In Part One, we dealt with the broad overview of Sporting Kansas City’s situation headed into the offseason — statistical context and some perspective. Today, it’s time to get into the meat of the troubles.
Basically, injuries sabotaged this season. From the very beginning of the year Peter Vermes was forced into shuffling his starting lineup nearly every game and relying on several unproven youngsters in key spots. Suddenly a very deep MLS team just … wasn’t.
This season was rough on Kansas City not just because it stretched the roster, but because it rattled the team’s consistency. During his tenure with Kansas City, Vermes has shown a preference to rolling the same lineups over from game to game — especially if that lineup is working.
Consistency helps with execution and building confidence. For much of August and September, the shuffling caught up to a KC squad that appeared to lack confidence and struggled to execute their game plan.*
*Specifically, that draining stretch of poor results against D.C. United, Houston and New England. Those games were mistake-filled games played without much confidence.
“It just kind of snowballed for us a little bit. The confidence wasn’t there,” Graham Zusi told The Star. “I think our team, as a whole, started making little mistakes late in the season that we usually don’t make, and we got punished for it.”
In that same article, Matt Besler tells Sam McDowell that he thinks the team “ran out of gas.” (A theory I also postulated in a preview before the last regular season game.)
As covered in part one, Sporting won just five of its last 19 games in all competitions. Like a hurdler tripping during the middle of the race, Kansas City managed to get up and finish, but the damage had already been done.
Major League Soccer is a complicated beast and depth comes at a premium. Teams can only have 30 players on the roster and can only spend a little over $3 million on 20 senior-roster players. Vermes used nearly every single player at least once, with 30 different players appearing and 31 different starting lineups combinations in league play. Christian Duke, Michael Kafari and Victor Munoz are the only players currently on the roster to not log an MLS appearance. (Gardner, Mechack Jerome and Alex Martinez all played in the league but were released during the season.)
Vermes wasn’t afraid to play his kids, but the fall-off from an MLS regular (such as Chance Myers, Matt Besler and Paulo Nagamura) to an untested player adjusting to the league (such as Igor Juliao, Erik Palmer-Brown and Mikey Lopez) at times proved fairly steep.
The crisis has been most noticeable in the defense. The MLS Cup-winning back four of Myers, Aurelien Collin, Besler and Sinovic — league destroyers for the better part of two years —played just four games together this year. Four! Sporting KC played less than 15 league games with only half of those four players available.
The first big loss was Myers, who missed more than a third of a season with an Achilles injury.
Bizarrely, his absence sort of proved the worth of his new contract signed before the season started. It took him a few years to get there, but he’s a very dependable and solid two-way fullback. His ability to stay connected to the often wandering Collin (who had an erratic season and was benched temporarily this summer) was something his replacement, Juliao, struggled to figure out. Teams often exploited the gap between him and Collin in defense, as the two often seemed unsure of how to work together to keep opposing attackers covered.
I don’t think this team loses its defensive confidence if Myers played 28 games this year.
Besler, the heart and soul of the team and captain, wasn’t the same player after the World Cup. He was (like the whole defense) mistake prone and very out of sync with Collin. Some of that might be injury related. He picked up a hamstring injury during the Cup, broke a bone in his left hand this summer and then suffered a right thigh contusion (the same leg as the hamstring injury) in a U.S. friendly. Those knocks and a brutal 22 months without a break took a toll on the captain.
Sinovic, like Besler, appeared fatigued for long stretches. Over the last two years, those two guys have seen a lot of action: Sinovic has appeared in 79 games (and played 7,208 minutes) over the last two seasons and Besler, adding in his U.S. national team service, has played in 82 games (7,191 minutes).
Lastly with the defenders, the injury to Ike Opara hasn’t been talked about as much as the injury to Myers, but it was just as important. Last season, Opara was a vital part of the defense. He made 18 league appearances as the main backup to both Collin and Besler. He gave the team recovery speed and aerial dominance. According to WhoScored.com’s ranking system, Opara had the highest average rating (7.77) in the league for a player with a minimum of 15 games played.
Having an experienced back-up who knows the system and can replicate many of the traits of the starters is invaluable in this league.* Opara surely would’ve been a regular during Besler’s absence and maybe could have pushed Collin for a starter’s spot as well, but he made just three appearances this year before a foot injury took him out in April.
*You could probably make a convincing argument that, had Opara been available this summer, Besler might have had a chance to fully rest and recover for the home stretch.
Instead, Vermes had to turn to a teenager (Palmer-Brown, who also would get hurt twice this year) and convert Ellis (a fullback by trade) into a makeshift defender.
Losing both experienced goalkeepers — Eric Kronberg and Andy Gruenebaum — for long stretches this summer didn’t help matters either.
But this can’t totally be laid at the feet of uncontrollable injuries.
The transfer of Oriol Rosell (a key midfield cog) in May, Juliao’s struggles to learn the nuances of two-way fullback play, a lack of suitable midfield backups, and the failure of guys like Sal Zizzo and C.J. Sapong to develop into a consistent athletic presence on the wing were major factors in the team’s slide too.
You could also point to Soony Saad not fully developing into a starter despite two years of promising spells with the starting lineup. Saad made 22 appearances this year (with 3 goals), but only 9 starts (down from 15 last year). Kansas City — and Dom Dwyer — needed more help up top.
But not having Uri around hurt the most. (And was multiplied without Nagamura healthy during the summer and Myers out after May.)
The Spaniard allowed Kansas City to possess calmly and also attack aggressively. That “also” is important. Without a bridge between those two gears, KC’s transition game suffered and the team became stuck in between. Often, the team would go too far in one direction without proper modulation. The balance a midfield desperately needs was missing.
There’s a single game that stands out to me in the Rosell archives: Kansas City 3, Montreal 0 back in May. In that game against the overmatched Impact, SKC controlled 78 percent of the ball (the highest number in the league since Opta started tracking in 2011) and completed a staggering 92% of its passes too (also tops in MLS since 2011). Rosell was the engine behind that, completing an eye-popping 160 passes (out of 166!). That’s also an MLS record. He absolutely controlled the tempo and, when Rosell was in control of the team’s tempo, Kansas City usually controlled the game.
He brought this same sort of control to KC’s defensive plan too. (Archive alert: I wrote a lot about Uri in 2013. I really, really liked what Uri did for this team and in this league.)
When I listed the statistical similarities in Part One, I left out two big glaring differences from ‘13 o ‘14 to save for this section. In 2014, Kansas City allowed 11 more goals (41) than last year (30) and averaged nearly six less interceptions per game. Those are two big, big drops.
Last year, Kansas City led the league in interceptions per game (23.2) and goals allowed but fell to 16.5 interceptions and middle-of-the-pack in goals allowed this year. Interceptions are important for a high-press team, it’s what keeps the ball from getting in behind the high defensive line.
Rosell, patrolling the area just above the defensive line and behind the midfielders, averaged at least four interceptions per game in 2013. Along with Collin and Opara, KC had three of the top six in the league.
Lawrence Olum (the more regular fill-in) and Jorge Claros (the not-completely-convincing summer replacement*) both struggled to impact the game in the same way as Rosell, which led to Feilhaber often dropping deeper to help the team transition into attack or Collin/Besler pushing up higher to help attack an opponent’s passing lanes. (Go re-watch the highlights from the D.C. United game to see this happen over and over and over again.)
*The other summer midfield replacements Kafari and Martin Steuble didn’t see enough of the field to be convincing. I think Claros can do with a preseason learning to adjust to Kansas City’s complicated scheme. He’s a proven player and a World Cup veteran who might just be the long-term answer in 2015.
Soccer is a team sport that requires all 11 players on the field to play together at a high level and there were many problems that struck the team this year. But Vermes had slowly rebuilt the team’s tactical approach around the skill-set that Rosell (combined with Feilhaber) brought to the team this year — more possession and build up through the middle. Without Rosell, the team struggled to rediscover that identity with any authority and completely lost control of the midfield down the stretch. Thus, the slide.
Uri was that important.
Vermes brought Uri in as an unheralded product of the Barcelona academy. He sold him to a European Champions League team. Can he use the money the team got from his sale and the club’s scouting network to find another player like him?
Coming in Part Three, exploring the knowns, unknowns and known unknowns that lie ahead this offseason.