The incredulity of the Dom Dwyer trade stemmed from Sporting Kansas City’s second-place standing in the Western Conference. Dealing away the second-best MLS scorer over the past four years adds an obstacle to season-long objectives such as winning league and U.S. Open Cup championships.
The reasons for Tuesday’s trade with Orlando City SC were explained in the hours after it became official. Dwyer’s contract expires after the 2018 season, and his request for a new deal was too expensive for Sporting KC to fit under the salary cap. Beyond that, the club received an offer of $1.6 million in allocation money that proved too rich to pass up — the richest such offer in MLS history.
But perhaps it wasn’t that simple. Perhaps it was more than dollars and cents.
Had Sporting Kansas City’s style of play evolved to the point that Dwyer was no longer the ideal fit he once was?
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Dwyer is a workhorse, a grinder, a tenacious presence who aggravates defenders with an effort that is impossible to surpass. It’s one of the highest compliments you can pay a player. And it was well-suited for a Sporting KC team that once centered its gameplan on the high press.
The 2017 version of Sporting KC moved beyond outworking the opponent, beyond that pressure. In the offseason, the club sought to improve in a critical area: Using possession to control the tempo of a match.
“I think this year is completely different than years’ past,” Sporting KC midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. “I think just the overall composition of how we’re playing as a team is different. We control the tempo of the game so much better than we have any of the other four years I’ve been here.”
Sporting KC is possessing the ball at a better rate than any time in Peter Vermes’ coaching tenure with the club. On average, it holds 57.3 percent of the possession during a match. That’s nearly three points better than 2016 and nearly eight points better than 2015.
Among Dwyer’s many strengths — and there are several — keeping possession isn’t one of them. Over the past three-plus seasons combined, Dwyer ranked 77th among 81 qualifying MLS forwards in passing accuracy (66.1 percent). He also ranked 77th of 81 forwards in completed passes per game.
Those flaws are masked by his goal-scoring abilities. That was his primary task, and he was quite good at it with Sporting KC, breaking the franchise record with 22 goals in 2014.
But as Sporting KC evolved toward a different style in 2017 — emphasizing controlling the tempo of a match with possession — Dwyer had only five goals in 15 league appearances, his worst per-minute rate since he assumed a full-time starting role.
He was once the prime fit for a club that generated its scoring chances on pressure. Make no mistake: Sporting KC still uses the high press to create an advantage in the game. And many people, even experts, still describe the club in this manner. But it’s no longer the advantage.
That has morphed into controlling the ball and subsequently avoiding turnovers. Sporting KC has out-possessed 17 of 21 opponents this year. It’s one of the reasons for an improved home record — unbeaten in 2017 — after teams used the counter attack to steal points at Children’s Mercy Park over the past few seasons.
Yes, the goals must come from somewhere with Dwyer gone. That’s a dilemma Sporting KC will have to solve moving forward. For all of the preference on connectivity, especially in the final third of the field, it doesn’t mean much if the ball can’t find the back of the net.
In the short term, Sporting KC will turn to Diego Rubio to replace Dwyer atop the formation. In the long term, the club is still looking at outside options, Krisztian Nemeth included. Rubio and Nemeth hold a common trait. They’re good on the ball.
“I really like the way we play. I like to hold the ball, to keep the ball,” Rubio said, later adding, “I’ll never try to replicate what Dom did here. I have a lot of respect, and I think all of the teammates have a lot of respect for what he did for the team and for the club. But I think (although) we can look similar physically, we’re different in a lot of aspects. I’m not looking to be the same as Dom. I need to just play my game.”
Indeed, Sporting KC is unlikely to find a like-for-like replacement for Dwyer’s bulldog style of play, which could very well be a strong presence in Orlando. It was a strong presence in Kansas City.
Rubio offers something different. There’s a calmness about his game. It’s a sought-after characteristic in the 2017 rendering of Sporting Kansas City — just as long as scoring goals comes with it.
“I think Diego really fits the way we’re playing this year,” Feilhaber said. “We like to bring the attack from the back to the front, and Diego is a guy that can really connect the pieces together up top. I also think he’s the most clinical player on our team in front of goal, bar none. He should be able to get some good looks and score some goals.
“He can connect passes to our wingers and allow our midfield to come up. That’s something we need with the way we’re playing right now. That’s going to push us a level further in terms of connecting in that offensive third and really making us more dangerous.”