Remember when Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes was considered a dead man walking?
It seems so distant, but in reality it was about two and a half months ago. Sporting was mired in a horrific road trip and struggled to earn any points. Players worked hard, but confessed that always being “the enemy” was starting to sap their energy.
After a particularly lackluster showing, club president Robb Heineman called in unannounced to 810 Sports and admitted live and on the air that the team was underperforming. He stopped just short of calling SKC’s performance embarrassing, but he did mention that anything short of the playoffs could/would result in heads rolling.
That was then…
After Sunday night’s crucial 1-0 win over DC United – one that many Sporting players called the biggest game of the year – KC find themselves sitting in second place in the Eastern Conference, solidly in the playoffs if the season were to end today.
How have Sporting KC done it? Is the turnaround solely the result of finally getting to play some home games in their new stadium? Certainly, that is a huge part of it.
Since opening LIVESTRONG, KC has lost there only once, and that loss was fluky as hell, with Seattle scoring two goals in stoppage time to win 2-1 after trailing all game long.
The raucous atmosphere provided consistently by the Cauldron and 15,000 other fans does make a difference. Almost everyone, from players to coaches to commentators, has taken notice not only of the volume of the chants, but also of the quality of the stadium.
After Sunday’s game, DC United goalkeeper Joe Willis almost got aroused when asked about LIVESTRONG:
“The stadium is unbelievable, it’s the best I’ve ever seen in the MLS. I loved playing here, but unfortunately the night didn’t turn out the way we wanted. It was a cool stadium and a cool experience. “
So that’s that. But more important is the way Sporting is playing right now. Let me explain.
Peter Vermes’ first full season as head coach was last year, and he decided that SKC would play an up-tempo, aggressive brand of attacking soccer, focusing on getting his players as far up the pitch as early and often as possible.
Vermes’ teams would no longer be content to let the other team possess the ball and knock it around the back. No, the opposing defenders would constantly be put under pressure, forcing them to make quick decisions that lead to turnovers in KC’s attacking third. Naturally, he needed some speedy and athletic attackers to do this job, so last year he drafted Teal Bunbury, and this year CJ Sapong. Then throw into that mix Kei Kamara and Omar Bravo.
This approach was an adjustment from the previous regime, and it took some players awhile to adjust to the new system. Some never did, according to All Star defender Matt Besler, and they were sent packing.
"I think this year we understand what he [Vermes] wants from us and we understand what it takes to get to the next level, so we’re all on the same page this year," said Besler of the high pressure philosophy. "Anytime you have change, there’s just some guys who don’t do well with change…" Besler paused contemplatively for a second, before biting his tongue and adding simply, "Yeah… yeah."
Now that the dead weight has been cut, it’s remarkably easy to see Vermes’ vision coming to fruition on the field. The club is playing an exciting, attractive brand of soccer that makes the memory of some of the debacles I witnessed over the past few years at Community America Ballpark seem like ancient history.
Even friends who love soccer but begrudgingly followed the Wizards the past few years are impressed. You know the ones, guys who wake up early on the weekend to catch all the EPL action. Guys who record La Liga games and watch them over and over. Guys who post on message boards like BigSoccer.com. Guys who have worn out three controllers playing FIFA2011. Guys that own several scarves.
You know, those guys.
But even they’re coming around. One of these guys recently went so far as to say that Sporting “is an exciting team to watch.”
That’s some high praise right there, especially when you think way back to last season when they were playing on a postage stamp, amassing an 11-13-6 record, and missing the playoffs.
And I couldn’t agree more. Are there still some issue? For sure (I’m looking at you Teal).
But is Sporting Kansas City the best pro team in KC right now, with the most legitimate shot at making a deep playoff run?