Sporting Kansas City is mired in their worst run of form since the start of the 2011 season when they won just one of their first 11 games. That run though saw Kansas City play 10 of those 11 games on the road before the opening of Children's Mercy Park. This run of form is worse because KC has had five of their last 10 games at home, and has picked up just four points in those five home games. Away from home KC has picked up just one point in their five on the road for a grand total of just five points taken of the last 30 available. At the same time Kansas City has played more games (15) than any other team in the league, the closest is Vancouver and Dallas, who have played 14. Unfortunately for KC though most of the teams currently ahead of the seventh place Sporting KC in the West have multiple games in hand, from the four the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake have to the three for San Jose, and two for Colorado along with Vancouver and Dallas. So Kansas City finds themselves in a situation that will be very difficult to pull themselves out of with their busy second half of the season schedule which will see Kansas City play in potentially three competitions, league, the Champions League, and the US Open Cup, should they advance.
So how have things really gone wrong for Kansas City this year? There's really not one thing that can be pointed to as the exact reason and there's endless speculation on other things involving the team. So I thought I'd take a look at a few of the things that are the big talking points.
Not Replacing Nemeth
In late January Sporting KC agreed to sell Hungarian striker, Krisztian Nemeth to Qatari club, Al-Gharafa ending his stay with Kansas City after only just one season. Reports were that Nemeth wanted a bump in pay after scoring 16 goals across all competitions in 2015, good for second on the team behind Dom Dwyer. KC at the time of the sale was hurt by Nemeth's departure, but obviously felt okay with the players that they had to replace him having acquired Justin Mapp via free agency in December and Brad Davis via trade in January. Neither player could fill the exact role that Nemeth played as that's not the way either player plays. The hope was that Nemeth's production would be replaced with goal scoring by committee. So far the pair has combined for just two goals and zero assists in 15 combined appearances, both from Davis. Mapp has missed the majority of the season after suffering a turf toe injury in preseason and has been limited to just two appearances. The absence of an adequate goal scoring replacement leads to the second topic.
Last year with Nemeth on the roster, teams had to respect his ability to cut inside and cause trouble that way. That meant teams had to divide their focus on the forwards between those two. That allowed both Nemeth and Dom Dwyer to be successful in 2015. Without Nemeth this year though, teams are able to key in a lot more on Dwyer and isolate him from the rest of the team. This has helped lead to what fans have started to call "Dwyer Island" as Dwyer is basically all on his own against two center backs that usually have at least a couple inches on the 5'9" Dwyer. And while he'll win his share of challenges, more often than not KC is trying to win the second ball after the opposing center back has beaten Dwyer to the ball in the air.
Another thing that the absence of Nemeth has done to contribute to Dwyer Island is in who Peter Vermes has deployed as his replacement. KC replaced Nemeth, a forward playing out wide as a winger with Davis and Mapp, wingers playing as wingers in KC's system. The first instinct for those two (and Graham Zusi on the opposite wing) is to cut outside and get a cross into the box. That leaves Dwyer in the box all alone for those crosses regularly, which doesn't lead to a high success of finishing. KC's success in the second half against Orlando City the other week that finally led to a goal was the introduction of Jacob Peterson. While Peterson isn't the most skillful player on the team, his mindset of coming in first proved vital in that game helping to set up the equalizer and score the winner. That's something that Kansas City has lacked with Davis or one of the other wingers starting opposite Zusi, KC has no one whose immediate instinct is to be in the box. Vermes has tried to solve this by switching the sides that Davis and Zusi are on, trying to get them so that they're cutting in on their dominate foot, but that hasn't worked as expected and Dwyer remains isolated in the middle without someone to help play off of.
The Fall of Benny Feilhaber
Benny Feilhaber was a finalist for league MVP last year, scoring 10 goals and adding 15 assists in league play for Kansas City over 32 games. This year through 11 games he has scored just twice (both penalty kicks) and only provided two assists, only one of those four has come since mid-April for KC. After missing the first three games with injury, Feilhaber has also been benched twice by Vermes, once in the 1-0 loss on the road to Colorado and again just last night at home against DC. He's had a major let down in form in an important contract year for him. Part of that issue again goes back to Nemeth. Without the unpredictability on the wing for KC, teams are able to focus more on the middle of the field with Dwyer and Feilhaber and this has left both players frustrated and shut down a lot in terms of offense. Being unable to play through the middle has caused KC to go to more work on the wing or long balls over the top which have been far less than successful for KC. Talk last year had been about giving Feilhaber a designated player contract, so far his 2016 form hasn't shown him deserving of a contract of that size.
Trailing Late and Leaving Your DP on the Bench
Sporting Kansas City brought in Chilean forward, Diego Rubio as a forward on a sixth month loan from Real Valladolid of Spain. At the time Vermes compared his style of play to Dwyer's and how he'd be able to supplement Dwyer. Since being brought in though Rubio has appeared in just six games and played 162 minutes. He hasn't appeared in a game since the 2-0 loss to Houston on May 7th. Since then the club has been losing in all four games since that appearance yet Vermes has gone with defensive substitutions or inserting Jacob Peterson instead of the DP. While Rubio is still just 23, his inability to get on the field, even when KC is trailing would seem to be a sign that Kansas City won't be looking to keep Rubio long term. As has become typical under Vermes he has seemed to be adamantly against the idea of playing two "true" strikers at the same time even when trailing. Rubio and Dwyer have spent a total of zero minutes on the field together this season.
The Hulk Becomes Bruce Banner
Last season Kansas City looked to have found a diamond in the rough when Tim Melia took over in goal for Luis Marin. Melia had a solid season getting 8 shutouts, making 82 saves, a number of them big, and it was his play in the box that was impressive as well as he had a strong command of his box which took pressure off the defense. This season though it would seem that "The Hulk" has turned into Bruce Banner. Melia has made a number of mistakes this season (as have others) that have cost Kansas City goals. From poor decisions on passes out of the back that are compounded by defensive giveaways to DC United's goal on Friday night when he came all the way to the penalty spot to punch a ball, but missed, took out his own player and left an empty net for Alhaji Kamara to finish.
The Burden of Success (the Draft)
One issue with the team this season isn't actually directly from this season but a symptom of Kansas City's success over the past few years. KC has had success in the past building their team through the draft, but they've really not gotten a lot out of it since the rebranding due to the success of the team. While KC has picked up the likes of CJ Sapong and Dom Dwyer, since 2013 Superdraft KC has had just one successful draft. In the other three drafts no players from those drafts is still with the club. The 2015 draft saw Kansas City bring in Connor Hallisey, Saad Abdul-Salaam, and Amadou Dia, but the likes of Mikey Lopez, Adnan Gabeljic, Ryan James, and a host of others have been drafted in the other three years and have failed to make the team or stick with the team. Vermes has developed a history of good drafting, but the later picks in the last few years, and trading away picks to acquire other players like Benny Feilhaber has left KC not getting much out of one of their better ways of acquiring players.
There are certainly a number of legitimate issues with Sporting Kansas City right now, but there are also the ones that are speculation, including that Vermes has lost the locker room and a lack of leadership in the Sporting KC locker room. The mindset is that with the way that players have been acting on the field and Vermes benching the likes of Feilhaber and his captain Besler during different stretches of this current run of form, there have to be questions asked of Vermes control of the locker room and if he is losing it. When a team is winning a lot of things can be overlooked because you're picking up points, but when things start to go south things can get a lot stressful in the locker room. Players are fighting for jobs, coaches are fighting for jobs, and it can just cause a lot of trouble. If Vermes has lost the locker room there are other questions that need to be asked about the team and coaches as well at this point. You have to question the leadership in the locker room among the players, including the club's captain, Besler, but also the likes of Zusi, Roger Espinoza, and Feilhaber all of whom are looked at as the leaders of the team on and off the field.
If he has lost the locker room, serious questions probably need to start being asked about Vermes and his ability to continue to coach the team. When a coach has lost a locker room either the team needs to be blown up, with the players most involved with the dissent in the locker room needing to go or the coach needing to head out. For me I'm not sure that Vermes has lost the locker room at this point. I think what we're seeing is general frustration from the team and coach over their play lately.
Even if he hasn't lost the locker room though, there are a number of people that feel that it is time for a change in Kansas City when it comes to coach, that it's time to bring an end to Vermes time in Kansas City. This is another area that I just can't get behind both because I don't see the team doing it and because I personally don't think you need to fire Vermes to turn this around.
So the question is, how can Kansas City fix this? It's certainly not an easy answer and may not be one that can be answered this year, but there are things that can be done to try to. The first is to have a busy summer transfer window. The transfer window for MLS opens in a little over a month on July 4th and is open for a month. KC will need to make some additions and probably some subtractions from the team at that point. The first to be looked at is obviously Diego Rubio as he was only on a three month loan. If you let him go you have to look to get some scoring support to back up Dwyer, because with all the games in the second half of the season (and Dwyer's wife Sydney Leroux expecting to give birth in September), KC is going to need a backup striker who can make the spot starts. Whether they find that in MLS or elsewhere, it's something that would need to be done.
On top of that KC probably needs to look to find more of a scoring punch that can start games for KC. KC has only scored 14 goals through 15 games so far this season, the third fewest goals in the league ahead of only Seattle and Chicago and only Chicago has a worse goals per game record offensively. The team isn't getting goal production from their wing players this year. While Brad Davis has scored two goals this year (second on the team behind Dwyer), Sporting needs more from there to be successful. Whether that involves moving a starter like Zusi or Davis elsewhere on the field, or making a more through a trade within MLS for a big piece, KC needs to get more goals from the wing. For KC's system to be successful, the wingers need to be scoring goals as well. From Nemeth, to CJ Sapong (don't even start about why he wasn't played in the middle more), to Kei Kamara, KC has always gotten goal production from their wings to supplement Dwyer or whoever is up top. With that not happening as much, along with Feilhaber's struggles, KC's offense is very one dimensional and easily shut down.
If KC does choose to make a move within MLS, it may be time for the club to consider breaking up some of its core. The club has relied on the likes of Besler, Feilhaber, Zusi, Chance Myers, Seth Sinovic, and Roger Espinoza for the past few seasons to basically be penciled in as starters most games. With all those players now being over 30 or close to it, it may be time to start to consider breaking up the core a little bit. Feilhaber while excellent last year has struggled to find his form in 2016 and is out of contract this winter, Zusi has struggled to regain his form ever since the 2014 World Cup, only showing the flashes of the form he had before that. The likes of Myers and Sinovic have continued to struggle with injuries this season and as of right now both appear to have lost their starting spots to younger players like Abdul-Salaam, Dia, and Jimmy Medranda. Both were extremely successful in their time in KC, but it may be time to end that if the right deal could be made. The other option is to look to trade off some high salary players that aren't pulling their weight, against players like Zusi, Myers, and Sinovic fall in that group, but so does the likes of Paulo Nagamura who is still making over $200,000 as an injury prone back up. Yes KC needs him when Espinoza is out, but a cheaper option may not be the worst thing for KC to find.
If it comes to the worst and things still don't look like they're going to succeed this year, then at least play the kids. If KC does find itself out of it in terms of making the playoffs, Vermes needs to at least look at sitting some of his veterans to get younger players more time. He's done that some already as Abdul-Salaam, Dia, and Medranda seem to be displacing the wingbacks for KC. Elsewhere the club hasn't had as much success as Jordi Quintilla has struggled to stake a claim as a starter in the midfield for Kansas City while up top Connor Hallisey has struggled to do the same with the forwards.
In the end this season isn't lost for KC, while they certainly have a hill to climb to make the playoffs; this is MLS we're talking about. You go on a five to seven game unbeaten run and you're right back in the playoff race and making a run to MLS Cup. Vermes does need to look at attempting to change things up to try and really get KC to move forward. The ability to do so (or not) may be one of the defining moments of Vermes' time as coach for KC.