Strong's Notes: Here They Come

John Strong examines the unbeaten phenomenon of Sporting Kansas City

Kei Kamara, Sporting Kansas city

Photo Credit: 
(Getty Images)

After an MLS-era record fourth straight loss, the Timbers continue their search for a light at the end of the tunnel as they host Sporting Kansas City Saturday night (7:30 pm PT, ROOT SPORTS, Freedom 970La Pantera 940 AM). To say Kansas City is the best team in MLS right now might be a bit of an understatement, but just as all good things must come to an end, the Timbers are hoping that end coincides with a bad thing coming to an end as well.

Sporting Superlatives
I kicked off last week’s LA Galaxy preview with a stream of consciousness about their historically bad start, which worked horribly. So let’s see if we can do a reverse-jinx on Sporting KC with how good they are right now!

Their 7-0-0 start is the best in MLS since the Galaxy started  the league’s inaugural season in 1996 with 12 straight wins (though only the first eight of those in regulation, before winning the ninth in the old shootout); in Wednesday’s 3-1 win over Vancouver, Sporting’s shutout streak ended at 415 minutes—almost four games—the longest in MLS this year; and, in their previous game, a 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake, their ridiculous streak of 335 minutes without allowing a shot on goal (!!!) came to an end, nearly doubling the previous record.

So clearly this team is really, really, really good right now. But how? How can a team that entered last season with two playoff appearances in the previous six years, and was 1-6-4 to start 2011, have become the arguably the best in MLS over the last calendar year?

Sporting’s System
Part of that answer is that coach Peter Vermes—who played for the US in the 1990 World Cup—has implemented a system somewhat unique in MLS, and assembled and formed the personnel to run it to perfection.

KC’s high tempo, high pressure 4-3-3 system isn’t that unlike the Oregon Ducks’ offense under Chip Kelly, or the Phoenix Suns’ offense under Mike D’Antoni a few years ago. Simply put, the idea is to pressure the opponent high up the field, not only minimizing defending by keeping the ball upfield, but also winning it in the attacking half, and turning that into quick goalscoring chances. When you combine that with an extra man on the forward line than most teams have, a playmaker emerging as one of the best in MLS, and a pair of outside backs—swashbuckling fullbacks as the English are wont to say—flying upfield to add a late punch, it’s a hard combination to deal with.

The key to withstanding Sporting Kansas City, let alone defeating them, is keeping composed and calm on the ball; not giving away cheap turnovers; being organized defensively to deal with the different types of numbers they throw at you; and taking your attacking chances when you get them (did I mention goalkeeper Jimmy Nielson has the second-best goals against average in MLS history for guys who have played at least two seasons???).

Sporting’s Stability
Of course, it would be unfair to just chalk up KC’s success to a system; it’s the players who execute. Center forward C.J. Sapong is being called perhaps the most complete combination of size, speed, and skill at that position in MLS; Kei Kamara and a rejuvenated Bobby Convey are heaping pressure on from the outsides; Graham Zusi is leading MLS in assists; Roger Espinoza is one of the best midfield enforcers in the league; Julio Cesar brings more than a decade of top-level European experience; Nielson, as mentioned, is one of the top ‘keepers around; and centerback Aurelien Collin is adding a cult following for his Internet videos to an already effective defensive game.

What’s also helped coach Vermes out is that he’s been able to keep his Starting XI pretty much intact this year: through seven games, he’s made exactly two lineup changes. By contrast, the Timbers have adjusted their lineups nine different ways through as many games. However, they’re faced with a tough situation Saturday night: they’ll be playing their third game in eight days after Wednesday’s win in Vancouver, one in which they had to expend extra energy in the final ten minutes. With a few guys carrying knocks, does Vermes send out a potentially fatigued crew? Or reach into the depth of a bench that hasn’t seen a ton of time this season?

Saturday night will provide the answers.