By Nate Bukaty
The Chiefs have won four games in a row, and in the process, they have outscored their opponents by an impressive total of 91 points. This stretch of dominance directly followed a 1-5 start to the season. After six games, many of us were proclaiming the season to be over. Now, we are left to find an explanation for such a turnaround.
As is typically the case, there are many factors that have led to the Chiefs’ resurgence: players recovering from injuries, players returning from suspension, leaders emerging, etc. But one factor has been a greater cause of the Chiefs’ recent run of form, and it is a factor that should have you even more excited for the rest of the season. That factor is the schedule.
You might find it curious that I would point to the schedule as a major reason to find encouragement in regards to the Chiefs. Shouldn’t you, for example, be more encouraged about the recent performance of Eric Berry, or the emergence of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware? After all, these are developments that are specific to the Chiefs, and they are more reflective of who the Chiefs actually are, as opposed to some arbitrary list of opponents. To that, I say, good point! Yes, you should focus on these developments, but don’t be fooled as to why these developments are happening, and of course, the biggest reason for these developments is the schedule.
During this four-game stretch, the Chiefs have beaten up on a third-string quarterback, another quarterback who is not even a shell of his former self, and two really bad football teams. But you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. To the contrary, I would argue that it is precisely this ability to beat up on the weak that will get this Chiefs team into the playoffs.
Anyone remember the 9-7 Chiefs team from 2014? The team that beat both Super Bowl participants in impressive fashion, but also got bounced by a winless Oakland team, and got trounced by a terrible Titans team (sorry for the alliteration) in week one? Well, you might remember that those Chiefs didn’t make the playoffs. When the season was over, they were left to lament the stinkers they put out against two of the worst teams in the NFL.
Through 10 weeks at least, this 2015 version of the Chiefs seems to be diametrically opposed to last year’s team in this respect. This team has lost to the good teams it’s faced, while pummeling the bad ones. This is great news, as they will face almost nothing but the latter the rest of the season.
Consider these numbers: The Chiefs have won five games and lost five games. The combined record of the five teams who have beaten them is 34-16. The combined records of the five teams the Chiefs have beaten, which includes the 8-2 Broncos, is just 24-26. This is where the news gets fantastic, if you’re a Chiefs fan. The combined record of the final six teams the Chiefs will play this season? 20-39. That’s right. 19 games below 500. In fact, only one of the Chiefs’ final opponents (Buffalo) has a winning record, and that could easily change tonight, as the Bills are 5-4 heading into their Monday Night game against the undefeated Patriots.
So, with the AFC playoff race completely wide open, it’s a matter of doing what Dick Vermeil always has said that winning teams must do: keep losing teams losing. It’s as simple as that. The best news? That is what the Chiefs have been best at this season.
By Nate Bukaty
How will we describe what we saw last night to future generations? What exactly will I tell my kids 10 years from now, if they ask me about Game 1 of the 2015 World Series? Where should I start?
I suppose I should begin by telling them how I was lucky enough to take my father, the man they call “Papa,” to a World Series game. I suppose that would lead me to tell them about how the starting pitcher, Edinson Volquez, was pitching that night without the knowledge that his own father had just died earlier that day at the age of 63. And that would lead me to tell them about how the pitcher who finished the game, Chris Young suffered the loss of his father just a few weeks ago. I could explain to them how, before the game, the manager, Ned Yost, had to go tell Young that he might need to start the game, if Volquez wasn’t emotionally capable of taking the mound.
Maybe I could just start with the way the game started. The first pitch the Royals would see in this World Series was inexplicably a fastball over the plate to Alcides Escobar. Of course, then I’d have to explain to the kids about this weird Mojo the Royals had, where they practically never lost when Escobar would swing at the first pitch. Yet, somehow, pitchers just kept starting him off with hittable fastballs. And Harvey did it in this game, and Escobar smacked it to fairly deep left center. And then the leftfielder and centerfielder couldn’t decide who should catch it. And then the centerfielder kicked the ball away from the two of them. And Alcides just kept running. And for the first time since 1929, there was in inside-the-park homer in the World Series. And the explosion from the crowd was one of the loudest I’ve ever heard.
Or maybe I should start off by telling them how a man who was destined for the Royals Hall of Fame, Alex Gordon, hit one of the greatest home runs in franchise history, in the ninth inning, tying the game up and sending it to extra innings. I’ll have to explain to them how this closer for the Mets, Jeurys Familia, hadn’t given up a single run in the postseason, until he faced Gordon. I’ll describe for them how quiet the entire stadium had gotten, as the Royals were down to their final two outs, before Gordon crushed a 97 mph fastball some 430 feet to straight away center field, sending the some 40,000 people into delirium.
At some point, I’ll have to find a way to explain to the kids how Eric Hosmer went from goat to hero. How he drove in the game-winning run, after committing what looked to be the game-losing error. That’ll force me to explain to them who Billy Buckner was, and why that was an unfair comparison to the misplay that Hosmer made.
I suppose I’ll mention how, by going 14 innings, that game tied the record for longest game in World Series history. I’ll probably laugh about how it lasted over five hours, which wasn’t helped by a delay when Fox lost power to their TV truck. And I’ll laugh about how I didn’t get to bed until close to 2:00 in the morning, and how it didn’t matter because I was too excited to sleep anyway.
If my kids ask me about this game someday, there will just be so much to tell. I hope can do it justice.
By Nate Bukaty
Just how improbable was that comeback? Perhaps we in Kansas City might underestimate the lengthy odd the Royals faced, when they trailed the Houston Astros by four runs, with only six outs to go. After all, we all remember the Wild Card game from last year, when the Royals overcame a four-run deficit to beat the A’s in extra innings. If the same team can pull off two similar comebacks, in back-to-back years, then how improbable is it really?
Let’s look at some numbers to put this in perspective. 41 times in 2015, The Houston Astros went to the eighth inning with a lead of four runs or more. They were 41-0 in those games. 41 wins. Zero losses. Let that number sink in for a moment. According to fangraphs.com, When the Royals went to the plate in the 8th inning, the Astros had a 96.8% chance of winning the game.
Let’s take it s step further. When Luis Valbuena came to the plate in the 7th, the Astros had runners at 2nd and 3rd with just one out. At that moment, Fangraphs gave the Astros a win probability of 98.4%. In other words, the Royals’ chances were roughly a one in a hundred. Valbuena popped out to shallow left field, which was not deep enough to score the run from third base. At the time, this seemed like an insignificant play. The Astros had already taken a four-run lead, and they needed just six outs to knock out what had to that point looked like a lifeless Royals offense. It certainly did not seem crucial that the Astros drive in an extra insurance run. But, as things played out, that run made a big difference. That five-run 8th inning would only have been enough to tie the game. Who knows how things play out after that?
But, of all the big plays that happened in this game, no play affected the win probability more than Carlos Correa’s error in the 8th inning. Before that grounder up the middle, the Astros still had a 55.6% chance of winning the game. So, even after giving up five straight hits, the Astros were still the favorites to win the game. They were the favorites, that is, until Correa booted that ball. In that one instance, the Astros went from having better than a 50-50 chance of winning, to having a 24.4% chance of winning. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a 21 year old who, up until that point, was positioned to be the biggest hero of the day. Earlier in the game, Correa had authored three of biggest plays that helped the Astros build that 98.4% chance of winning. He homered in the 3rd, tying the game 2-2. He then hit an RBI double in the 5th inning, giving the Astros a 3-2 lead. Then he added to the Astros lead by homering again in the 7th, which made him the second youngest player in postseason history to hit two home runs in one game. But, in the end, Correa was left with the memory of the play that he didn’t make.
How does a 21-year-old rookie refocus for Game Five, after that emotional roller coaster? How do any of us? How do any of the players on either of these rosters? The answer to this question could well determine which team will move on to the ALCS.
By Nate Bukaty
1. This was a good result for Sporting. Sure, there is always something unsatisfying about a scoreless draw. But this was one of those matches that supports the case for why draws exist in the world of soccer. Sporting Kansas City absolutely needed something out of this game, after losing three straight, and they absolutely deserved something from this game. That’s the essence of getting a “result,” which is a term we so often hear from the soccer crowd. If you go to a place like Providence Park - The Timbers are now unbeaten in their last 10 matches there – and keep a team like Portland from finding the back of the net for the full 90 minutes, you deserve to go home with something. That’s what Sporting did, and they took away a well-earned point.
2. A Clean Sheet is the Key: The shutout against the Timbers signified more than just a scoreless draw for Sporting Kansas City. It signified a return to the bread-and-butter of what has made this club one of the premier organizations in MLS over the past several seasons, which has been a high-pressing, aggressive, stifling defense. Through the first half of this season, this was looking like a vintage version of the Peter Vermes identity. Sporting had kept nine clean sheets in their first 18 games, but after some key injuries along the back line and in midfield, Sporting’s defense had turned into a shambles. All of a sudden, Vermes’s side had failed to post a shutout in seven straight matches…until last night. That’s a big step for this team if they want to truly contend for MLS Cup in 2015.
3. Tim Melia Was The Man: Hands down, the single biggest reason Sporting were able to keep that clean sheet was the superhuman effort of Goalkeeper Tim Melia. Time and time again, Melia picked up his teammates with important saves, at least four of them of the highlight reel variety. The seven saves by Melia were good for a career high. The former MLS pool keeper had burst onto the scene for Sporting earlier this year, keeping seven clean sheets in his first 11 starts after taking the keeper responsibilities from Luis Marin. But, as we’ve covered, it had been awhile since Melia had posted one of those shutouts, so his amazing performance on Wednesday in Portland was a sight for sore eyes.
4. Must have Mustivar: Tim Melia wasn’t the only hero for Sporting on Wednesday night. It’s no coincidence that Sporting finally broke their shutout drought on the same game when defensive midfielder Soni Mustivar made his return from injury. A hip injury kept Mustivar on the sidelines for the past three games. It’s not a coincidence that Sporting lost all three of those games without Mustivar, after not having lost back-to-back games all season up until that point. Ever the workhorse, Mustivar picked up right where he left off, as he rejoined the starting 11 on Wednesday. He played all 90 minutes, and led all players with 35 passes completed, and he was third on the team with 4 interceptions. Sporting KC are now a eye-popping 13-2-4 when Mustivar starts.
5. #GoKitGo: Speaking of heroes, let’s talk about a real hero. For my money, the greatest hero involved with Wednesday’s match is a three-year-old girl named Kit Van Sickle. On the SKCTV Pregame show, we told you the story of Kit, who is battling Leukemia, and her friendship with Sporting KC Defender Kevin Ellis. Sporting fans responded to the story, and before halftime of the Portland game, #GoKitGo was the number one trending topic on Twitter in all of Kansas City. If you haven’t had a chance to watch Kit and Kevin’s story, I encourage you to check it out here: http://www.sportingkc.com/video/2015/09/10/gokitgo-story-kevin-kit If you’re touched by Kit’s courage, and you’d like to take some action to help kids like her, there are a couple of immediate things you can do: 1) Attend the blood drive at Sporting Park on Saturday, September 19th. Children like Kit are extremely dependent on blood transfusions to get through their grueling chemotherapy. The blood drive will be held in the Members’ Club. 2) Check out the Keeping Up with Kit facebook page, where you can purchase your own #GoKitGo T-shirt. Kit’s parents are determined to pay forward all of the love and support they have gotten from the Sporting KC family, so all proceeds from the t-shirt sales will go directly to the Victory Project.
By Nate Bukaty
5 Things to watch when Sporting face Columbus Crew SC on Saturday, at 6:30PM on Sports Radio 810 and 38 The Spot
1. Where has the defense gone? Sporting have consistently ranked as one of the top defenses in MLS all season…until this past week. In fact, Sporting still currently rank 3rd in all of MLS in shutouts, with nine on the season. But Peter Vermes’s usually stingy team haven’t kept a clean sheet since July 12. Things have really opened up on the Sporting defense over the past week, as they’ve conceded a combined eight goals in two games. Sporting will certainly have to rediscover their defensive form, if they want to get a result on Saturday against one of the most explosive offensive teams in MLS.
2. About that explosive offense…Columbus rank second in MLS with 40 goals on the season, and it’s a familiar face that is leading the way for the Crew. Kei Kamara, who spent four years with Kansas City, leads MLS with 18 goals on the season. Meanwhile, the Crew’s Ethan Finley is tied with Benny Fielhaber with 13 assists on the season. Columbus are particularly potent at home, where they have scored at least one goal in 22 straight matches. Ironically, that streak actually began when the Crew scored in a 2-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City last year.
3. Who will play the midfield? Sporting Kansas City have had the best midfield trio in all of MLS, in my opinion, for most of the season. Benny Fielhaber has been the best play-maker. Soni Mustivar has been an absolute machine in the holding midfield role, and Roger Espinoza covers as much ground as anyone. But all three of those guys will be sitting at home watching tonight’s match on television. Espinoza has been out since breaking his foot against Houston on August 1st. Soni Mustivar will be missing his second straight game with a groin injury. And Fielhaber will be serving a one game suspension after his late red card against San Jose. Up until Wednesday’s beat-down at the hands of San Jose, Sporting have had an answer for every player who has had to miss a match. But can they replace their entire midfield in this match? If they answer that question in the affirmative, it might be the best accomplishment by Sporting on the season.
4. What can Zusi give? 2015 has been a tough year for Graham Zusi, to this point. He just hasn’t been able to get into any sort of groove with this team. He stared the season with a foot injury, and has subsequently suffered a handful of other minor knocks, the latest of those being the calf injury he incurred two weekends ago in Toronto. He also missed a significant amount of time while off with the U.S. Men’s National Team at the Gold Cup. Well, one of the only positives from Wednesday’s nightmare was the fact that Zusi came on in the second half, which should indicate that he’ll be ready to play tonight. So, what will Graham be able to provide this evening? With Sporting’s ever-mounting list of injured/suspended players, Zusi is one of the few options that Peter Vermes can call on who still has that difference-making ability. If he can show that quality tonight, it just might give Sporting a fighting chance in this contest.
5. What about that Sporting attack? We’ve already covered the fact that Columbus are quite the dynamic scoring team, especially at home. However, they aren’t exactly a brick wall on the defensive side. The Crew have conceded 18 goals at home this season, which ranks as the second most in MLS. And Sporting are no slouch when it comes to scoring goals themselves. They are the only team in MLS who boast three different players with at least eight goals in league play. Two of those three players should be available tonight. Not that Sporting are looking to get into a shoot-out here tonight in Columbus. But, with the Crew’s scoring form this season, they might well need a goal or two in order to get a result tonight.
By Nate Bukaty
1) New England Revolution are one of the most dangerous teams in MLS. With players like Juan Agudelo, Teal Bunbury, Charlie Davies, and Lee Nguyen leading the way, you’re talking about four guys who’ve gotten time with the US Men’s National Team. When I spoke with Kerry Zavagnin this morning, he made the comment that the Revs have really taken a page out of Sporting KC’s book, with their high-pressing 4-3-3 formation. He compared this year’s New England front three of Agudelo, Davies, and Bunbury to the trio of Sapong, Bunbury, and Kamara that we saw in Kansas City in years past.
2) Sporting are one of the most banged-up teams in MLS. Unfortunately, this has become a familiar refrain over the past year. Peter Vermes said this week that his team might not be able to field an entire 18-man roster tonight, because of so many injuries. Eight names appear on the Sporting KC injury list today. Ike Opara, Chance Myers, Marcel De Jong, Graham Zusi and Seth Sinovic are all listed as “out,” while Roger Espinoza, Paulo Nagamura, and Bernardo Anor are “questionable.” Combine that with the fact that Erik Palmer Brown has departed for the U-20 World Cup, and you are looking at an extremely thin Sporting KC roster, particularly in the back. That’s not exactly a comforting feeling, when facing a team as dynamic as the Revolution.
3) Sporting should be rested. Considering all of the injury issues, Peter Vermes might be able to take some solace in this fact: his guys who are available for tonight’s match should have fresher legs than their opponents. That’s because Saturday’s match at Sporting Park was postponed due to weather. While the Sporting players were cooling their heals, New England were battling through a hard-fought one-one draw against Toronto. Then they had to jump on a plane just a couple of days later to fly to Kansas City. Many MLS players have spoken about the challenge of travel in MLS compared to the travel in most other countries. 3-hour bus rides get changed for 3 hour flights, and time zone changes. Those things can take a toll. Sporting KC won’t be at all sympathetic if the Revolution have some weary legs tonight.
4) Revs reversed history last year. This series has historically been dominated by Kansas City, but that certainly was not the case last year. Going in to 2014, KC had posted a record of 23-13-11 all time against New England. But last season The Revolution had their revenge, winning all three matches against Sporting by a combined score of 8-3. So New England will be full of confidence when they arrive at Sporting Park tonight.
5) Vermes is showing versatility. In speaking with Kerry Zavagnin this morning, it stood out to me that he was particularly enthused about the team’s “tactically aware” performance against DC United a couple of weeks ago. Zavagnin said that over the past few years, teams have been able to spend all of their time preparing for Sporting’s trademark high-press attack. He noted that the coaches and players from DC United seemed a little caught off guard by the fact that Sporting sat a little deeper during that one-one draw. Zavagnin said he likes the fact that opponents will have to prepare themselves for different possibilities, when it comes to playing against Sporting Kansas City. Considering the potent nature of New England’s attack, and Sporting’s current makeshift back line, I will be interested to see if Vermes instructs his players to take that more conservative approach tonight.
There are no games scheduled for today.