The Full 90

XI Questions: Sporting returns to winning ways

Sporting Kansas City turned out the Houston Dynamo 3-0 on Saturday. In the process, KC has propelled to the top of the table and sits in pretty good position to fight for the #1 seed in the East.

Here are XI questions I've got in the wake of this result.

1. Thank you sirs, may we have another?

In just about every facet of the game, Sporting dominated Houston. More attempts on goal, more shots on target, more duels won, better passing, more possession and more players on the field when the final whistle blew.

When KC come to play -- and don't get bogged down in one-v-one games and dirty tackles -- they can be one of the toughest teams to play in MLS. Ask Houston. Or Real Salt Lake. Or DC United.

Of course, against Salt Lake on Saturday, it could very easily be a red card and a cheap late goal and some complaining next week. Sporting are sorta Jekyll and Hyde right now.

2. Are KC winning a lot more games by 2 goals or more than usual?

My initial thought, was, "Yes, of course." But that's actually not true. It's not a lot more -- but they are on pace for more than usual and it does show a trend under Peter Vermes.

As for right now, KC have won five games this year by more than two goals. In 2010, they won exactly five games by that margin.

Before that, two-goals-or-more wins were harder to come by. From 2007-2008, KC won just eight games by that margin total.

It's a sign, to me, of a much improved offense and a more defined "killer" instinct on the field.

3. Why aren't Sporting actually in first place right now?

If the playoffs started today (my favorite phrase in sports after "according to TMZ"), Columbus would be the No. 1 seed over Sporting. Why?

Well, according to MLS, the first tie-breaker when two teams are level on points is head-to-head record. Columbus has a "W" over KC this year with another game looming. The next tie-breaker is goal differential, however, and KC would win that one handily (7 to -1). If Columbus were to close that gap, the next tie-breaker is total goals. And if, for some reason, that is also a draw at the end of the year, the top spot is awarded to the team with the highest average shoe size.*

*Not really. 4. Does KC really want to finish first in the East?

While the fanfare from winning a conference would be enormous, it might be more beneficial to finish second.

If you win the East, you "earn" the right to play one of the wildcard teams. If you assume that Los Angeles (or at least Seattle) wins the Supporter's Shield, the winner of the East will play the highest-seeded wildcard team. In other words, that could be Dallas, Salt Lake or Colorado.

If KC finishes second in the East, the first-round matchup would instead be with the third-place team in the East. In other words, Philadelphia, Houston or DC United.

Which group of potential first-round opponents would you rather be drawn against?

5. How good as Julio Cesar been?

Look, earlier this season I riddled the Brazilian with criticism. And here's the thing: I was totally, absolutely, 100 percent correct to criticize his play. Did you watch the Los Angeles game? Or the Columbus game? Or the Vancouver game? I had lots of evidence to back up my words. He was slow, plodding, error prone and lost.

Then something weird happened -- he got much better. He adjusted to the pace and physicality of the game and moved up to defensive midfielder -- where his shortcomings as a defender weren't as detrimental and his passing could be more useful.

He was good at that role. He gained confidence and comfort. Enough that, when Aurelien Collin went out injured, he managed to turn in a few solid -- and one or two very good -- games as a defender again.

His pass on Teal Bunbury's second goal was just, well, "technically perfect." I could watch this assist over and over and over again. This pass is likely why he caught Peter Vermes' eye.

Get Microsoft Silverlight 6. You still don't completely trust Cesar though, do you?

Oh, hell no. There has to be a reason he's played for, like, 37 teams in 15 years right? (Ok, it's actually just 16 in 16 years. But what gives?)

7. What stood out tactically against Houston?

Variety of chances.

At times this year, Sporting Kansas City have struggled to break down organized teams who pack it in defensively. The reason for this has often been a lack of variety in approaching the goal. In the New England game, KC tried to create chances by smashing shots from distance. The

chalkboard

shows 13 shots attempted from distance in that game. 13!

While KC might have taken fewer shots against Houston (

here's the shots chalkboard

), they were from better positions and were the result of a variety of different approaches.

In that game, KC used the long ball (Julio Cesar's pass to open Bunbury on the first goal), diagonal through balls (we'll get to that in a second), overlapping wide runs (Chance Myers is dangerous like this), balls over the top (Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza did this) and straight counter-attacks (like CJ Sapong's goal to close the game) to create scoring chances.

Instead of just bringing a hammer to build a cabinet, Sporting Kansas City brought the whole tool box. Something they've not done consistently this year. Amazingly, when they bring the whole tool box, they tend to build a reliable cabinet. Huh, imagine that.

8. Is there a story that's not getting enough love right now?

There have a ton of great stories (good and bad) for both the fans and the media to latch onto the last few weeks.

The late collapses. The red-card issues. The turf issues. The home-stand. The foreign veterans making their mark on MLS (Omar Bravo, Jeferson and Julio Cesar). The No. 1 pick finally living up the hype (Chance Myers). The break-out rookie (CJ Sapong). The promising, budding superstar figuring out his game amidst the burden of pressure (Teal Bunbury). The oft-enigmatic player finding his form (Kei Kamara). The player finally finding his niche and place on the team (Graham Zusi). The eccentric fan-favorite (Aurelien Collin). The guy who is always up to something good or bad (Roger Espinoza). The veteran working his way back from injury (Davy Arnaud).

Somehow, Matt Besler has gotten lost amidst those stories. Sure, his long-throw prowess got some attention. And, yeah, he was an MLS All-Star. It hardly seems like enough has been made of his steadiness.

Here's a guy who has gone the full 90 in 21-straight games and played more minutes than everybody by Jimmy Nielsen. He is a model of consistency and he's just as important in this team's turnaround as anyone else. This is after nearly three seasons of being yanked around the starting lineup and being called soft by the head coach.

He's

Ryan Hurst (Opie) in "Sons of Anarchy."

He was there at the beginning, grew into the role with a little trouble, finally found his niche and is now one of the best parts of the show/team. Only, he almost always gets overshadowed by the bigger names around him or lost in someone else's plot. Sound familiar?

9. What's the toughest selection issue for Vermes this weekend?

Does he go with the same starting XI from the Houston game or does he weave Kamara and Collin back into the mix? Is Arnaud fit enough to start? Or does he need a few more weeks?

My best guess is that he'll go with Myers-Collin-Besler-Sinovic in the back and Cesar-Espinoza-Jeferson in the middle with Bravo-Bunbury-Kamara up top. It's a sturdy lineup that will keep its defensive shape. It also gives you Zusi and Sapong as scoring threats off the bench.

10. Can Sporting remember how to play on the road?

It's been a little more than 2 months since Sporting last left the friendly confines of Livestrong Sporting Park. Up next is the imposing Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.

11. How did the field hold up?

It looked to me like the turf was still a little rough, but at least they seemed to have killed all the gophers that kept popping up during play. Thankfully, the groundscrew weathered the worst of the storm without having to see an MLS player tear up an ACL. That's a win-win.

Now, just let the U.S. women play without issue and KC might be in the clear.

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