The Full 90

Full 90 mailbag: Does Sporting KC have enough in the tank for MLS Cup run?

SKC's Andy Gruenebaum stops a shot during a match between The Chicago Fire and Sporting KC at Sporting Park. Sporting won the game 2-0 to clinch a playoff spot.
SKC's Andy Gruenebaum stops a shot during a match between The Chicago Fire and Sporting KC at Sporting Park. Sporting won the game 2-0 to clinch a playoff spot. Special to The Kansas City Star

Now that the playoffs are a certainty for Sporting Kansas City (and, in a word, “whew”), the attention has turned now to looking into the future. This week’s mailbag features a lot of talk about playoff expectations, optimism, post-season plans and the future of a few KC players.

Let’s just dig in and get this thing started shall we?

I’m going to answer these two as a package deal.

This has been such a daunting season for Kansas City: The injuries, the fixture congestion, the national team absences, the bizarre inability to defend simple through balls for the entire month of August.

But the ultimate goal in a league as parity-driven as MLS is to make it to the playoffs where (hang on a sec, let me put on my best announcer voice*) … “Anything can happen.”**

*Well, since this is a blog, you had to read that in your best announcer voice.

**This apparently applies to baseball too.

Playoffs are, by design, fairly random in any sport. Any time you boil down a complicated game to a single (or two-game aggregate) elimination game, you’re bound to see the unexpected. Upsets and bad days happen all the time.

Consider four of the last five MLS Cup playoff runs:

2013: Sporting reaches and hosts the MLS Cup because the New York Red Bulls got upset by the Houston Dynamo (the #4 seed) in the conference semifinals. The West #1 seed, Portland, also fell in the semis.

2012: Los Angeles (West #4) and Houston (East #4) both reach the MLS Cup final by winning the play-in game and as the road team in the conference semis and finals. The Galaxy won the title, the second in as many years.

2010: The Colorado Rapids were the fifth-best team in the West, but the third-seed in the East (because, well, MLS) and won the Cup over Dallas (the third-best team in the West).

2009: Real Salt Lake was the fourth (and final) seed in the West in 2004. RSL got hot in October and beat the Supporters’ Shield winners (Columbus) and the best team in the West (Los Angeles) in the process.

I could go on, but you get the point.

All that matters at this stage is getting in and making a run.

Now, does KC have enough left to make a run? I’m not ready to judge based off just two games, but Sporting’s defense has looked a bit like its old self against D.C. and Chicago — it helps that Andy Gruenebaum has been lights out. This is a team that feeds off its defense. When it starts to sag and get gappy, the whole teams suffers.

If Peter Vermes can sort out his back line the team can go as far as the defense can carry them.

Though, this can’t help.

Gulp.

The other component to consider for KC? The competition.

I would not personally be too optimistic if KC draws New England (very likely) in the 2-3 matchup. The Revs have had KC’s number this year with three wins with a +6 goal differential.

Lee Nguyen lives in between the lines and Sporting KC has had numerous problems trying to contain him this year. (He’s a legit MVP candidate.) Jermaine Jones has been the missing piece at times for the Revs midfield. (Oh, Kelyn Rowe and Diego Fagundez are both dangerous.)

But a lot would have to happen — the Revs dropping all the points to Houston and Toronto to close the season doesn’t seem very likely does it? — for New York or Columbus to move into that spot.

Of course if KC drops any points against Philadelphia and the Red Bulls, that could mean falling into the 4-5 game. While it’s possible to make a move from that spot (see a few paragraphs ago), it’s much harder and mostly uphill.

The dream fixture in that scenario (based on this year’s results) would be Columbus. Kansas City played the Crew twice this year and won both by a combined score of 4-1. (OF course, the last match as on July 16. Both teams are kinda different now.)

I think the smart money would be on Olum — if only because Jorge Claros will have missed three big games down the stretch (including this weekend in Philadelphia). With Olum getting the reps and playing well over the last two games, he gives KC the best chance to have continuity down the stretch.

Since I’ve backed Eric Kronberg a few times in this space and occasionally on Twitter, I’ll just get this out of the way here: Right now, Andy Gruenebaum is KC’s best goalkeeper. He was Sporting’s best player against D.C. United (seven big saves to preserve a shutout and big road point) and again against Chicago (six saves including several that kept KC in the game long enough for Graham Zusi to finally save the day).

*BTW: What the heck is Jacob Peterson doing that far from left back right there? Gruenebaum bailed him out big time.

However… the team paid Kronberg this offseason and he’s been the No. 1 when healthy. Against New England recently, he was rushed back from a broken finger and looked incredibly rusty. I think Kronberg is a decent goalkeeper — before breaking his finger, he had seven shutouts and was a big part of the team’s defensive organization. He’ll get a chance to prove himself again.

Should Gruenebaum continue his hot streak, this conversation gets more interesting. At the very least, Gruenebaum’s given the front office a lot to think about when it comes time for the expansion draft this year.

I really expect KC to make some sort of move for a defensive-minded midfielder. Maybe it’s Roger Espinoza. Maybe it’s the next Uri Rosell. With Paulo Nagamura aging (and spending a good chunk of the year injured again) and Olum/Claros not totally convincing, that’s a big area of need.

I also can’t see Vermes going into 2015 without more depth at the outside back position. (As part of this, I think KC will try and make Igor Juliao’s loan deal permanent.)

What a tough and fascinating question. (Fascinating because I would’ve had a totally different answer if asked this same question in January and July.)

I think it’s Dom Dwyer. This was a team that struggled to score goals the last two seasons. Enter Dwyer, goodbye struggles and Preki’s single-season scoring record. Throughout the season, he’s reiterated his value to the team and given the offense a focal point and driving force.

While Aurelien Collin is an important and very good player, his value to the team has dipped because of form first and then injuries recently. And, as Vermes has proven in the past and as this year has proven out, it’s much easier to find a defensive player than a goal-scorer.

As has been the case since we started this mailbag: Top notch work everyone.

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