The Full 90

2015 Preview: Sporting KC refills tank after defense sputtered to the finish line

Sporting KC defender Ike Opara challenges for a ball during a 2014 game at Sporting Park. Opara missed most of the season after suffering a foot injury. His return should be key for Kansas City’s defense to return to form in 2015.
Sporting KC defender Ike Opara challenges for a ball during a 2014 game at Sporting Park. Opara missed most of the season after suffering a foot injury. His return should be key for Kansas City’s defense to return to form in 2015. The Kansas City Star

Quite simply, Kansas City’s defense was a shell of its former self in 2014.

A unit once renowned for its consistency, ability to stifle shots and scoring chances, and stick together while pressing a high defensive line collapsed as the season drug on.

After the season, captain Matt Besler said the team “ran out of gas” last year. Its an apt metaphor as KC literally sputtered down the stretch. After defeating the Los Angeles Galaxy 2-1 at Sporting Park in July, KC lost 10 of its next 19 games in all competitions, allowing a robust 1.5 goals per game and 10 multi-goal games. KC fell from second in the Eastern Conference to fifth, fell out of the CONCACAF Champions League and then lost to New York in the play-in game to the MLS Cup playoffs.

The worst? A three-game stretch during the summer when the defense leaked 9 goals in three games — making a mockery of the 2013 team that allowed 0.88 goals per game.

What went wrong? Basically, everything.

Injuries hit at the wrong time (we’ll get to that in good time). Besler struggled returning to form after a grueling World Cup. Aurelien Collin fluctuated between “MLS Best XI defender” and “can they send him down to Oklahoma City to learn how to defend and not raise his hand when he gets beat for pace in an offside trap?” levels. Chance Myers missed most of the season and his replacement, Igor Juliao, was an attack-first defend-never wingback who never grasped the full nuance of the position.

Combined the goalkeeper shuffle and the departure of Oriol Rosell from the midfield and it was a disaster waiting to happen.

The question for 2015: Can KC return to its league-dominating defense from 2012 and 2013 or was last year a rapid regression to the mean? Will the addition of three new athletic players — and the return of a vital member of the 2013 Cup winning side — to the backline help fill the tank back up?

Who’s Who?

(age / nationality / MLS experience / previous club/college)

Saad Abdul-Salaam (23, USA, 1st season, University of Akron), Jalil Anibaba (26, USA, 5th season, Seattle Sounders), Matt Besler (28, USA, 7th season, none), Amadou Dia (21, France, 1st season, Clemson University), Kevin Ellis (23, USA, 5th season, none), Chance Myers (27, USA, 8th season, none), Ike Opara (25, USA, 6th season, San Jose Earthquakes), Erik Palmer-Brown (17, USA, 3rd season, none), Seth Sinovic (28, USA, 7th season, New England Revolution)

Who’s Gone?

Aurelien Collin (traded to Orlando SC), Josh Gardner (waived mid-season), Mechack Jerome (waived mid-season), Igor Juliao (loan ended)

Welcome Back: Opara

Boy, Sporting KC missed him in 2014. After a solid 2013 as the third center back, Opara was in line for a big bump in playing time once Besler left for the World Cup. Then he got hurt in the Colorado game — and was called for a penalty in the process to add insult to injury. He missed the rest of the year and left Vermes with scant cover during May and June — and then July and August when Besler and Collin both fell out of form.

How bad did it get for KC? Seven different players — including fullbacks Myers and Sinovic and teenager Palmer-Brown during a brief dalliance with the 3-5-2 formation — lined up at center back in ’14. A healthy Opara would’ve fixed a lot of problems and, as of right now, he projects as the starter next to Besler.

New in Town: Anibaba

He follows a similar trajectory as Opara: former high draft pick who didn’t pan out with his first (or, in Anibaba’s case, his second) team. He’ll likely follow the same path as Opara too, as the third CB backing up Opara and Besler to start the season.

Acquired as the player to be named later in the Collin deal, Anibaba is an athletic defender who is capable (but not totally convincing) out on the right fullback spot. He could thrive under the tutelage of former MLS Defender of the Year Vermes — who knows a thing or two about rehabbing and molding a central defender.

Big Number: 12

Number of defenders Peter Vermes was forced into using in ’14 because of injuries, form, suspensions and World Cup call-ups. Besler, Collin, Ellis, Gardner, Jerome, Juliao, Myers, Olum, Opara, Palmer-Brown, Jacob Peterson and Sinovic all saw at least one MLS game on the back line.

Bottom Line

Sam McDowell, KC Star beat reporter: The storyline of the 2015 defense can be summed up in one word: Health.

If Ike Opara and Chance Myers are healthy — and they can return to form, of course — the back line will take a big step forward. I still believe Opara would’ve taken over Collin’s job late in the season had a leg injury not ended his year in April. Opara is on target to return for the March 8 opener, with Myers about a month behind that schedule.

In the event Opara and Myers aren’t ready, though, the team has added some much-needed depth to those positions this offseason — Plan B options that are a direct result of how the Plan B options of 2014 fared.

Charles Gooch, Full 90 blogger: The Vermes system is very demanding on defenders — especially fullbacks when the team establishes its high defensive line of pressure. The fullback has to know when to go forward to push the attack and when to stay back reinforce the line. It’s job that requires a big soccer IQ, incredible athleticism and a lot of recovery speed. It’s a tough position.

Last year, Juliao got in trouble not recognizing how to stay tethered to Collin — he was constantly bombing up the line and allowing teams to attack the soft spots behind him. This season, Vermes drafted two fullbacks (Dia and Abdul-Salaam) and has another on trial (Canadian international Marcel de Jong) this preseason. They will need to pick up the system quickly and be ready if another injury crisis arises out wide.