Fresh off a successful but stagnant win in the Open Cup, Sporting Kansas City begins the next phase of the season — the grueling and humid summer.
The 1-0 win against St. Louis FC led to quite a few questions for this week’s mailbag — as did the return of Chance Myers after a year-long recovery from an Achilles injury. Also discussed: Benny Feilhaber, the future of Jalil Anibaba and Kevin Ellis, and Chipotle.
Let’s get this started, shall we?
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
What a coincidence, this is basically the topic that Sam McDowell and I discussed in our video segment this week.
Let’s keep the Myers talk going...
Anibaba has become a little better as the season has progressed (and he’s figured out the position/formation): 69% passing, 0.6 key passes per game, 0.7 crosses per game, 1 assist and 1 goal. Not too shabby for a centerback.
Myers has, historically, been a better passer than that though. According to WhoScored.com, Myers’ two-year averages between 2013-14: 76% passing, 1.2 key passes per game, 0.9 crosses per game, 3 goals and 3 assists.
While those two stat-lines are fairly close (with Myers getting the edge in chances created and completed passes), the return of a natural fullback with attacking potential (and enough experience to track back on defense as well) should give KC’s attack an extra component — and improve the overall team spacing and shape in attack.
Regardless of the numbers, Myers is just more comfortable in the attacking half than Anibaba. (Perhaps its the time he spent earlier in his career as a wing/forward with KC’s reserves.) He is very much a wingback and likes to bomb forward, often all the way to the byline. His combination play with Graham Zusi has been a key component of Peter Vermes’ 4-3-3 formation in previous seasons.
I think a natural fullback will also help Zusi keep from drifting away from his position too much — he’ll actually have a willing and capable passing partner on the wing. Anibaba has been a little awkward pushing higher up the field, which can cause the team to get fairly narrow and isolate him out wide.
I don’t think this will be an issue until August. During the Gold Cup, I expect that we’ll see Kevin Ellis slide over into Matt Besler’s spot (assuming he’s on U.S. duty) since Ellis is a left-footed possession-based CB with Anibaba tucking inside to his more natural role as CB — and logical successor in style to Ike Opara.
Beyond that, I think playing time will be awarded based on form and the matchup. There should be enough games (especially if KC makes a deep Open Cup run), to get all three some minutes with Ellis likely dropping into the Opara-role from 2013 of backup at both positions.
Another question: Where does Erik Palmer-Brown fit in now? Honestly, I have no idea.
The Open Cup is pretty dangerous for just about every MLS team. While only two MLS squads lost this year (New England fell 1-0 to Charlotte Independence and New York City FC lost on penalty kicks to New York Cosmos), several struggled to overcome lower-tier opponents.
Kansas City, Chicago and Real Salt Lake all won 1-goal games over USL sides — St. Louis FC, Louisville City FC and Sounders 2 respectively. Philadelphia, San Jose and Orlando were taken to penalties.
As for KC specifically, this has been a problem for a few years: In 2012, KC struggled to overcome Orlando City (then a USL team) with a 3-2 win. In 2013, KC got past the Des Moines Menace before falling to Orlando City (still a USL team) in the next round. In 2014, KC didn’t have many issues getting by Minnesota United FC.
I think a lot of it comes down to a mixture of a lack of familiarity with the opposition, fairly shallow squads, the rising talent levels of the lower tiers and tricky mid-week fixtures.
It’s just a tricky game — often refereed by someone without a ton of experience at the highest level. But....
A well-organized team (at any level) can prove difficult to break down. And that’s been an issue for KC — and it’s been a familiar issue regardless of the level of competition at Sporting Park for a few years.
In league play this season, Vermes has countered the bunkering approach by pulling back the line of confrontation to the center circle. The approach has tended to pull teams out of the bunker and into midfield where Benny Feilhaber, Roger Espinoza and Soni Mustivar can press the ball and passing lanes. It opens up the game, creating attack space for Dwyer/Nemeth/Zusi/et al. (Another approach for KC against lesser quality teams has been to get a goal early and force the opponent to chase the game.)
However, St. Louis was always going to sit back and soak up pressure in this game regardless of how deep KC dropped the line of confrontation — they just simply didn’t have the firepower to go toe-to-toe with an MLS squad. Thus: Congestion for KC’s attack.
Without guys like Sinovic and Nemeth (both absences noticeably felt on the left flank), Kansas City seemed like a team a little bereft of ideas as well. Oddly enough, the inclusion of Jacob Peterson in the second half helped balance KC’s attack.
St. Louis will always have a special place in American soccer history. In the early 1900s, St. Louis had the only professional soccer league in America. Clubs from the city were a major factor in the U.S. Open Cup in ‘20s and five of the 11 members of the 1950 U.S. World Cup squad were from the city.
Since the Stars in the defunct version of the NASL (in 1978) however, the city hasn’t been quite up to the title with just several indoor teams and a failed lower-tier team (AC St. Louis).
However, you gotta start somewhere to get back on top. Before Sporting KC (and Sporting Park) became the “soccer capital of America,” the Wizards played in a minor league baseball stadium.
The MLS honchos will very much pay attention to how St. Louis FC develops with prized spot No. 24 in the league undecided and future expansion still a thing.
I don’t think he’s on the downside. At times this season, I’ve thought he was the best midfielder on the pitch for stretches — that includes Feilhaber. However, he’s not been that player consistently.
A lot of that is settling back into a regular rotation (he was often yanked in and out — and in different positions — during his waning time at Wigan). He’s also played a lot of soccer — internationally too — without much of a break recently.
There’s also the issue of trying to bring his high-energy high-recovery game into a midfield that has an established high-energy high-recovery guy in Feilhaber.
Fitness is the biggest one, though. Espinoza turned down the Gold Cup call-up from Honduras, according to Sam McDowell, because he’s still working on his fitness and doesn’t want to leave KC shorthanded in July.
What I’ve seen has been promising — Espinoza is far more involved in the attacking half of the game and has played very well with Mustivar to solidify Kansas City’s midfield and transition defense. (Both are averaging 2.5 tackles and 2.6 interceptions per game.) The fit with Feilhaber will come with time and improved fitness.
He has brought a nice 30- to 40-yard diagonal pass from England with him. Which is super.
With Mustivar at defensive midfield and Sinovic/Marcel De Jong/Dia at leftback, those are definitely not positions of need right now. Dom Dwyer and Krisztian Nemeth are a pretty good options No. 1 and 2 at forward, and a third striker wouldn’t really see a lot of playing time (the Claudio Bieler conundrum with Dwyer being a 90-minute guy most of the time).
Connor Hallisey has given Vermes some much-needed speed on the wing, but I think KC could use another creative player out there to help push the attack forward. That’s the spot I’d think Vermes will look to strengthen.
The latest I’ve heard is that he’s still recovering from a right hamstring strain and, as of this week, was still training on the side away from team.
The Copa America looks like a tournament sent straight out of soccer hipster heaven. Unfortunately, I have no legal access to BeIN sport at home or work, so it’s kind of a non-issue to me.
If the two sides couldn’t have wrangled a partnership when Kei “Tweets About Chipotle Everyday” Kamara was here … it might never happen.
Though, there’s a new Chipotle pitchman in the making on the roster now. So... there’s a new hope.
Have a good weekend everyone. Be good to each other.