Does it matter? Sure it doesn’t.
Seeing as how it’s early April and there’s still seven months of MLS regular season left to be played, it’s far too early to start counting down “Magic Numbers” to clinch playoff spots. (it’s currently 78 more points for Sporting Kansas City, for the record) While nothing matters other than stockpiling points at this time, (and Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes wants your points — he wants ALL of them) the “best team in the league” debate rages on as loudly as ever, and it just so happens to center right around Sporting KC.
But, are they the best? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, but let’s do a little deductive reasoning, anyway.
Disclaimer: A lot of this piece is going to be centered around the Sporting KC vs. Real Salt Lake clash this coming weekend. Before you read ahead, put some perspective in your life and read this piece from last month by SB Nation’s Kevin McCauley; the gist of the story pertains 100 percent this weekend, too.
The Résumé (with bonus perspective)
For starters, Sporting KC couldn’t have possibly made a better start to 2012, record-wise: taking 15 points from a possible 15. Their defensive record could also only be slightly better, in the fact they’ve allowed a single goal (on a free kick, at that) through five games (450 minutes!!! – 0.20 goals allowed per game)
Sporting are getting it done as a team, but they’ve also got some standout individuals that are doing the business and carrying the load. In keeping with the theme of 2011 (three forwards with nine goals a piece), Sporting have a pair of forwards with three goals already (Kei Kamara and CJ Sapong – a pace that, while highly unlikely to sustain for 34 games – would see them each reach the 20 goal mark). Midfielder Graham Zusi has also jumped out to an early lead in the goal-creating tally, picking up five assists through five games – one ahead of New York Red Bulls forward Thierry Henry.
But, have they been a bit fortunate with a favorable beginning schedule? If so, they’re about to hit a tougher stretch that could cause the first blip on the radar.
Before the season, Los Angeles Galaxy were slated to be “the greatest team in MLS history” by many, but massive struggles early on find them sitting at the very bottom of the Western Conference, just three points from four games. Plus, Sporting handled them in dominating fashion on Saturday afternoon, picking up a 1-0 victory, which felt much more like 3-0 or 4-0.
The Red Bulls are as Jekyll and Hyde as any team in Major League Soccer. How a team looks as pedestrian and uninterested in their first two games of the season (albeit, against top competition) as the 2012 Red Bulls, then rattle off three straight wins by a combined 13-4 is beyond most MLS media folk and fan alike. Thierry has scored eleventy-billion goals in the last three games (seven, to be exact) and even Kenny Cooper is scoring for fun again (six goals in three starts and two substitute appearances). They were never going to be as awful as their losses to FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake suggested, but you can still count on the odd 1-0 loss to a Toronto FC-type loss sooner or later.
If MLS were run on a single table format with each conference combined into one, your current third place team would be — wait for it — the San Jose Earthquakes. Yeah, really. Long the punchline of MLS for crowds the size of U-7 tee-ball leagues, the Earthquakes hold two of the league’s most surprising victories of the season – a 1-0 shocker away to Seattle Sounders and a 3-1 dismissal over Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday afternoon. And, of course, it’s that man – Chris Wondolowski – leading the scoring charge for San Jose once again (five goals in five games). Don’t worry, though, we’ll very soon find out if San Jose are for real or not – their next two games: away to New York and home to Real Salt Lake. Four points or more from those two, and the ‘Quakes are not messing around.
Perhaps the thing most astonishing to outsiders about Sporting KC is not just the fact they’re picking up results at a 100 percent record, but the fact they’re doing so playing a beautiful game, with great flair and style, and making decent teams look downright poor. Not many MLS clubs can say the same. Enter: Real Salt Lake.
Outside of a shocking 1-0 loss to Chivas USA at home a couple weeks ago, Real Salt Lake have been absolutely dominant in picking up 15 points from six games – a combined 11-3 ransacking of LA, New York, Portland, Montreal and Colorado. Like I said of Sporting KC, getting results is well and good, but RSL are step for step with Sporting in terms of possession dominance, aesthetically pleasing football and stout defending. Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio combine for five goals (three and two, respectively) with assists coming from seven different players already (five Sporting players have been helpers thus far).
Real Salt Lake also match Sporting KC man for man from top to bottom of each’s starting eleven. The midfield quartet of Kyle Beckerman, Luis Gil, Ned Grabavoy and Sebastian Velasquez matches up for flair, tenacity and ball-winning with Sporting’s Julio Cesar, Roger Espinoza and Graham Zusi trio.
Salt Lake’s defense stacks up every bit as daunting as Sporting KC, too. Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers are an MLS Best 11 centerback pairing (when healthy), and fullbacks Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert would each start for two-thirds of Major League Soccer. Remember: four goals conceded in six games.
Undoubtedly, this game will continue to be billed as “The Battle of the Best” throughout the week (and rightly so, I suppose), but in the grand scheme of things, it’s little more than an opportunity to stockpile three more points for either side. Sure, these two teams could very well meet again on December 1 at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park or Rio Tinto Stadium, but neither side will be any semblance of the team they are this Saturday. RSL will get infinitely better as Javier Morales is worked back into the squad after a dislocated ankle and ligament damage cost him most of the 2011 season. And rest assured, Sporting will not (and I’ll take anybody’s money on this bet) reach the maximum 102 point level for the entire season. A skid is coming, and this could be it.
But really, listen to what my friend Kevin said of LA-RSL a month ago: “Watch this game for what will likely be some fantastic football” but please, for the love of a 34-game season, leave it at that.
As for the debate, I’ll leave that you anyone with an opinion in the comments section. Are Sporting Kansas City the best team in MLS?