5 reasons why Sporting KC might be Major League Soccer's best team
There has been lots of buzz through the first seven weeks of the Major League Season about how dazzling Columbus and Portland are, why we ought to be watching Orlando City and Atlanta United, and how Supporters' Shield-holder FC Dallas might again be the league's best side.
It is all compelling stuff, and the Crew, Timbers and FCD sit squarely among the true trophy hunters. But there’s a strong case to be made that the best team in MLS, at least at this moment, is one that has failed to score in half its games.
Everything else has gone nearly perfectly for Sporting Kansas City (3-0-3), and the attack -- led by future U.S. national team striker Dom Dwyer -- is starting to find its focus as Peter Vermes' side maneuvers through the meatiest stretch of its schedule.
SKC follows last weekend's 1-0 triumph at Western Conference leader Portland with a showdown Saturday night at FC Dallas (3-0-2), MLS' only other unbeaten team. Looming is six games in 22 days, including treks to Minnesota, Orlando and Vancouver.
Vermes, the league's longest-tenured manager, has a bulldog of a team, one that somewhat resembles the former U.S. national-teamer's profile. Sporting aggravates foes like none other. That's a Vermes staple, but this year there's superior quality complements that approach. It’s a product of a few deft offseason pickups and a little bit of rearranging, especially along the backline, as SKC looks to stem three years of successive knockout-round playoff defeats.
It's the most complete side Vermes has constructed, one that's fluid and explosive in attack while permitting opponents little space to penetrate. Best in MLS? It’s certainly possible. Here are five reasons why:
The biggest difference between the three seasons leading to Sporting's 2013 title and the three campaigns that have followed: 30 goals conceded. Sporting allowed less than a goal per game in 2011-13, but inconsistent defending has since cost them plenty of points. Last year's team hit the stretch run by surrendering multiple goals six times in eight games, nearly costing it a playoff berth.
Vermes, MLS' Defender of the Year in 2000 with the Kansas City Wizards, has rebuilt his backline and the primary presence just in front of the four. There's been a marked difference.
The only newcomer among these is Spanish holding midfielder Ilie Sanchez, who has made an immediate presence in the No. 6 role. He's a tenacious defender with a playmaker's ball skills, and his link-up play and passing from deep have provided the fulcrum for the SKC attack.
The lone new face along the backline is Graham Zusi, whose move to right back seems to be coming along nicely. No surprise, he is already as good an attacking outside back as exists in MLS, and he's making quick progress as a defender -- a must if he's going to contribute to the national team.
Defensive turnaround began last October, when Vermes restored Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic to the left side of the backline for the final two regular-season games, both shutouts, and the playoff defeat to Seattle. They had a history together, and the numbers are telling. In 20 starts together since the beginning of the 2015 season, K.C. has conceded 0.75 goals per game. In 54 when one or both haven't been there, it's 1.35.
Most important: Ike Opara, who nearly stepped away from the game in 2015 after injury ended his season for the fourth time in six years. He’s leaner, fitter and quicker than he’s ever been, and he’s confident following his fittest campaign, having posted career highs in games (25), starts (16) and minutes (1,542). He and Besler have been terrific in the middle. If he can stay healthy, who is to say he can’t be an option for the U.S. men’s national team?
Sporting KC expertly defends the entire field and hasn't conceded a goal in the first 90 minutes of eight straight MLS regular-season games. Nobody's given up fewer shots this year (about 8.5 per game), let alone goals.
Tim Melia has been superb in the nets, with at least one wonderful save in nearly every game. His leap to push Darlington Nagbe's blast onto the crossbar last weekend is required viewing, and his teammates have cleared three balls off the goal line.