Sporting Kansas City’s one-week break from the rigors of fitness tests and scrimmages is coming to a close, and the club is set to depart for Tucson, Arizona, on Sunday for the second wave of preseason camp.
The second stint out West features the Desert Diamond Cup, a more formal event from the closed-door scrimmages held throughout the first wave. Fans will have a chance to catch the action via streams as Sporting KC, its USL side Swope Park Rangers and six other teams begin to take form for their upcoming seasons.
Preseason games, used elsewhere in the sports world as means to shake off rust, provide an interesting platform for soccer managers to tinker with their personnel in a way that is riskier come time for the regular season. Peter Vermes has especially enacted some intriguing story lines in preseason’s past thanks to such moves.
That all said, here’s what Sporting KC fans should watch for in the upcoming Desert Diamond Cup:
Last preseason, Vermes dropped a bombshell by announcing a possible move away from the 4-3-3. It was something he said he long wanted to try but didn’t have the personnel for.
What we inevitably saw was a variation of the 4-3-3 attacking style. The 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-2-1 formation was designed to take advantage of Sporting KC’s depth in the midfield by crowding it. The idea was to provide support behind Benny Feilhaber so he could roam up the field to help link up with Dom Dwyer. As some may recall, this was important because Dwyer was often left on an island in 2014 due the space between he and the rest of the midfield.
This first transition was (mostly) successful. It gave Graham Zusi the freedom to exploit space and defensive weaknesses (where as a winger, he was stuck to a certain quadrant), and it gave Krisztian Nemeth an opportunity to drift into the middle of the field without having to worry about leaving too much space behind him.
Another formation seen was the 3-5-2, which Sporting KC tended to naturally drift into back in 2012 and 2013 with Oriol Rosell shielding the backline. The formation’s lifespan didn’t last long, though, without a true presence out wide.
It all dwindles down to this: Formations are simple geometry, and Vermes can utilize the high press no matter what tactic he employs. The 4-3-3 will be at the heart of what Sporting KC tries to do this season, but no one enjoys tinkering in preseason more than Vermes.
Formation shakeups will also allow us to analyze just what kind of high press we should expect this season. In 2015, Sporting KC backed off the frantic press and settled into trapping the ball more toward the midfield. While I don’t expect that to change much this year, Vermes’ growing trust in Soni Mustivar (and the return of Lawrence Olum) could lead to a longer leash in terms of the press.
Wide open spaces*
*Yes, this is a reference to 1998 hit country song by the Dixie Chicks. Yes, I’m somewhat ashamed of using it.
Dom Dwyer’s (relatively) quiet 2015 left many doubting his ability moving forward to recapture the form that made him among the top performers in MLS two seasons ago. In fact, I’ve noticed it to be an obsession among Sporting KC fans this offseason.
Of course, arguments can be made to back up such claims, but I’m not yet sold on any of them. Should anyone expect Dwyer to net 24 goals across all competitions again? Probably not. However, those who are ready to write him off forget that much of last season’s struggles didn’t even have to do with him.
Rather, it had to do with poor, poor, poor* spacing in the final third.
*Did I mention poor? Because it was poor.
Without a natural winger on either side of the field, most of Sporting KC’s offense in the final third was funneled toward Dwyer in the middle of the field. This has been well-documented, but it meant two or more defenders were being pulled toward Dwyer at any given time, limiting his effectiveness to set up shots or get the easy tap-ins that forwards such as Kei Kamara and Chris Wondolowski routinely put away.
This shouldn’t be as big of an issue in 2016. No one drifted into the midfield more than Nemeth and Marcel de Jong. Nemeth is long gone in Qatar, and reports say de Jong is out in Kansas City. In are Justin Mapp and Brad Davis, two players who can work with their foot near the chalk and free up space for Dwyer to work with in the middle of the field.
Who goes where (on and off the field)?
On paper, Sporting KC’s starting XI should look like this …
… but not so fast. In the first wave of preseason play, Vermes elected to go with Zusi on the left and Mapp/Davis on the right. Zusi has experience on both sides of the field, and Mapp is arguably better on the right side, but many thought Davis’ left foot would make him an easy candidate on the left side.
A situation like this is what preseason games are for. Expect Vermes to tinker and work guys at different positions. Some will work out for the long-term. Some will crash and burn. Some will even work out but won’t be seen again. It’s just the nature of preseason.
This type of personnel shuffling will extend off the field, too. We’re still waiting to see whether de Jong, Bernardo Anor and Amobi Okugo will be in Kansas City next season; Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman has interest in bringing in at least one more option from overseas; then, let’s not forget the club’s affiliation with Swope Park Rangers, which means a handful of players will go one loan to start the year (my guess: Daniel Salloi, Jon Kempin and Connor Hallisey).*
*Expect Sporting KC to head into the regular season with 26 or 27 players on its roster. This will allow the club to have some room to work with in the transfer window, or if a Tommy Meyer of Swope Park Rangers emerges and deserves a call-up (such move would be made by signing the USL player to an MLS contract.
Personnel moves are far from over, and who’s going where (on and off the field) will be telling throughout the Desert Diamond Cup, which kicks off on Feb. 17 against Columbus Crew SC.