The Full 90

Full 90 Mailbag: Will Sporting KC turn to teenager Erik Palmer-Brown to replace Matt Besler?

Sporting Kansas City defender Erik Palmer-Brown eyed the ball during the season-opening match against the New York Red Bulls on March 8 at Sporting Park. Palmer-Brown came into the game as a substitute.
Sporting Kansas City defender Erik Palmer-Brown eyed the ball during the season-opening match against the New York Red Bulls on March 8 at Sporting Park. Palmer-Brown came into the game as a substitute. Special to the Star

After a season-opening 1-1 draw between Sporting Kansas City and the New York Red Bulls, The Full 90 mailbag was stuffed with questions about third defenders, midfield balance and more.

Let’s dive right in.

Easily the most popular question this week dealt with how Peter Vermes will adjust his back line against Dallas with Matt Besler suspended.

My answer is to look at the situation — on the road against a talented FC Dallas team (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. in Frisco, Texas).

Erik Palmer-Brown’s familiarity with the demands of the position under Peter Vermes would make him a more likely candidate to start this week over Jalil Anibaba in my opinion — and it’s probably the reason EPB came on as a substitute eventually against New York. Anibaba has had about a month to learn KC’s system and, for what it’s worth, plays a very familiar style to Ike Opara.

However, Palmer-Brown is still just a teenager learning the professional game and I don’t think he’s quite moved to #3 on the depth chart.* Besides, starting on the road in Dallas against Blas Perez, Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz is a massive, massive task.

*The depth chart starts to really matter after the summer transfer window closes.

I’d be more inclined to believe Vermes will turn to Kevin Ellis — his third-choice CB last season. Ellis was a solid but not spectacular central defender, has more experience than any possible options and, more importantly, would likely be more trusted in the ball-playing/organizer role Besler inhabits.

As for the rotation question, it has to be at least in Vermes’ mind. Last year showed how necessary rotation is for the end of the season — Seth Sinovic and Besler both looked gassed down the stretch. If and when Marcel De Jong and Anibaba gain full fitness, I’d expect both will get some time.

Robb Heineman said in the preseason that Palmer-Brown could likely head to Juventus at some point this year, however that move would likely include a loan-back to KC for the year.

Amadou Dia had a nice game against New York in a role that didn’t ask him to do a lot. I want to see him play a little bit more before I’m ready to slide him over the CB though.

While you didn’t exactly ask the question, I think Dia’s good showing definitely points to KC’s other fullback draft pick Saad Abdul-Salaam moving to Oklahoma City FC on loan this year.

I said it this week on the Talkin’ Touches podcast, but I wouldn’t be totally surprised if Vermes abandons the double pivot at least for this week. On the road, a more practical approach to packing the midfield could help blunt Dallas’ creativity going forward.

A practical approach (or, at least, a more practical approach than normal) has been the trend for road game plans the last two seasons. Take last year’s numbers.

KC at home in 2014: 15.3 shots per game (4th in MLS), 59.5% possession (tops in MLS), 81.7% passing accuracy (4th in MLS) and 12.8 fouls per game (8th in MLS)

KC on the road in 2014: 12.2 shots per game (6th in MLS), 53.7% possession (2nd in MLS), 77.6 passing accuracy (10th in MLS) and 16.6 fouls per game (most in MLS).

It’s a subtle difference (and followed pretty much the same pattern in 2013), but it shows Sporting sat back a little bit more on the road than at home and tried to make the game a bit slower with tactical fouls.

The double-pivot midfield seems to me like a move to make the more possession-based home attack more fluid and flexible. If KC tries to sit back with that midfield posture, it might be in danger of being overrun. Roger Espinoza and Benny Feilhaber might need a grunt-work guy to pitch in and provide structure — which is why I think you’ll see grunt-work guy extraordinaire Paulo Nagamura in there.

I don’t think Vermes will abandon the double pivot entirely or make any drastic personnel changes just yet. It just needs some time to gel (as I wrote in The Full 90 Reviewed this week) and last week was the first real MLS game for Espinoza and Feilhaber together in midfield. A double pivot requires understanding and trust. That takes time to build.

How long will it take? I don’t know. It’s a long season and change takes time. If it starts costing Vermes points in the uber-competitive Western Conference, I imagine he’ll be quicker to adjust things.*

*If you like to be conspiratorial, you could also see this double-pivot formation as the only way to truly incorporate someone like, oh, say Rafael van der Vaart, later this summer. Maybe it’s a trial run to get the team set for that sort of addition. Or, maybe Vermes is doing some natural experimentation to keep things from getting stale like in 2014.

It will always be a topic of discussion, because it’s something new. Something new is always a bit scary for some people — especially if it doesn’t work flawlessly from the get-go.

Surprisingly, this wasn’t the only midfield question.

At this stage, I don’t think so. Nagamura can definitely do the job (Feilhaber too) and we’ve just not seen enough for Servando Carrasco or Soni Mustivar to know what they bring to the table.

This is an interesting discussion, and I’m of two-minds on this one.

One side of my brain sees Feilhaber dropping deeper and I envision an Andrea Pirlo-lite midfielder pinging passes across the field, opening up channels for runners and setting the tempo — though, Feilhaber is still mobile enough that he doesn’t need someone next to him to handle tackling duties.

However, the other part of my brain understands that Kansas City absolutely needs Feilhaber in an advanced role to create scoring chances like the one he did for Opara against New York.

A potential formation tweak (to answer a previous question out of order) could be Feilhaber as a defensive midfielder behind Espinoza and Nagamura. That trio wouldn’t be overrun in midfield by many teams and would likely allow Kansas City to control the flow of the game and possession. But Nagamura and Espinoza have never been consistent chance creators (or goal scorers) in their careers.

I can’t harness the two sides of this argument into agreement.

Like with all the news guys, I’m going to wait a few games to pass a broader judgment.

But I will say that I thought Añor had a quiet game, but that doesn’t mean he was bad. He made a few nice combinations with Seth Sinovic and Espinoza during build-up play, and he switched roles (drifting centrally and to the right wing) without a noticeable drop off.

My one nit-pick on him is that he seems a bit slow with the ball at his feet. If KC starts to move the ball around and move with pace, he might be a drag on the overall speed of the play.

I want to see him with a full-speed Graham Zusi though.

I think it will click a bit sooner than the midfield and defense will. Which means KC could be in for a wild ride — a team capable of scoring a lot of goals, but one capable of conceding a lot as well until Vermes is able to smooth over the bumps in the back.

Until proven otherwise though, I remain convinced that the trio of Anor-Zusi-Feilhaber will be very fun to watch and create a lot of chances for Dwyer and Nemeth.

Thanks for the good questions, as always.

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