The numbers aren’t impressive, even if there are a lot of them. A 3-5-4 record, last year; a 3-3-4 mark, the year before. In 2015, Sporting Kansas City went 5-7-3 after the calendar turned to August, and the year prior, the team went 3-8-2 over the final months of the season.
Sporting has established itself as a consistent contender in MLS, albeit one with an evolving reputation. Since winning MLS Cup in 2013, Peter Vermes’ team has made the playoffs every season, but they’ve also failed to advance, every season. And over those four campaigns, once August comes around, Sporting KC has done 14-23-13 – a 1.1 points-per-game standard that usually coincides with a bottom-of-the-conference finish.
Each fall, critics seized on these numbers, thrown them at Sporting KC, and tried to augur their downfall. At least, it seems like they do. In this day when so much seizing, throwing and predicting happens in unison, it’s hard to tell where admiration ends and cynicism begins. Each year, though, there seems to be a late-summer stretch where the admiration for the consistent, distinct, enduring force Vermes has forged turns to doubts about how far the team can go.
Come Saturday, the calendar will read August 18. To the extent there are transitions between a collecting-points Sporting and KC’s fading-to-the-pack form, that date might fall right in the middle. While Sporting is coming off consecutive wins against the Houston Dynamo and Los Angeles FC, those are also the team’s only wins since July 1. Is this year’s team fading, or, after years trying to reverse the trend, finally figuring out how to endure into autumn?
For Portland Timbers fans, the answer to that question dictates how to set expectations for Saturday’s match (5:30pm PT, FOX 12 PLUS). For the Timbers’ staff and players, though, it’s irrelevant. Each week, as those outside the team breakdown opponents’ strengths and weakness, the reality of a team’s preparation is often overlooked. Teams always have to prepare for the best version of their opposition, hope for the worse, and be able to deal with anything in between. Whether Sporting is better in spring or fall doesn’t matter when your only task is preparing for Kansas City’s ideal.
The three red cards the Houston Dynamo collected in their 1-0 loss to Sporting two weeks ago? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is what KC can do. The fact that LAFC heavily rotated their team before KC’s arrival? Also, practically irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what Sporting was capable of last week. Come Saturday’s kickoff, the only thing that matters is what the two-time champions can do now.
That capability starts at the back, where goalkeeper Tim Melia and defenders Matt Besler and Ike Opara can forge the league’s best defense, over any given 90 minutes. Ilie Sánchez, Roger Espinoza and Felipe Gutierrez are one of the more versatile and balanced midfield trios in Major League Soccer, while 2015 standout Krisztián Nemeth, recently reacquired in a trade with the New England Revolution, could develop into the focal point Sporting’s has lacked since Dom Dwyer was sold to Orlando City last season. And with players like Gelson Fernandes, Daniel Sallói and Johnny Russell, Kansas City has enough attacking threats to turn one point into three on days their defense holds out.
Perhaps the most imposing part about Sporting, though, is their approach, one that has stayed consistent through their decade’s ascent, through their roster turnover, and through all the new monies and mechanisms Major League Soccer has developed since Kansas City won their last title. You know with a very, very high degree of certainty that Sporting is going to play a 4-3-3 formation. They’re going to try to control play, probably to the point where they’ll dominate the possession battle, but they’re not going to compromise their shape pursuing chances. They lead the league in shots per game (16.9) but are 18th out of 23 teams in percentage of shots that come inside the penalty box. They lead the league in passing percentage (84.1), are second in average possession (55.9), and only five teams have scored more goals, but at their core, they have an uncompromising approach.
That may explain why, in eight of Portland and Sporting’s last 11 meetings, neither team has gotten to two goals. It may be why 10 of the 17 meetings these teams have had all time have ended without a side claiming multiple goals, as well as why the teams’ last meeting, on June 6 at Providence Park, ended 0-0.
But, just like the waning form Sporting’s shown at the end of the last four seasons, none of that will matter on Saturday; at least, it doesn’t matter in terms of the Timbers’ preparation. It informs what us outsiders should expect – a low-scoring grind – but Portland has to prepare for more. No matter their fall swoons, their recent results, or the history of this matchup, Sporting carries an inherent potential. And the Timbers have to prepare for that potential.