If last year was the sports-movie ending of the KC soccer story, this year was the horror version. And New England’s Lee Nguyen was a combination of Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Jason and a guy who wears a stylish headband and warrior bun.
Over the last two months, Kansas City dropped out of the CONCACAF Champions League (ending a two-year run in the competition), slid from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference and limped out of the playoffs in the play-in game. And, for good measure, sit idly by as Seattle and Los Angeles battled for the Supporters’ Shield and watch the becoming of the New England Revolution as Eastern Conference powerhouse. (There’s that pesky Nguyen guy again. He just keeps popping up everywhere.)
The club’s defense of the 2013 MLS Cup came to an end against the New York Red Bulls last week. The 2-1 loss was the culmination of a months-long slide that saw Kansas City lose its last four games and nine of its last fifteen (including regular season, playoffs and CONCACAF Champions League).
After the loss to the Red Bulls, team captain Matt Besler told The Star the team executed their game plan for 80 minutes but “we ran out of steam in the last 10 minutes.”
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That’s an apt metaphor for this season.
In all competitions, Kansas City’s record was 17-17-8 this year. Before August 1, Kansas City’s record in all competitions was 12-6-5. Not completely convincing, but a solid and stable MLS record.
Since August 1? Well, that’s when the wheels totally fell off. Sporting won just five of its last 19 games (in all comps), allowing 28 goals — which is a shocking 1.5 goals per game for a team that spent the last two years averaging around 0.80 goals per game.
We all know the reasons:
Jimmy Nielsen retired. The team’s two biggest stars Matt Besler and Graham Zusi spent a month in Brazil. Oriol Rosell left for Portugal. Injuries ravaged the team and a once-deep roster was stretched thin trying to cope. Form dipped, luck ran out and the team’s confidence was shaken by a month of heavy losses to D.C. United, Houston and New England. Mistakes and turnovers became more common than Aurelien Collin headers and (thanks to a cast on his arm) Besler’s long throw-ins.
What’s more, opponents started to figure out how to attack Peter Vermes’ high-pressure system and the loss of key players to Europe finally caught up with the team.
And, now, Sporting Kansas City heads into an offseason very much in a state of transition with an expansion draft looming, several players (Claudio Bieler, Collin, C.J. Sapong and even Dom Dwyer*) potentially on their way out and the team in need of (potentially costly) reinforcements for the move out West.
*Don’t read too much into Dwyer’s social media posts. I include him in this list because he’s drawn interest from Europe before.
Unfortunately, the timing of this transition comes at the same time the league is making a large transition itself.
This was Sporting KC’s last year in the Eastern Conference. As Orlando City and New York City FC arrive (and Chivas USA departs), Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo will head West to even out the conferences. The West is loaded with quality teams and will prove to be a starkly different challenge for Sporting.
What’s more, this offseason will see collective bargaining talks which, potentially, could change the power dynamics (not to mention potentially adjust the roster structure, player-movement mechanics and salary cap implications) of the entire league.
As these talks progress, players looking to sign new contracts — or find new homes inside the league — might wait to see how the financial situation plays out first. If that happens, it could take some of the bargaining power (at least temporarily) away from teams like Kansas City that like to do business early in the offseason.
But before we delve into what happened (coming Wednesday) and what might happen next (Thursday), we should probably establish context and perspective.
From a statistical perspective, not a whole lot changed from 2013 to 2014. According to WhoScored.com, KC’s possession (55%) and passing success (80%) were slightly better per game than last year (54% and 78%, respectively). Shots per game were slightly down (14.6 to 13.8) while shots allowed went up (9 to 10.3).
Kansas City’s attacking and build-up style didn’t drastically change either — the 2013 and ’14 teams averaged the exact same number of crosses per game (19), one more long ball per game (69 to 68) and the exact same number of open-play goals (28) and set-piece goals (12). Overall, Kansas City scored only one more goal (48) than last year.
It might sound simple, but it’s also fairly true: Some years, it just isn’t your year.
Last year, Kansas City was really good basically the entire season en route to winning the MLS Cup. But, KC also got a few fortuitous breaks.
Consider the breaks KC got in the playoffs alone:
▪ New England’s goalkeeper making a poor decision to make a long throw in extra time (intercepted by Benny Feilhaber who set up Claudio Bieler’s game winner).
▪ New York and Portland falling early in the playoffs, opening the door for an MLS Cup at Sporting Park.
▪ Houston’s goalkeeper Tally Hall reacting a split second too late on Dom Dwyer’s goal in the Eastern Conference final.
▪ Aurelien Collin not getting sent off against Real Salt Lake for a second yellow in the MLS Cup — and then going on to score the game-tying goal and Cup-winning penalty.
Luck is often a gigantic factor in the playoffs. (See also The Royals and March Madness.)
Luck has proven a big factor in the regular season. The league is built on parity and long spells of dominance are just not as sustainable as many would hope.
Consider that D.C. United rose from worst team in the league in 2013 to first in the East this year. New York and Kansas City (first and second respectively in the East in 2013) fell off by just nine points apiece, but wound up in the play-in game this year. Houston, who faced KC in the playoffs the last three seasons, didn’t even qualify this time around.
Portland won the West last year, but missed the playoffs this year. And the three best teams (points-wise) over the last three seasons — Seattle, 172 points; Kansas City, 170; and Los Angeles, 168 — have all been in the play-in game at least once during that stretch.
Also, before this moment passes by, let us not forget that Vermes and KC patched together a pretty remarkable eight-game unbeaten streak this summer. Those sort of runs get remembered if a team succeeds and wins a trophy, but forgotten if things go south.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the ravages of injury and what the loss of Oriol Rosell meant to KC’s style of play.