In a binder holding dozens of sheets of paper, Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes experiments with lineups. It’s an exercise he performs weekly, using marker to fill in the blanks on one page, then flipping to another and starting anew.
For the past month, the task has become increasingly difficult.
And that’s a good thing.
Sporting KC holds a plethora of attacking options it has not enjoyed in Vermes’ tenure. It’s not the reliability of a 20-goal scorer that Dom Dwyer once provided. Instead, it’s quantity. For only the second time in franchise history, Sporting KC has four players who have scored at least seven times.
In the top three spots within his formation, Vermes believes he will soon have seven options from which to chose as he fills out those lineup sheets — Diego Rubio, Krisztian Nemeth and Khiry Shelton at striker; and Gerso Fernandes, Johnny Russell, Daniel Salloi and Yohan Croizet flanking them on the wings.
“I love that,” Vermes said. “I want as many options available to me as possible. You have a lot of things you can try to do with it.”
Last weekend in San Jose, Sporting KC was without its three leading scorers — Rubio, Salloi and Russell, all of whom were with their respective national teams. A situation that would have prompted concern in recent years instead offered opportunity for guys in need of playing time.
Sure enough, despite missing those three, Sporting KC responded with five goals against the Earthquakes, its second-best output of the season. Fernandes scored twice and assisted on two other goals.
“We have competition in practice, so in the game, everybody’s going to be better,” Fernandes said. “You know if you’re not good in the game, you have someone waiting for the chance to play. You have to always be at your top if you want to play.”
The players have remarked that there is a noticeable increase in the intensity to practice sessions. They’re acutely aware their playing time is at stake.
Vermes won’t tip his hand to the planned rotation, other to imply it will be exactly that — a rotation. But he has never been shy about riding the proverbial hot hand, nor has he shown a reluctance to alter the lineup after an unfavorable outcome. Since Sporting KC traded for Nemeth last month, that rotation has become even more competitive.
“I’m glad we have a lot of options in the attacking third,” Salloi said after the Nemeth trade. “That’s why every game we have to step up and give assists or score goals. And whoever is the best is going to start. I think it’s important that we sign players and everybody motivates themselves. I think that’s what’s happening. For example, I’m doing my best to stay on the field. I want to start every game.”
There are a couple of more benefits to the situation.
As for the former, Rubio and Shelton are listed as questionable because of knee injuries heading into Sunday’s game in Philadelphia. As for the latter, it allows Vermes a preference based on matchups, either before the game or during it.
One year ago in a playoff loss in Houston, the attacking options were thin, and with the team searching for a game-tying goal, Vermes turned to midfielder Kevin Oliveira, a player with 16 career MLS minutes. Should a similar situation arise down the stretch run — as Sporting KC fights to hold its top spot in the Western Conference — or in the postseason, the alternatives will inspire confidence.
“Sometimes you can put in a guy for a certain team or a certain situation based on something you’re seeing out on the field,” Vermes said. “Or it could be based on who is in form at the moment or who is in a good place from a physical perspective. There are a lot of things available to me.”