By Nate Bukaty
So, here I am, flying home from Denver, pondering what might have been on this two-city road trip with Sporting Kansas City. What might have been, if Dom Dwyer hadn’t been incorrectly ruled offside in the opening minutes of the match in Chicago. What might have been, if the referee hadn’t inexplicably blown his whistle three different times before allowing Chicago to quickly take a restart, while the Sporting players hesitated because of the whistle. What might have been, had the referee decided to blow his whistle when Diego Rubio was hacked to the ground by Jarred Watts inside the penalty area in stoppage time in Colorado. It’s hard to win on the road in MLS. It’s almost impossible when game-changing calls go against you.
I’m struggling with this, because I’ve long held the mantra that complaining about officiating is for losers. And, in the purest sense of the word, that is the case here. Sporting KC were the losers. In both games. And I’m complaining about the officiating.
I’ve always maintained this stance in every sport, and fundamentally, I stand by it. But the struggle I’m dealing with is that I can’t think of a sport where a single call by a referee can impact a game as drastically as in the sport of soccer. Since goals are so hard to come by, the old adage “goals change games” is almost an understatement. So, if goals change games, then a referee’s decision to take away a goal certainly does the same thing. That was clearly the case in Chicago on Wednesday. And surely a referee’s decision not to award a penalty (which isn’t a guarantee of a goal, but the odds are drastically in the penalty taker’s favor) certainly does the same.
At the very least, it could be argued that these two decisions cost Sporting Kansas City a minimum of two points. And, with the way that Sporting were dominating Chicago, I would make the case that the offside call cost them three points in that contest.
Instead, when Sporting return to Kansas City, they’ll have zero points from this road trip. On top of that, they’ll be returning to a perception by many that they simply didn’t play well on this trip. In my view, that’s not an accurate perception.
I watched Sporting thoroughly dominate Chicago in every phase on the game on Wednesday. And on Saturday, I saw them play almost completely even with what has been the best team in MLS in 2016. If the proper calls are made in both of those games, I think the vast majority of spectators share that same perspective as me. To me, that is a shame
Now, all of these sour grapes aside, I still believe that these are the types of things that even out through the course of a long season. Sporting have certainly caught a break or two along the way. And while I think the team’s current form is better than the results would indicate over these past two games, these results should serve as reminders that there are still issues that Sporting KC must address if they want to hold on to a playoff spot in 2016.
At the top of the list: SKC are not getting enough scoring punch from their wings. This has not been helped by the fact that Graham Zusi suffered a hamstring injury, right after his best game of the season. Against Columbus, Zusi finally scored his first goal of the season, and he looked dynamic throughout the entire match. But he hasn’t played since. In Chicago, both Brad Davis and Jacob Peterson came within inches of scoring, but the post was unkind to Peterson, and Davis just missed the upper 90 on a free kick. Whether it’s from Zusi returning to health, the emergence of someone else on the roster, or an addition in the transfer window, Sporting need to find some production on the wing.
Also at the top of the list, Sporting are still conceding too many “silly goals” in the words of Peter Vermes. I think you can put both goals they conceded during this road trip in that category. Sure, the bizarre whistles by the referee confused the Sporting players, but someone still needs to step in front of the ball to make sure that the opposing team can’t take the restart. And, while the goal in Denver was beautifully taken by Hairston, it was set up by a poor giveaway from the Sporting Kansas City defense. Sporting would like to take a page out of the Rapids playbook, and return to their own proud days as a lock-down defensive team. But that can only happen if the “silly goals” are eliminated.
There is still plenty of time for Sporting to make a push in the Western Conference, and the time is now. Five straight games against conference foes stand in front of Sporting KC. A successful run in these five games would put Sporting in great position.
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