Scrambling to piece together a lineup prior to Saturday’s contest at the Chicago Fire, Sporting KC boss Peter Vermes was forced to construct a starting XI unlike any other he’s used over the past few seasons. Between injuries and national team call-ups, SKC was without Julio Cesar (starting center back), Michael Harrington (starting right back), Shavar Thomas (defender), Luke Sassano (defender), Kei Kamara (starting forward), and Ryan Smith (forward).
Vermes did the best he could by sliding left back Roger Espinoza into the center of defense alongsde Matt Besler, and sticking underachieving Chance Myers at left back, with newbie Scott Lorenz at the right back spot. Also, Vermes used a 4-4-2 formation instead of the normal 4-3-3.
Recipe for disaster? Yeah, kind of…
Chicago came out the more aggressive side in the first ten minutes, dictating the flow of the game and holding the majority of the possession. But KC gradually found their footing and the sides looked somewhat equal just prior to Chicago’s first goal, which came on a questionable penalty and red card.
As SKC attacked pushing men up the field, Chicago regained possession and played a long ball through the heart of Sporting’s defense finding a streaking Gaston Puerari. Showing his commitment and work ethic, striker Omar Bravo worked to catch the striker – and did – but contacted Puerari slightly with his left arm and at the same time, lunged at the ball, which Bravo contacted cleanly, clearing it over the end line.
The linesman immediately called for a corner, but after a lengthy consultation with the other officials, and a heated debate with many SKC players, a penalty was awarded and Bravo was issued a red card. From the replay, it is clear that Bravo contacted the ball cleanly, and certainly he touched Puepari in the upper body a bit, but probably not enough to even call it a foul, let alone a red card-able offense.
Vermes was irate, and he hadn’t changed his mind by the time the post-game interviews were conducted. "“It’s not a red card, it is not even a penalty," lamented Vermes. "Omar goes in, and at the same time he’s giving the guy a little shoulder and he kicks the ball out-of-bounds himself. The guy didn’t even take a shot. The [linesman] points to the corner, not to a penalty. Okay, so the center referee always takes precedence over the other guys, but he has to be 100% sure. So not only does he turn it into a penalty, but a red card. Now you’re already behind the eight ball, not once but twice. So it really changed the outcome of the game I think, that call in itself."
Despite going down to ten men, SKC battled admirably the remainder of the match, notching two goals of their own. The first came from defender Matt Besler on an unconventional corner that was first played short to the corner of the box, then back in to the far post, taking advantage of the Fire back line’s attempt to step their lineup.
Also getting on the scorecard was Teal Bunbury, who gave SKC a real lift off the bench. He seems to pair very nicely with rookie CJ Sapong. Teal took advantage of a bad back pass from a Fire defender, stealing the ball and professionally finishing his breakaway chance.
But two goals was not enough to make up for a couple defensive lapses that led to two more goals for Chicago. The Fire tallied their second goal when new SKC acquisition Milos Stojchev failed to step up with the rest of the KC back line and kept Puerari onside. A little slip through, and Puerari did not waste his 1 v 1 chance. Similar to the mistake made by Sapong last week which also led to a goal, these kinds of mental mistakes are simply unacceptable.
Chicago’s third goal left the KC defensive line looking confused. Fire striker Marco Pappa received the ball in the middle and proceeded to dribble his way through four or five KC defenders before burying a low shot in the corner of the net. Communication seemed an issue on this play, as several Sporting defenders seemed to back off, thinking that someone else would challenge for the ball. But no one did, and Pappa waltzed his way right through the center of the defense to put Chicago in firm control. Even he was a bit surprised, saying, "It was a lucky goal because the ball bounced off my foot about seven times. When I saw the ball in front of me, I took the shot and I was happy it went in.”
So what can Sporting take away from this match, which was overshadowed by an iffy red card that took away the best player on the team, Omar Bravo, and a few more of those pesky defensive lapses? “If you look at the way we battled back, it’s a positive. It hurts to lose. That’s never good," said Matt Besler. "If you’re going to try and take something out of the game, it’s the way we battled back with ten men and made it a game."
On a side note, team captain Davy Arnaud picked up his second yellow card in as many games for committing a bad intentional foul that could have easily been a red card. Knowing that he was beat on a give and go, Arnaud side kicked the man making the run as he came through, making contact high on the thigh of the Chicago player.
At this point, I have to question if Arnaud is the right man for the captaincy. He showed last year his tendency for being a hot head, picking up unnecessary cards and putting his team at a disadvantage. Add to that the fact that he has often become invisible on the field over the last season and beginning of this one – not a trait you want to see in a center midfielder.
Sporting Kansas City’s next game is this Saturday, April 2nd, at the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps. The game is at 6 pm, and will be televised locally by KSMO-TV.