Before Sporting Kansas City departed for preseason training camp, before it had even conducted its initial practice, coach Peter Vermes dubbed his lineup, “SKC 2.0.” The label paid homage to the teams of 2012 and 2013, trophy-securing clubs built on speed and athleticism.
As it turns out, SKC 2.0 resembles its predecessor. At least in the results column.
Sporting KC sprang into first place in the Western Conference with a 2-0 victory Wednesday against the New York Red Bulls at Children’s Mercy Park.
Sporting KC (5-1-3) is unbeaten in its last 14 home matches, the longest such stretch in franchise history.
“I think there was a good vibe in the preseason about what we were gonna be like this year. It’s coming to fruition, little by little,” Sporting KC midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. “But I think everybody has a good sense about how early it is in the season. There’s a lot of season left.”
That may be true, but on May 4, Sporting KC will wake up as the Western Conference leaders, the latest it has paced its conference since 2014.
And it looks every bit worthy of its standing. Sporting KC has outscored its five opponents 10-2 inside Children’s Mercy Park. It has allowed a league-low three goals in nine matches. It has a league-best six shutouts.
On to the individual superlatives: With newfound help surrounding him on the front line, striker Dom Dwyer is bordering on career-best form. He scored twice more Wednesday, both with his right foot.
He even called his shot. As the team huddled moments before the second half, Dwyer informed his teammates he planned to score. Better yet, he planned to do it in the opening minute.
Just 47 seconds into the second half, his shot passed the goal line. The team mobbed him afterward, many reminding Dwyer of his prediction.
“Sometimes you have a feeling,” he said.
Dwyer has five goals in his last five outings, the last three with that right foot — a significant statistic after offseason surgery on his right ankle.
While Sporting KC supplemented its offensive attack in the offseason — most notably with designated player Gerso Fernandes — the moves were equally designed to free Dwyer. Fernandes has scored twice, but his speed has opened up space for the team’s top goal-scoring threat.
Dwyer dumped his first goal into the back of the net Wednesday after the Red Bulls whiffed on multiple chances to clear the danger. He added another in the 68th minute after Feilhaber placed a ball at his foot.
Feilhaber was credited with the assist. He could’ve had a couple more in the first half, but Dwyer had his header attempt stoned by Red Bulls keeper Luis Robles, and center back Ike Opara failed to put his attempt on net.
Even with the Robles save, the best stop still belonged to Sporting KC keeper Tim Melia. With the game still scoreless in the 28th minute, New York forward Fredrik Gulbrandsen broke into the box. Melia, off his line, clipped enough of the ensuing shot to tip it over the crossbar. Melia made two saves in his sixth shutout.
“That save was incredible,” defender Seth Sinovic said. “Completely changed the game for us.”
It covered for a Sporting KC mistake — perhaps the lone significant blunder — in the first half.
Sporting KC cruised thereafter. Again. It has won each of its last three home matches by multigoal margins.
“I don’t see it as saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re playing really well right now,’ ” Vermes said. “This is what we expect. The key is that we continue to keep growing from here and keep getting better.”