Matt Besler was walking through a lively Sporting Kansas City locker room after a match in May, when he passed midfielder Benny Feilhaber on the way to his station. The two shook hands to acknowledge the latest victory, a 4-2 win against visiting New England, before they exchanged brief recaps of what exactly had gone so well over the previous couple of hours.
“That right there,” Besler said, pointing his finger for emphasis, “is how we should always play inside the place.”
So far, so good.
A package of mediocre home results in 2014 has given way to an unbeaten slate in 2015.
In fact, when Sporting KC plays host to Montreal at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, it can already surpass last season’s home win total, with three-plus months remaining in the regular season.
“There’s no doubt we feel confident when we play at home. Even last year, we felt confident,” Feilhaber said. “But we know we haven’t been very good at home the last couple of seasons. That’s something we really tried to improve this year.”
Winning home matches has always been a top priority, of course. The club’s CEO, Robb Heineman, stressed the need for improvement during an online video chat with fans last season. But after a less-than-stellar 6-5-6 record at Sporting Park in 2014, that took on an even bigger priority this season.
The emphasis actually began in the offseason, Feilhaber said, when the players and coaches conducted a meeting to outline 2015 goals.
The expectations agreed upon for the home results were, well, lofty.
“The goal was to go undefeated at home,” he said. “We don’t want to lose a game at our place.”
Again: So far, so good.
Sporting KC is 6-0-3 in MLS matches at Sporting Park, and it has breezed through a pair of U.S. Open Cup matches there, to boot.
So what’s been the difference? Everyone seems to have a different answer.
It hasn’t been a change in style from the opponents, who continue to put numbers behind the ball in an effort to escape Sporting Park with merely a tie. Coach Peter Vermes says most opponents are still bringing that sit-back-and-wait-for-the-counter mentality into Sporting Park.
But the club clearly has figured out a better way to solve it. Across all competitions, Sporting KC has scored 18 goals over its past six home matches.
“I think over the years we’ve always created chances. I don’t necessarily know how clear and clean they were,” Vermes said. “But I think we have better finishers on the team.”
And here’s another key: Sporting KC has virtually eliminated the counter-attacking threat. While the goal-scoring numbers provide evidence that the club has maintained its high-pressing aggression (with perhaps a few new wrinkles), it has been less susceptible to giving up quality chances against the run of play.
“I think last year, that was one of our biggest flaws, and it happened at home quite a bit because of how we wanted to push forward,” Feilhaber said. “It’s a tactical adjustment. We’ve trained it. We know when we’re attacking, where the players need to be, so if we lose the ball, we can win it back quickly or at the very least slow them down. We couldn’t figure that out quickly enough to save our season last year.”
Sporting KC has allowed only five goals at home, tied for the fewest in MLS. That’s 0.56 goals against per match, a significantly low number, especially considering Besler is the only current member of the back line who was projected to open the season as the long-term starter. For comparison’s sake, the team allowed more than double that amount (1.24 goals per match) in 2014.
That’s simply another piece in a formula that has added up to the undefeated sum.
“I think (last year) is a factor into the home results this year,” defender Kevin Ellis said. “We don’t want to lose games at home. It doesn’t feel good when you lose games period, but especially at home in front of your fans.”