The Full 90

Ask The Full 90: How will the U.S. fare during next month’s Copa America Centenario?

Midfielder Benny Feilhaber and Sporting Kansas City have been struggling.
Midfielder Benny Feilhaber and Sporting Kansas City have been struggling. AP

Whether you’re a negative Nancy, positive Pete or denial Daniel — silly names I came up with this week when taking questions for the mailbag — we can all agree that Sporting Kansas City’s recent form is not good.

The club’s start was promising enough, but since Sporting KC has bagged three points just twice in an 11-game span. The defense has made uncharacteristic mistake after uncharacteristic mistake and have a minus-three goal differential, while the attack has mostly sputtered in the final third, firing a league-high 196 shots with only 58 shots on goal to show for it.

There are 20 games and a little more than five months remaining in the 2016 season. There are also a couple transfer windows and a number of players returning from injury.

Whether you’re a negative Nancy, positive Pete or denial Daniel likely determines your outlook moving forward, and whether these factors — time, transactions and health — can have an affect on Sporting KC’s chances at another playoff berth.

May whatever personality you are guide you through this mailbag. Thanks again for your questions and for reading and interacting with The Full 90.

Onto the questions:

Ah, it’s about that time, isn’t it?

Look, it’s important to point out that there’s a clear fracture among U.S. soccer supporters at the moment. The men’s team was embarrassed at the Gold Cup last year, and the women continue to fight a divisive battle for better wages. Jurgen Klinsmann alone has lost any goodwill he had coming off the 2014 World Cup, with his team devoid of any sort of style or consistency when it comes to selecting a roster.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that my (and many others’) interest in U.S. Soccer is at an all-time low.

That said, the Copa America Centenario should refresh my feelings toward the national team. Regardless of how the U.S. team does during the tournament, seeing some of the world’s top soccer players play competitive national team games here on U.S. soil is the coolest thing short of actually hosting a World Cup. One of my best friends is taking his brother up to Chicago for one of Argentina’s group fixtures. He’s elated to finally get to watch Lionel Messi up close. And who could blame him? Stuff like this is what soccer is all about.

Anyhow, as for the U.S. team and its chances, they’re not exactly good. The team’s group is headlined by powerhouse Colombia and its star James Rodriguez. Paraguay’s veteran squad made up mostly of North and South American talent will be tough, and Costa Rica is certainly no slouch.

Realistically, the only shot the U.S. team has at advancing past the quarterfinals is to make it out of out Group A in the top spot. If they don’t, they’ll likely face Dani Alves and Brazil in the quarterfinals, and I give the U.S. team about a 2 percent shot at upsetting the Little Canary.

The U.S. team won’t have Jozy Altidore after the forward went down with another hamstring injury with Toronto FC. That changes the dynamic of their attack and how they use Clint Dempsey. Bobby Wood is coming off a phenomenal season with Hamburg in Germany, and could cement himself as a regular in the attack. Gyasi Zardes could also take the next step in his national team career during this tournament.

The Americans should be solid defensively if Klinsmann elects to play it safe with his pairings on the backline. That’s a big if. But I still foresee the team struggling to maintain possession and thus build-up chances consistently.

Success will ultimately come down to timely defending, excellent goalkeeping and putting away the one or two quality chances the U.S. team will have against the likes of Colombia and Paraguay.

It’s probably best to preface this response with an ounce of acknowledgment: it’s extremely hypocritical to scrutinize and analyze Sporting KC’s first third of the season and at the same time say things don’t matter until August. But this is Major League Soccer and hypocrisy tends to run rampant — intentional or not.

Anyhow, things really don’t matter until August.

This is problematic for a league that touts parity and competitiveness, because there really isn’t much up for grabs from April through July. The stakes are low and the intrigue level drops significantly. Clubs can dig themselves into an early hole, of course, which is the trajectory Sporting KC seems to be on at the moment, but never too deep they can’t climb out with a nice run of form in August and September.

There’s really only one team at the moment that everyone knows has no shot at the playoffs and that’s the Chicago Fire, which is retooling at essentially every level of its organization. Every other club has a realistic chance, though, including the Houston Dynamo, which sit last in the Western Conference. The Dynamo have two less wins than Sporting KC and are eight points from playoff contention.

At the moment, Sporting KC sits in seventh place with 17 points on the year, which trails the first-place Colorado Rapids* by 10 points. That gives the club a fair shot at either finishing the season in first place or last place.

*Who would’ve guessed that?!

Such a toss up is indicative of the problem MLS faces. Overcoming a 10-point deficit is both entirely possible and likely for a club over the course of a 34-game season, unless you’re the Chicago Fire of that specific year. And as long as a team can make that run when it counts during the second half of the season, it doesn’t matter what kind of hole you find yourself in come May or June.

That’s the reality of the situation for Sporting KC right now. We can follow trends, but until those negative trends start or continue to transpire in August and September, there really isn’t need for panicking.

No, and for two reasons:

1) Peter Vermes already did bench Feilhaber back on May 11 against the Colorado Rapids. The midfielder wasn’t listed on the injury report prior to the match and then wasn’t included in the game day selection at all. This coming after Vermes questioned the work ethic and desire of two or three players he wouldn’t name.

2) Feilhaber isn’t the problem right now. I wholeheartedly believe his drop-off this season is a result of teams clogging the midfield space, which of course is a direct correlation of Krisztian Nemeth leaving during the offseason. Perhaps Nemeth would’ve been better as a striker in Kansas City, but one thing he did well out wide was that he demanded attention and thus pulled opposing players from the middle of the field his way. That opened the door for Feilhaber to anticipate runs and make the ensuing passes that led to double-digit goals and assists.

Instead of benching Feilhaber, going out and finding a playmaker on the wing would be the smarter thing to do. Few players care as much as Feilhaber. Fewer players are as competitive. He’s still one of the best midfielders in the league; he simply could use some help.

Even when you dissect each performance, the pendulum swinging back and forth between Sporting KC’s success and failure has ultimately come down to those two factors – and those two factors only. I’m not an expert, so I don’t know what it takes to fix those mistakes, but they’re really the two things holding Sporting KC back thus far.

Rebuttal: Can that same shaman or witch doctor also play out on the wing?

A few short weeks ago, I would’ve told you not to be so quick in dismissing Rubio. I actually think he’s a talented young prospect who’s been tossed into some less than ideal situations so far in Kansas City.

But given Sporting KC’s struggles culminating in the desperate need for a playmaker out wide to alleviate pressure in the midfield, I suspect Vermes and Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman will look to allocate that $300,000 elsewhere.

Well, first off, you might want to tell Sporting KC not to waste time with the rest of the season seeing as they’re not making the playoffs.

Joking aside, I suspect the latter would be more likely. It’s hard to imagine the club parting ways with Vermes, who is not only the head coach but also technical director. Without big advertising dollars coming in like the L.A. Galaxy’s of the world, mid-level clubs such as Sporting KC must be frugal in their spending. To do so, you must begin with quality scouts. That’s where Vermes knocks it out of the park, and is also where Sporting KC would hurt without his services.

So, blowing up the roster. It’s a roster that’s beginning to age, yet it still has some intriguing pieces that could be traded. Among those names — and some may disagree — are Graham Zusi and Dom Dwyer. Both would pull interest within MLS and beyond, and could net a decent return while alleviating a significant amount of cap space. Feilhaber also has contract negotiations coming up on the horizon, which could yield similar results for and against the team’s cap figure.

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