KC midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. “We feel good about where we are. It’s a good moment for us to get some points on the road against two really difficult teams and see where we’re at.”

With the changes to Sporting Kansas City’s lineup this season — the additions of defensive midfielder Ilie Sanchez and winger Gerso Fernandes coupled with Graham Zusi’s move to the back line — Vermes said he wanted to wait 10 games before measuring expectations.

The schedule is providing an earlier opportunity. Before the 2017 season began, experts landed on Portland and FC Dallas as two Western Conference favorites. The opening month of the season did little to deter that notion.

Does Sporting KC belong in the discussion?

“You can’t help but be brought into the conversation of how well or how poorly pundits talk about the teams,” Vermes said. “But our job is to clear that away, look at the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent and get prepared for that. The majority of our focus is on us, not on what everyone else is doing.”

On that topic, Sporting KC is performing at a league-best rate defensively. It has allowed the fewest goals and shots in MLS.

Back to that looming barometer — Portland leads MLS with 16 goals, and FC Dallas was second in scoring in the West a year ago.

Saturday’s match will pit strength against strength. Vermes considers Portland’s counter-attack execution “probably better than anyone at the moment.” Sporting KC hasn’t relinquished much in that area of the field.

“I think we’ve been really good this year in not giving away counter-attack goals,” captain Matt Besler said. “We had to talk a lot about that last year. We’re not doing that right now.

“I know Portland is off to a hot start. But for us, we view it as trying to execute the way we have in the first five matches (rather than) worrying about whether we’re playing a first-place team or a last-place team.”