Sporting KC

Sporting KC’s path to the top of the West will require a return to its roots

Coach Peter Vermes after Sporting KC bows out of Champions League: “We gave away soft goals”

Sporting KC lost to Monterrey FC in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals at Children’s Mercy Park.
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Sporting KC lost to Monterrey FC in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals at Children’s Mercy Park.

The locker room was mostly hushed late Sunday, indicative of Sporting Kansas City players’ uncertainty about how to characterize a match that had gone so well for half an hour, then so poorly for 50 minutes, and then satisfactorily once again for the final 10.

It left the primary takeaway from a 2-2 draw with the New York Red Bulls difficult to pinpoint. Well, for some. As he encapsulated the entirety of the 90 minutes, Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia traced back to the club’s roots.

“We have to get back to that organically positive defensive team,” he said. “We have one shutout so far in MLS (games). That has to be our first objective. We’ve shown we can keep the ball; we’ve shown we can create opportunities. We have to get back to being ourselves defensively, and we’ll be OK.”

To be fair here, Sporting KC has allowed seven goals across six MLS matches. It’s the recent run that prompted Melia’s comment.

In the past four games — two of them in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals — Sporting KC has allowed 13 goals. That total has spanned six matches across all competitions without a shutout.

Too often, this team can point to self-inflicted mistakes.

In the season opener against Los Angeles FC, Sporting KC failed to properly waste the final minutes of the game, permitting enough time for LAFC to score a winner seconds before the whistle. In Colorado, Melia took a bad touch, allowing Diego Rubio to tally the Rapids’ only goal in a 1-1 draw. On Sunday against the Red Bulls, Yohan Croizet didn’t follow the back line up the field, leaving Daniel Royer on-side in a fast break toward goal. In the CCL series against Monterrey, there were a handful of tactical mistakes against a team that consistently punishes them.

And on it goes.

“Mental lapses on our part,” Vermes said. “I think this time off this week will do us some good because I think the guys are a little mentally drained.”

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In each of the past seven seasons, Sporting has posted at least 10 shutouts over the 34-game MLS season. The pace for 2019 is six.

The reasoning is evident in the other statistics. Sporting KC is allowing chances at a higher clip. In 2019, opponents are averaging 12.5 shots per game against Sporting. That’s up from 11.9 in 2018, 10.0 in 2017 and 9.5 in 2016. The 2017 and 2016 numbers led the league. Six weeks into this year, Sporting sits 13th in the league in shots allowed.

It’s early, of course. And it could be worse. Sporting KC struggled in the outset of 2018, yielding nine goals in the first four games. And then it gave up only 31 over the final 30 matches, which included 13 shutouts, a career-high for Melia.

So there’s plenty of reason to believe it will improve. History suggests it will. And in the quest to revert back to the staple of Vermes’ tenure in Kansas City, the rest should help.

As Sporting KC prepares for Saturday’s trip to San Jose (9 p.m., Fox Sports KC), it will play on the heels of a five-day break. That represents its second-longest break of the season. It has played more matches (12) than any other MLS team.

The next six weeks offer similar intervals between matches. That’s an opportunity to find its footing in a crowded Western Conference, and it’s a chance to use practice time for fine-tuning.

“It’s great that we have a buildup to this next game against San Jose,” Vermes said. “It’s hugely important. We haven’t had training days for a long time. ... It’s good for us to get back into a good rhythm of training and then a game, training and then a game. It’s going to be good for us.”

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