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.
By Nate Bukaty
Sporting Kansas City look to continue their push back up the Western Conference standings, as they visit the Montreal Impact on Saturday.
Kickoff: 6:30 pm
Radio: Sports Radio 810 WHB
Watch: SKCTV, 38 The Spot
With a 2-0 victory over FC Dallas last weekend, Sporting moved from 8th place in the Western Conference into a three-way tie for 5th place. Combined with their win in the US Open Cup at Minnesota United FC, and their draw at Los Angeles, Sporting are now unbeaten in their last three matches.
Now they head to the Great White North, where Sporting have enjoyed an unparalleled amount of success. The club’s .619 winning percentage in Canada is best all-time among MLS clubs. SKC have particularly enjoyed their matches against Montreal of late, having won four straight in this series by a combined score line of 11-2. But this might be the best Impact side the visitors from Kansas City will have faced. Here are three keys for Sporting to bring home three points from Montreal:
1) Slay the Three-Headed Monster: With Didier Drogba, Ignacio Piatti, and Dominic Oduro, The Impact boast one of the most potent attacking trios in MLS. Of the Impact’s 22 goals in 2016, 17 have come from these three men. Silence them, and you effectively silence the Montreal offense. Of course, this is easier said than done. Drogba has brought his world class scoring ability (4th all time leading scorer at Chelsea) to MLS without missing a beat. He’s scored 16 goals in 20 games with Montreal since joining the side last August. Meanwhile “Nacho” Piatti has also proven to be worth his Designated Player contract, as he ranks third in MLS this season with 8 goals. And MLS veteran Dominic Oduro brings speed that is hard to match. Oduro has contributed 4 goals and 5 assists already this season. The Sporting KC defenders must be physical and organized in order to deal with the pace, skill, and power of these three attackers.
2) Win the Midfield Battle: This might seem like an obvious key for any game, but it is particularly the case for Sporting in this matchup. While the Impact have some big names in the front, and some consistent veterans in the back, it’s the middle where Montreal have struggled. In fact, the Impact have won just one match out of their last eight. During that stretch, the common theme for Montreal has been a lack of midfield presence. With Benny Fielhaber, Roger Espinoza and Soni Mustivar, Sporting should have the decided advantage in the middle of the park. When they are operating to their fullest ability, Sporting’s midfielders can control the flow of a game, thwart counterattacks quickly, and win the ball back in dangerous areas. They must use this advantage to dictate the terms of this match.
3) Prove Depth in the Back: Both sides of this match will be missing some key components in the hearts of their defenses. The Impact will be without 2015 MLS Defender of the year, Laurent Ciman, who is off at Euros with Belgium. Meanwhile, Sporting KC are without the man who won the same award in 2012, Matt Besler. The Sporting KC Captain, along with Graham Zusi, will be with the US Men’s National Team, playing in the third place game of Copa America at roughly the same time that Sporting are taking on the Impact. Sporting will also be without the services of central defender Nuno Cuelho, who is listed as “out” once again, with a thigh strain. After starting each of SKC’s first 14 games, Cuelho will now miss his fourth straight match with this injury. Despite these absences, Sporting’s defense has proven its depth, having allowed a total of just three shots on goal over the last three games. That’s the lowest total of any MLS team over a three game stretch this season. It’ll take another solid defensive performance for Sporting KC to return from Montreal with a result.
By Nate Bukaty
Sporting Kansas City look to snap a six-match winless streak, as they visit the first place Colorado Rapids on Wednesday night. Pregame coverage begins on 38 The Spot at 7:00, with game action on 38 the Spot and ESPN Radio 99.3FM starting at 7:30. The Rapids have won three straight games in this series, and Sporting Kansas City will be anxious to reverse that trend. Here are three keys to getting three points for Sporting.
1) Reverse the Reversal: On the morning of April 13, Sporting KC sat atop the Supporters’ Shield standings, while the Colorado Rapids found themselves in sixth place in the Western Conference. That evening, the Rapids came to Children’s Mercy Park and stole three points from their rivals. That match started an almost complete reversal in fortunes for the two teams. Since that night, Sporting have failed to win a match, suffering three more losses and settling for two draws along the way. Conversely, the Rapids have not lost since visiting Kansas City, winning three matches, while drawing one more. In less than a month since their last meeting, Kansas City and Colorado have swapped places in the standings, with the Rapids now leading the Supporters’ Shield race, and Sporting occupying sixth place in the West. The moral to this story is that things can change quickly in the Wild West of MLS, and Sporting Kansas City are hoping that Wednesday night’s match will spark a reversal of fortune the likes of which we saw on April 13.
2) Play every roll of the ball: This is a phrase that is repeatedly used by Peter Vermes, but it’s something that his players simply did not do on Saturday in Houston. Vermes was openly upset about his team’s intensity in the 2-0 loss to the Dynamo, and he hinted to some possible lineup changes going forward. On Monday, I asked Vermes what impresses him the most about Wednesday’s opponent, the Colorado Rapids. “They play every roll of the ball,” was his answer. Anyone who’s spent much time around Vermes knows that was a not-too-subtle jab at his own team. Something tells me the players will have gotten the message. We’ll find out on Wednesday night.
3) Turn possession into production: Sporting Kansas City have possessed the ball for 54.9% of their matches, which ranks 2nd best in in MLS. The problem is, they are not turning that possession into a final product. Sporting are tied for last in the league in scoring just 1 goal per 90 minutes. As a result, we’re starting to see a trend where opponents are willing to sit back and let Sporting have the ball. The mindset of these teams seems to be: “as long as we keep numbers back, and stay organized defensively, Sporting will not be able to break us down.” To this point, that approach has worked. So it’s up to Sporting to find a way to start putting more of their shots on target (just 6 of their last 44 shots have been on frame) and to create some better chances.
By Nate Bukaty
Sporting Kansas City look to put a stop to a three-match losing streak as they wrap up a three-game road swing on Wednesday night in Vancouver. This could stand to be a pivotal Western Conference matchup, even if it is early in the season, as just two points separate these teams in the standings. In fact, Sporting and Vancouver find themselves on each side of the red line, which separates the playoff teams from the non playoff teams. A 4th straight loss for SKC would put them on the wrong side of the playoff picture.
With that in mind, here are three keys to a victory for Sporting Kansas City against the White Caps.
1) Will you Convert?
In order to score goals, teams must create chances. But chances mean little, if they aren’t converted. Both of these teams have had their issues converting chances into goals of late. In fact, Sporting KC have actually outshot their opponents in each of the three games during this losing streak. That’s only happened two other times in franchise history. Meanwhile, the White Caps rank just 17th in the league in shot attempts, so they’re not exactly creating a boatload of chances. But they do have some key players who are failing to cash in on a healthy amount of opportunities. Vancouver striker Octavio Rivero is the only player in MLS with at least 15 shot attempts and 10 shots on goal with zero goals to show for it. Will either side find their goal scoring form in this one? It will be a difficult task, considering that this match will feature two of the best goalkeepers in MLS. Tim Melia is tied for the MLS lead with 3 clean sheets, and he’s tied for second in save percentage. Meanwhile David Ousted leads MLS with 34 saves, and he’s coming off an heroic performance in keeping a clean sheet against FC Dallas last weekend.
2) Keep dominating this team, this country, this region:
Considering the history, there might not be a better place for Sporting to stop a losing streak than a Canadian team in the Cascadia region. Sporting Kansas City have historically faired very well against Vancouver, going 5-1-2 against the Whitecaps all time. Their only loss in the series came back in August of 2014. And SKC love playing in Cascadia, having won 5 straight regular season matches in the region that includes Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. That’s the longest winning streak in Cascadia by any club in MLS history. Meanwhile, Sporting have also enjoyed an unparalleled amount of success against teams from north of the border. Their 25 victories against Canadian opponents are more than any MLS team.
3) Avoid set pieces and penalties:
The Vancouver Whitecaps have scored exactly one goal through the run of play in 206. That’s in eight games. One goal. Conversely, the Whitecaps have scored four goals on penalties, which are twice as many as any other team in the league. And they’ve found the back of the net three times off of set pieces, which is tied for second most in the league. Sounds simple, but if Sporting can keep from giving away fouls in dangerous areas, they stand a great chance of keeping another clean sheet in Vancouver.
By Nate Bukaty
Children’s Mercy Park will explode with color tonight, when Sporting Kansas City host the Colorado Rapids at 7:30. In celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the first match in franchise history, the players will be donning throwback rainbow Wiz jerseys. Special retro merchandise will be on sale, an the first 10,000 fans will receive a complimentary Sporting KC retro jersey koozie.
On the pitch, this will be a matchup of two of the best defensive teams in MLS. Sporting KC and the Colorado Rapids have each conceded just three goals through the first five games of this season, which is tied for the league lead.
Here are three keys for Sporting Kansas City to come away with three points tonight:
1) Depth will be tested…again: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Sporting Kansas City are dealing with a slew of injuries at key positions. Already this season, the team has had to cope with injuries to Matt Besler, Justin Mapp, Brad Davis, and Benny Fielhaber. Then, this past Saturday, defenders Chance Myers and Kevin Ellis had to leave the match because of leg injuries. Neither is expected to play tonight. So, again, Peter Vermes’ squad depth will be put to the test. Expect Saad Abdul-Salaam and Ike Opara to fill those spots tonight. Fortunately, Abdul-Salaam gained a fair amount of experience last season as a rookie, as he appeared in 22 games, including a start in the playoffs. And Ike Opara, when healthy, is one of the best centerbacks in the entire league. On Saturday, Ike made his first appearance since tearing his Achilles tendon last April, and he played extremely well. It was an emotional return for Opara, coming back from his second devastating injury in the past two years. I would encourage anyone to listen to our interview with Ike from the Sporting KC show this week, in which he spoke emotionally about his return to the field. The interview can be found on the podcast page at 810whb.com.
2) A Small Ax amongst Tall Trees: As the old reggae line goes, “If you are a big tree, we are a small ax, aiming to chop you down…” Well, in this case, the big trees are the centerbacks for the Rapids, Bobby Burling (6’5”) and Axel Sjoberg (6’7”). Those two giants will be bracketing the 5’9” Dom Dwyer, who must play the part of the small ax. Dwyer has started 2016 in good goal scoring form, as he is one of just five players with three goals and two assists. He will have his work cut out for him tonight.
3) Timmy Timmy Timmy Timmy Timmy Tim-Mel-eee-ahh: He saves the goals, he saves the goooooooaaaals. Set to the tune of Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon,” I have to admit, I can’t get that song out of my head. Melia has absolutely earned his own song from the Cauldron. On Saturday, he became the first goalkeeper in franchise history to make six saves, including a penalty save, while keeping a clean sheet in a victory. When I asked Sporting Goalkeepers Coach John Pascarella about how special Melia was against the Red Bulls. “It’s now about how special he was,” said Pascarella. “It’s about how special he is.” After a long and winding professional career, Melia has finally found a spot to call home, and he seems to have really found in stride in the process. On the flip side, his counterpart tonight, Rapids Goalkeeper Zac MacMath, seems to be struggling with the idea of Tim Howard being brought in to take his spot. MacMath says he’s not going to give up the position without a fight, but if he continues to make blunders like the one that cost the Rapids last weekend, it won’t be much of a fight at all. One keeper is coming into tonight’s match with confidence. The other is not. If that trend continues, Sporting should come away with their fifth victory of the season.
By Nate Bukaty
The stakes will be incredibly high when Villanova and Kansas square off in Louisville, Kentucky on Saturday night. I’m not just talking about a trip to the Final Four being on the line. I’m talking about the possibility of me wearing a dress on television next week. Nobody needs that.
It’s all in the hands of the Jayhawks, who can prevent such a catastrophe if they can find a way to knock off the Wildcats at 7:50 on Saturday. See, I stupidly agreed to make a bet with Villanova alumnus Kacie McDonnell. I’ve gotta hand it to her, she doesn’t mess around when offering a wager. As it turns out, Kacie has an old Villanova jersey that she turned into a dress. If her Wildcats win, I’m going to have to wear that jersey-dress on the show. If KU wins, Kacie is going to have to dawn a KU jersey on the show. The caveat…and this was all Kacie’s idea…no pants for the loser of the bet. Ooh boy.
So, with these massive stakes in mind, let’s break down 5 keys for the Jayhawks to keep me out of a dress, and to keep my pants on.
1) Can anyone cool down the Cats? If Villanova shoots 67% from beyond the arc, as they did on Thursday against Miami, they might be unbeatable. And the scary thing is, it wasn’t just the Miami game. The Wildcats have been blistering hot all tournament, shooting 53% from long range through the first three rounds. The Wildcats’ accuracy looks even more impressive when you consider the sheer volume of three point shooting they’ve done. Villanova have made a minimum of 10 shots from beyond the arc in all three of their tournament games so far. Interestingly enough, the Cats have not been such a sharp-shooting bunch all season. In fact, even after this torrid three-game stretch, the Wildcats rank 127th in the NCAA with a 3-point field goal percentage of 35.6 on the year. Meanwhile, the Jayhawks have held their opponents to 32.3% from three on the season (which ranks 63rd in the nation, if you’re wondering.) And Ken Pom’s adjusted defensive rankings have Kansas as the best overall defensive team left in the tournament. So, which will it be? Will the Wildcats remain red-hot from downtown, shooting over 50%, or will the Kansas defense cool them back down into the 30’s or below? The answer to that question could be the answer that decides the game.
2) Will Nova go Zona? Jay Wright’s team has played a lot of zone this season, and they featured almost exclusively zone defense against the Hurricanes on Thursday night. It will be interesting to see if they throw that same defense at Kansas, as this particular Jayhawk squad is a tough team to zone. And since we were just on the topic of outside shooting, did you realize that Kansas ranks third in the nation in three-point field goal percentage, at 42.2%? Even without the injured Brannen Greene (who missed the Maryland game because of back spasms) the Jayhawks have many weapons who can connect from long range. Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham, Wayne Selden, Svi Mykhailiuk and Perry Ellis are all threats from deep. But that’s just part of the reason that this team is so effective against a zone. These Jayhawks understand how to move the ball quickly versus zone defenses. The ball rarely sticks. They have post players who can hit shots from open spots on the floor against zones, like the high block and the short corner. Their interior passing game is strong as well. If the Wildcats decide to go zone, it will be interesting to see if the Jayhawks can shoot them out of it.
3) Can the Cats Corral Perry? Let’s be honest, nobody has contained Perry Ellis so far this March. The veteran has scored under 20 points in a game just once in the past month, when West Virginia “held” him to 17 points in the Big 12 Championship game. Outside of that, you have to go back to February 27th to find the last time the Jayhawk Senior failed to reach 20 points. And now he’s coming off a 27-point performance, which is the most by a Jayhawk in the tournament since Sherron Collins went for 32 against North Dakota State in 2009. I’m curious to see what answers, if any, the Wildcats will have for Ellis. If they go zone, Perry has a knack for finding open spots to get his shots. If they go man, he can pose a lot of matchup problems. Kris Jenkins is the most likely player to guard him, but he is a good two inches shorter than Ellis, and I think Jenkins will have a tough time chasing Ellis around the floor as well. The odds are that Ellis will need to have another big game if the Jayhawks are to advance to the Final Four for the first time in his career.
4) Can you go down low? The center position should provide another key matchup to watch in this game. It’s been covered at length that the Jayhawks have lost just once since Landon Lucas was inserted into the starting lineup back on January 23. Lucas has gradually grown in confidence ever since, to the point where he has become a legitimate interior presence for KU. In fact, Lucas is averaging a double-double through the first three games of this tournament. This development is crucial for the Jayhawks, when it comes to facing Villanova. The Wildcats feature a 6’11 center, Daniel Ochefu, who averages 10 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. If Lucas can at least turn this matchup into a wash, that’s an overall win for Kansas.
5) What is Hip? Bill Self announced before Thursday’s game that point guard Frank Mason is currently dealing with a nagging hip injury. During that game, there were a few instances when Mason was noticeably slow getting up after getting knocked to the floor. Regardless, Frank the Tank played 38 minutes against Maryland, scoring 11 points, while adding five rebounds, four assists, and two steals. So he clearly fought through the pain on Thursday night. The question is, how well will he bounce back just 48 hours later? Considering the quality of Vilanova’s back court, the Jayhawks will be asking a lot of Mason on Saturday night.