By Kevin Minkus (@kevinminkus)
During a span lasting from late April to mid-August, Sporting Kansas City picked up 31 points over 15 games. That tremendous run was highlighted by a 4-0 thrashing of FC Dallas and a gripping 4-3 result over Vancouver. During that stretch, SKC did it all. They put up four goal games. They eked out 1-0 nail biters. They created chances from the middle of the park. They created opportunities from the wings. They looked like a complete team. Sporting KC's form during that stretch is the stuff Supporters' Shields are built on (and the stuff their phenomenal Open Cup run actually was built on).
After a 5-0 home loss to San Jose on August 19th, though, that form began to crumble. The team lost seven of their last 12 games, on their way to a sixth place finish in the West and an exit in the knockout round after a heartbreaking penalty kick loss to eventual champions Portland.
The question is, which Sporting Kansas City side should we expect in 2016? The team that looked like true MLS Cup contenders, or the good, but not great, side we saw at the end of the season?
The answer, like with many questions (“What is the best Muppets movie?” being an obvious exception) probably lies somewhere in the middle of the two options. Using the simple, though by no means definitive, metric of performance relative to expected goals (G – xG), suggests Sporting Kansas City's true form may have been worse than they looked from April to mid-August, and better than they looked from mid-August through October. During the aforementioned 15 game run of mostly impressive performances, SKC over-performed their expected goals by eight goals. This over-performance came from converting a high (though not necessarily unsustainable) 16% of shots into goals. During the mostly dismal stretch of 12 games at the end of the season, they underperformed their expected goals by about five. They converted only 8% of their shots into goals over that part of the season.
This rough analysis, then, suggests Sporting Kansas City last season were neither true championship contenders, nor a side that should've struggled to make the playoffs. Intuitively, that feels about right. Do they have the pieces to make that ascension in 2016?
Tim Melia's emergence from league pool goalkeeper to full time starter for SKC and Comeback Player of the Year was a great story for the 2015 season. He should be able to build on that for 2016. Jon Kempin and Alec Kann should be adequate backups to Melia, with one likely getting sent to SKC's USL side, Swope Park Rangers.
While Matt Besler is certainly recognizable, in Kansas City Peter Vermes' defensive system is truly the star over any individual players. His high-line, pressing 4-3-3 is pretty unique for MLS. Pressing at all remains unique, though with Jesse Marsch and the Red Bulls finding success in 2015 with a pressing 4-2-3-1, it may begin to become more common. Chicago, NYCFC, and Philadelphia, at least, will look to implement some sort of pressing style this season. Besler deservedly gets credit for organizing Vermes' system on the field. His communication is excellent, as is his decision-making. Typically, Besler's style of play demands a more physical presence - think Omar Gonzalez, or Aurelien Collin - and that was to be the original plan for 2015. But when Ike Opara went down with a ruptured Achilles in April, SKC turned to 5'9” Kevin Ellis, who, in all honestly, blossomed well into the role. During the offseason, the team also brought in Portugeuse centerback Nuno Andre Coelho. These options left promising homegrown player Erik Palmer-Brown without a spot, and he was loaned to Porto, where he likely will spend time with Porto B. So far through the preseason, it looks as if Coelho will win the starting spot next to Besler, but that remains to be seen.
The starting fullback positions remain an open question, as well. Amadou “He's a dou, she's a dou, we're all dous, hey” Dia, the now departed Jalil Anibaba, Chance “Sunshine” Myers, the likely also departed Marcel de Jong, Jimmy Medranda, Saad “I'm now incredibly good-natured about laughing at my past mistakes” Abdul-Salaam, and Seth Sinovic all spent at least some time there in 2015. I would guess, based on the preseason, that Sinovic and Myers will start there in Week 1. But both Dia and Abdul-Salaam are promising youngsters who could see significant minutes if they continue to develop.
Sporting's midfield saw the biggest shake up of the offseason, as the team added veteran wide players Brad Davis and Justin Mapp, while standout midfielder/forward Krisztian Nemeth bolted for the Qatar Stars League. If there's one thing you should know and probably already do know about Davis, it's that he likes to cross the ball. He was second in the league last year in key passes (passes leading to a shot) from crosses. Graham Zusi was sixth. Benny Feilhaber was 15th. Mapp was injured for most of last year, so his numbers aren't reliable for 2015, but he historically ranks high in crosses as well. Neither Davis nor Mapp is a like-for-like replacement for Nemeth, who provided dynamic goal scoring from out wide, and was excellent at cutting into the middle. Mapp, at his best, offers some of that dynamicism, but he's on the wrong side of the aging curve. Given all this, this will likely be a team that crosses the ball a lot.
Typically, chances generated off of crosses are lower quality than chances generated through other means, like throughballs. But, that's not necessarily always the case. Both Feilhaber and Davis last year created better than average chances from their crosses. Zusi's chances were actually lower than average, though. Still, if Mapp, Davis, and Zusi are going to play on the field at the same time, Benny Feilhaber will have to make a concerted effort to facilitate more through the middle, rather than allowing himself to play from out wide. Mapp, Davis, and Zusi will provide more than enough wide play to go around.
Unless Sporting Kansas City brings in another forward, losing Nemeth will put much more of the onus on Dom Dwyer to score goals. SKC really doesn't have a good option for replacing his production right now. Thankfully, Dwyer likes a healthy diet of crosses. Among players with 50 or more shots, Dwyer ranked 5th last season in percentage of shots coming from crosses, at around 36%. It's possible, with the right pieces around him, Sporting believe Dom can be a 20 goal scorer. I wouldn't wager on that, but if Davis and Mapp are two of those pieces, that would go a long way towards making up the difference from Nemeth's absence.
Promising 19-year old Daniel Salloi was signed as a Homegrown Player over the winter. Given the team's lack of depth currently at the position, he may be in line to see first team minutes, rather than getting sent to Swope Park Rangers to develop. The team has also brought in Kenny Cooper as a trialist. He would be a fantastic choice as a backup for Dwyer, but probably can't be expected to contribute much more than coming off the bench.
In the best case scenario, Sporting Kansas City is a playoff team in the 4-5-6 range. They have some very talented pieces both on offense and defense, and they have a coach that can fit all those pieces together to accomplish the goals of his system. In the worst case scenario, Dom Dwyer doesn't get enough goal scoring support, and the team struggles. If that is the case, it's possible they could finish outside of the playoffs. Still, I don't think that's all that likely given the players they have and Vermes' coaching ability.