Sporting KC is the dark horse no one is talking about

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The end to the last three seasons have come in brutal fashion for Sporting Kansas City.

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In 2014, it was a 90th-minute goal that knocked the team out of the playoffs. The following year, the famous double-post penalty shootout in Portland saw Sporting eliminated. Last season, it was a heartbreaking 1-0 loss, again to the eventual champion, on an 88th-minute goal that was Seattle’s first shot on target.

Three consecutive early exits from the playoffs – even in the brutal fashion by which they occurred – would tempt some clubs to blow up the core of a team that has been together for several years now. There is a window to rebuild, and as the saying goes, it’s better to make moves a year early than a year late. Of course, moving on too soon can also be a mistake.

You have to have a plan and an idea of what you want to do, and you have to have a model of play. I think we have that

- Peter Vermes

The reaction hinges on how you perceive Sporting Kansas City. Is it a team that makes the playoffs every year, but can’t reach much higher? Or is it a club that’s been oh-so-close and, with a bit of luck, could have been perceived as one of the powerhouses of the West?

If one round of the playoffs was the peak of the team – an easy narrative to form around Sporting, if you look at the results without considering the circumstances – a blowup is the answer. If not … well, you take a different route. A team on the cusp is still on the outside looking in, but maybe only needs a slight push.

Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes wasn’t convinced a rebuild needed to happen. The core of the team – Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza, Benny Feilhaber and Dom Dwyer – can still be plenty productive, he said. The pieces around them just needed some upgrades.

“I don’t think I, nor the organization, panic,” Vermes told FourFourTwo. “First and foremost, you have to have a plan and an idea of what you want to do, and you have to have a model of play. I think we have that … The last three years, unlucky or whatever you want to call it, we were right there on the edge in a couple of those situations. We have a good group of guys, you’ve just got to look and see if you can add something that will be advantageous and beneficial and might be something different in the team to complement the guys we have.”

The result is an offseason that has somehow gone under the radar. Sporting Kansas City looks on paper to be one of the most improved teams in the league and a true MLS Cup contender. Vermes added pace and potential game-breaking ability on the wings in Ghanaian goal-scorer Latif Blessing and Designated Player Gerso Fernandes. That pair should help SKC press high and push the tempo, as it has done in the past. Sporting also signed a player in Ilie Sanchez who could give the midfield the same balance and bite once provided by former holding midfielder Ori Rosell.

Vermes said he knows it will take time for those three players to be smoothly integrated into the side, but he thinks each has some “really good qualities that fit into the team and can help us.” Sanchez, in particular, is a player Sporting identified several years ago and waited to sign until he came at the right price.

“He definitely fits the characteristics we look for that position on the field,” Vermes said. “He has the ability and propensity to have a major impact.”

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Sporting lacked the service and pace on the wings as Zusi and Brad Davis fought through injuries. As a result, the team was too reliant on its play through the middle and had to find new ways to create and put teams off kilter. The team couldn’t get in behind by stretching the opposition sideline-to-sideline. Everyone suffered as a result.

The balance looks to be there in Sporting’s roster.

We’re a small market in the middle of the country that nobody pays attention to … it’s not like we don’t have a perspective on it.

- Vermes

Zusi will slide to right back, which he played with the United States men’s national team, and an Ike Opara-Besler pairing at center back has proved successful in the past. Erik Palmer-Brown provides some solid depth. In midfield, Sanchez allows Roger Espinoza and Benny Feilhaber to work higher up the field, while Dwyer should have more help than he has seen in past seasons. Fernandes and Blessing will stretch things again.

In a conference with heavyweights like Seattle, FC Dallas and the LA Galaxy, Sporting has flown a bit under the radar for now. That doesn’t surprise Vermes, and it also doesn’t bother him. At the start of a new season, it’s all about ensuring what looks good on paper translate to something that produces on the field.

“We’re a small market in the middle of the country that nobody pays attention to,” Vermes said. “We know that. But we also know it’s not an easy road for us, and we have to work harder and work more and work smarter than teams at certain moments. We’re not immune to that; it’s not like we don’t have a perspective on it. We sure do, but we’ve got to go out and play well and have good results, and eventually we’ll get some attention.”

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.