Major League Soccer has a funny way of turning itself on its head.
After shocking the league over the weekend with a come-from-behind win, Sporting Kansas City witnessed eighth-placed San Jose hang a five spot at Sporting Park Wednesday night to snap a 16-match home winning streak across all competitions.
It would be too easy to call this Sporting KC’s worst performance all season and leave it at that. One, the team has lost just five games all season, two of which were directly influenced by incorrect calls. And second, it would be an understatement.
Sporting KC was running on fumes in this one, which is somewhat understandable seeing as it’s their fourth game in a two-week span. That’s a taxing stretch, and it showed. The team was poor playing out of the back, and defensively, Sporting KC wasn’t able to hold its shape, which gave space — and then some — to San Jose all night.
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However, what’s most alarming is that the blessing of games in hand can quickly become a curse. Sporting KC begins a four-game road trip Saturday in Columbus and still has four mid-week games left in the season.
Fatigue has been an issue in Sporting KC’s last two games, and their schedule isn’t slowing down any time soon.
Then again, this could just be a classic case of MLS parity: Any team, regardless of record or the stakes, can win on any given night.
“That’s why you can never take any team or game easy,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said. “As I say all the time, we have respect for every team in the league because we know what can happen.”
Here are three thoughts on the rout:
1. First-half woes continue
Since July 24, Sporting KC has allowed eight first-half goals. That stat includes the three goals San Jose scored in the opening 45 minutes Wednesday.
Sporting KC has lucked out in four of the six matches during that stretch and earned a result, but Wednesday was a perfect example that if you play with fire, eventually you’ll get burned.
“What’s alarming is us giving away the ball the way we are. It’s more of that than anything else,” Vermes said. “Again, it’s in very poor spots. What is important is that players now need to understand that the mistakes we’re talking about are coming from them and what they’re doing out on the field. They need to be accountable and responsible for that aspect, and they’re the ones who need to step up and make sure that they are correcting it.
“There’s a lot of things I take on as the coach’s responsibility, but giving away the ball like this in the last two games is definitely something I don’t take responsibility for.”
Awareness seems to be a major factor here. Against both Vancouver and San Jose, it was clear what the visitors were trying to do. However, Sporting KC hasn’t seemed to lock in on that aspect to make adjustments. The Whitecaps funneled all their attacking concentration down the flanks while clogging passing lanes surrounding midfielder Benny Feilhaber. Meanwhile, San Jose was more than happy to sit back and wait for a poor pass to kick-start a counter.
On both occasions, Sporting KC failed to react.
2. Okugo struggles in his first start at defensive midfielder
Sporting KC has seen better performances at defensive midfielder than in its last two games.
Soni Mustivar against Vancouver and newcomer Amobi Okugo on Wednesday struggled to shield the backline and squash incoming attacks. But whereas Mustivar’s was simply the product of Roger Espinoza’s absence, Okugo’s seemed to be related to positioning and fitness.
“I actually thought he was okay,” Vermes said. “The problem is that he is not even close to being 90 minutes fit and he has to jump into a situation that’s very difficult for us based on (him) not having enough games to play with us in a short period of time.
“I don’t think that he was poor or bad or any of that. He just doesn’t have the gas tank yet to play fulltime for us, and that hurts him over the course of whatever time he plays because he just doesn’t have that engine yet. That’s what we have to build.”
What Vermes is saying about Okugo was evident. He was clearly fatigued at halftime and unaware of where his teammates were on the field. For the short term, that could be a problem as Mustivar battles a minor injury, but there’s no reason to jump off the Okugo ship yet. With enough time, Okugo can add quality depth defensively and a veteran presence come playoff time.
3. It’s one game
Sporting KC’s season outlook won’t change after Wednesday’s result.
Once the game reached 3-0, it was clear a comeback wasn’t feasible. San Jose isn’t a finesse team in the way Vancouver was Saturday. The Earthquakes are physical and not afraid to keep the pedal down, which didn’t bode well for a Sporting KC side light on its legs.
Sporting KC is still in the running for the MLS Supporter’s Shield and a top-three finish in the Western Conference. Vermes’ side is still filled with quality and includes some pieces returning down the road.
Yet, the team’s four-game road stretch coming up will be telling. When Sporting KC comes out of that, we’ll address macro-level concerns.
*Pointless because no one had even an okay game. Carry on.