Over the last 34 regular season games, Sporting Kansas City are 19-4-11. If that were an MLS season (and not spread over two), Kansas City would own an MLS-best 68 points. Only Los Angeles (with 68 in 1998 and 67 in 2011) have ever reached that point plateau.
So, the question is: Why is Sporting playing so well right now?
The answer is, of course, there isn't really one thing but a series of things that came together in the right environment. It's a perfect storm of talent, tactics and togetherness. (Did I just get all alliterative on that one?Yeah.
Part of the reason is the personnel. A few players who have taken their play to a higher level (Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza and Aurelien Collin in particular), a few veterans have found their comfort level and are playing at peak ability (Kei Kamara and Julio Cesar), and a few young players are finally realizing their potential (Chance Myers, Matt Besler, C.J. Sapong).
The tactics are another factor. Peter Vermes' highly disruptive pressing system has all 10 out-field players harassing and haranguing the opponents over every blade of grass in the stadium. On Wednesday, KC's second goal might have technically been an own goal from a Matt Besler throw-in, but it was literally created by Sapong applying pressure on a Vancouver defender deep into the Whitecaps corner.* That pressure creates turnovers. Turnovers create scoring chances. Turnovers also speed up the game. There aren't a lot of teams who have shown that they can hang with KC in a fast and physical game.*This is probably my favorite function of KC's system. Sapong and Kamara and even Espinoza/Zusi will step up and pressure the opposing team whenever it plays the ball backwards. Keep an eye out this Saturday for a Sporting player running back to make Portland's goalkeeper uncomfortable. It happens all the time. An uncomfortable 'keeper is prone to turnovers. It's hard to build from the back against KC. Very hard.
While you need good players and a good set of tactics to win, it's how you pull all of that together that you get this kind of run.
This season, Vermes didn't have to work nearly as hard integrating his squad as in year's past. Because so many guys from last year's squad returned, the team started preseason ahead of its usual schedule. So, instead of working on easing players into the high-press system, Vermes had two months to tweak that system. Sporting started already in third gear.
So far this season, Vermes has opted to start essentially the same lineup: Jimmy Nielsen, Myers, Collin, Besler, Seth Sinovic, Zusi, Espinoza, Kamara and Convey have started all seven games. Julio Cesar and CJ Sapong have started six games.
Coincidentally, 10 of those players logged more than 1,700 minutes last year. Convey is the only one who wasn't with KC last year.
Six of those players (Nielsen, Myers, Besler, Zusi, Espinoza and Kamara) are in their third year under Vermes. Nielsen, Kamara and Espinoza were regulars in 2010.
On this team, right now, not only do the players know what's expected of them tactically, but they seem to know what's expected of each other as well.
One of the key components of a pressure system is awareness. If Espinoza goes allhoney badger
and starts careening around the pitch to challenge a back pass, someone needs to cover the space he's vacated. The knowledge to do this only comes from repetition and familiarity.
There's another component, of course, to KC's current run of form: A stout defense. Of course, familiarity plays a factor in this area as well.
Vermes struggled during his first two years finding the right combination along his backline. It wasn't until the additions of Collin and Sinovic last year (combined with the rise of Chance Myers) that Vermes finally found the right combination. And, boy has it worked out for him.
When Myers, Collin, Besler and Sinovic start together, Sporting Kansas City are 16-1-1.**I know. I did a double take when I figured that out.
I thought for sure it would've been more. But, no.
Sinovic wasn't yet part of the team for the 1-0 loss to Seattle last may. Collin wasn't on the field for the late-match collapses against Seattle and Dallas last summer. And Myers was absent during the 1-0 loss to Salt Lake in September.
When those four are together, the only time KC has lost was in the Eastern Conference final.
Again, there are tons of other reasons for the great start this year and the amazing run over the last 34 matches. But I think that familiarity (especially along the defensive front) is a huge reason.
About the Match
Kickoff is 9:30 p.m. Saturday at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland. Callum Williams and Jake Yadrich will have the call on KSMO-TV.
Portland have lost four games in a row, including a 3-1 loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy last weekend. KC are, of course, riding high with seven wins in a row.Projected lineup for Sporting KC:
GK: Jimmy Nielsen-c; DEF: Michael Harrington, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic; MID: Paulo Nagamura, Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza; FWD: Kei Kamara, C.J. Sapong, Jacob Peterson. SUBS: Jon Kempin, Lawrence Olum, Chance Myers, Luke Sassano, Soony Saad, Teal Bunbury, Bobby Convey.
I wouldn't be surprised if Vermes throws Bunbury out to start -- he was ineffective as a substitute on Wednesday and this could be a good chance to give him some minutes to find his form. Convey left the mid-week game with tightness in his groin, I don't think Vermes will mess with him getting hurt for real. Harrington has to get a start at some point doesn't he?
Also worth monitoring: Julio Cesar is listed as "questionable" and not "out."Prediction time:
Kansas City 2, Portland 0. The winning streak will stop someday but I don't think it stops today. Goals by Collin (he's hot) and Sapong. Worth noting: KC has never lost a game in which Sapong or Collin have scored.
Portland is loaded up top with Darlington Nagbe and Kris Boyd, but the defense is young and very susceptible. Former KC midfielder Jack Jewsbury will have his hands full keeping Zusi and Espinoza from overtaking the Timbers in the midfield as well.Pre-match hype song:
Sleater-Kinney's "One More Hour." I love "Portlandia." Partly because it's absolutely hilarious. Partly because I love Carrie Brownstein -- who was the guitar player for Sleater-Kinney. That's call full-circle. If you don't know the band, I suggest you get yourself to Spotify or Pandora and start clicking.
"Please please win meow meow meow!"