After a successful Champions League double-header, Sporting Kansas City prepares to dive back into the shallow MLS playoff pool this Friday against the New England Revolution.
But first, there were some excellent Twitter questions this week to tackle, mostly focused on the return to form of Sporting KC forward Claudio Bieler. There are also some thoughts about CONCACAF Champions League and where Peter Vermes stands in the coach of the year race.
Let’s dig in.
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Kansas City’s forgotten “designated player” turned in his best performance of the year against Real Esteli. He had two goals (one a penalty), but more importantly, he had six shots on goal and was actively engaged in the team’s offensive movements.*
*This hasn’t been the case for many of his appearances this year. See the loss to New England last month.
Now, was it more Bieler being good or Esteli being awful?
I think it’s probably a 60-40 split.
Bieler found himself in a good position to bag KC’s first goal — a position he was almost gifted by Esteli’s defense randomly deciding to stop cold in their tracks.
I’m linking to the gif of the whole play for that goal because Benny Feilhaber’s initial pass is a thing of a beauty. I want you to watch it a lot. But, make sure you pay attention to the defensive shape Esteli’s in at the end of the play. One guy is just pointing to where he should’ve been. It’s amazing.
Kansas City could — and probably should — have won that game by a bigger margin than three. Esteli’s defense was that bad.
Bieler did miss a golden opportunity in the first half to double the score, but had a fantastic crack from a long-distance free kick that was just parried aside by the goalkeeper. Also, he absolutely earned (and buried) his penalty kick.
While he played well (and has scored three times in three games), it’s hard to judge when the competition hasn’t been very good defensively.
But, the important thing, Bieler actually played a meaningful game and played meaningful minutes* — and actually looked a little like the player he was to start the 2013 season.
*This season, he’s made just 4 starts and logged only 407 minutes.
A fit Bieler scoring goals — regardless of competition — is a good thing.
Here in lies the rub: I just can’t see a way for both him and Dom Dwyer to play together that effectively. Both work differently in exactly the same sort of position.
Dwyer is a guitarist built for a one-guitar band — and often tries to play without the service of the rest of the band. Because he’s such a high-energy player he needs a lot of open space to operate in. Another central striker could potentially throw off his rhythm or, worse, get in his way as he’s hunting for a channel to pressure. (KC’s offense has really been effective this year when Dwyer is allowed space to roam and pick his channels.)
Bieler often needs someone around to combine with and move around; Dwyer is best as a lone wolf.
The other issue: Since neither is very effective from a wide position, it would likely require Peter Vermes to alter his formation pretty drastically.
That would mean:
1) Removing a player from the midfield triangle and going with some variant of a 4-4-2. Since the Sporting KC system relies on strength and balance in the middle — strength and balance that comes almost entirely from having three players in that space — I can’t see that sort of switch happening. Especially now without some in-game experimentation.
2) Altering the balance of said triangle. Say Vermes kept the three-man midfield base, but tweaked it so that Bieler was playing “underneath” Dwyer* as a deep-lying forward. Who do you take out? Either Lawrence Olum or Jorge Claros is needed to play the holding role. Feilhaber has been KC’s best player and ain’t going anywhere. And there’s not a scenario I can imagine where Vermes doesn’t play Paulo Nagamura after KC struggled so much without him this summer.
*KC played around with this during the preseason, but haven’t revisited with any regularity since.
Here’s the real situation with Bieler: He was beaten out of two potential positions this year — central forward and creative playmaker — by two players who have had phenomenal seasons in Dwyer and Feilhaber.
Are you taking one of them out to get him back in now? And, if you find a way to get him in without dropping either one, does he compliment those two or pull touches away?
I think Bieler is an impact sub and, potentially, a tactical surprise down the stretch. Worst case scenario? KC has a semi-fit scorer on the bench in case of desperation or injury.
As Sporting found out last year in the playoffs — when, you guessed it, Claudio Bieler came on to save KC’s bacon against New England — you never quite know when a player is going to need to step up.
In my opinion, some combination of these three things:
1) A better campaign from MLS teams to educate average fans what it means. Sort of like how Sporting KC did with the Open Cup back in 2012.
I’ve had at least half a dozen people who want to care, but who find the whole ordeal obtuse. That’s a big obstacle.
2) An MLS team to win it.
Seriously, once an MLS team wins it, I think more fans will embrace it. Fans like trophies.
3) An increased focus by MLS to help teams compete.
Namely, I think 30-man rosters and salary caps aren’t going to cut it against the Club Americas and Cruz Azuls of this region. There are probably more reasons, but as KC found out this March you can’t really go to battle with a top-flight Mexican club in Mexico if you’re forced to use guys like Josh Gardner and Mechack Jerome as starters.
Vermes has endured a lot of setbacks and kept the team level. Sigi Schmid has kept a lot of egos happy and humming along in Seattle. Bruce Arena has re-invented the Los Angeles Galaxy on the fly and turned them into a terrifying goal machine.
But this award is Ben Olsen’s to win. I mean, United were terrible last. Terrible. Now, United is a legit contender. Olsen has to (and will) get a ton of credit for that turnaround.
I’d go with Paulo Nagamura. Especially in a long-sleeve away kit. It tells everyone that you don’t follow the herd, Alex. Just my two cents.
Thanks for the questions this week. Always one of my favorite blogs of the week to write.