Sporting Kansas City are off to a flying start in 2012 – best in club history with a perfect 6-0-0 record, many thanks to what can only be assumed as a tremendous comfort level among a regular starting eleven, week in and week out.
Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes has filled out the exact same lineup sheet five weeks running now, with the only change on the season seeing forwards Teal Bunbury and CJ Sapong trade starting and bench places, respectively, between the season opener against DC United and the following week’s matchup against New England Revolution.
Regular starters – and now rising stars – Graham Zusi has six assists already, Sapong and Kei Kamara each boast of three goals scored early on, and the defensive quartet of Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic have combined for shutouts in five of the team’s six games. Quite simply, everyone is playing to very near their maximum level of potential.
That momentum of consistency is all about to come to a screeching halt this week, though. Beginning Wednesday night, Sporting face their first two-games-in-four-days road trip, and for the first time in 2012, Vermes will have to rely heavily upon what he believes to be an extremely deep squad of players, though untested for the most part this campaign. The week’s opponents – Vancouver Whitecaps and Portland Timbers - currently find themselves seventh and ninth in the Western Conference, respectively.
The likes of Bunbury, Michael Harrington, Luke Sassano, Jacob Peterson and Paulo Nagamura look like the ones with much to gain, and most likely to see an immediate boost in playing time, with each player but Bunbury likely picking up their first start of the young season. The group of reserve players have featured regularly on Vermes’ bench and been used to varying degrees as second half substitutes, but none will have had a better chance to impress upon Vermes their potential contributions to a team so hot to start the year than they will have come by the end of Saturday night.
As opposed to travling the usual 18 to 19 players for a single away game, Vermes is likely to take anywhere between 21 and 23 players along for the mid-week/weekend back-to-back in the Pacific Northwest this week. While all will surely not be used in either match to start, as maximum points gained are and will always be the lone goal in Vermes’ mind, or even the gameday bench in some cases, but for those that are selected for extended time on the field, the pressure of maintaining and extending an eight-point lead in the MLS Eastern Conference will fall upon them, at least for a night or two.
Thus far, Myers, Kamara, Besler and Roger Espinoza have played all 540 minutes in 2012, and Sinovic has play 539 of them. Myers and Kamara cover as much ground as any winger or fullback in MLS, so each should be expected to sit out at least one of two games, at least from the start. Centerback is by far the thinnest position in terms of depth on the team, so Besler could see himself tack on another 180 minutes this week, but that should be no problem for him, as he’s physically the most fit player on the team, and completed every minute of the 32 games in which he played in 2011 – all 2,880 of them. If Sinovic gets a breather, I’d fancy Korede Aiyegbusi to get the spot-start.
If Sporting player covers more ground that the two right-sided wide players, it’s Espinoza. Actually, it feels like Espinoza covers about as much ground in 90 minutes as a marathon runner covers in four hours, only he does it at a much less leisurely pace. Espinoza’s game – pressure, pressure, pressure, and at a very high rate – is the epitome of the way Vermes wants his team to play. This means Espinoza will likely get a much-deserved evening off this week – and it is certainly deserved. Nagamura is a somewhat like-for-like replacement for Espinoza, so he could benefit directly from Espinoza getting a rest.
Defensive midfielder Julio Cesar is the most likely candidate for one or two games off, as Cesar is the oldest outfield player in the squad and left Saturday’s victory over Real Salt Lake with an apparent upper-leg strain. Nagamur’s minutes this season have mostly come as a substitute for Cesar, but with him being so suitable to spell Espinoza, Sassano figures to make a start as defensive midfielder against Vancouver, at the very least.
As for the forwards, it’s a little more straightforward. Bunbury re-claims the center forward role for a night in Canada, and Sapong is the man again on Saturday. Kamara could do with a game off himself, and Peterson has been the preferred in-game replacement for him so far this year. Bobby Convey can also expect to get a rest in one game, too, unless Vermes opts to sit Zusi in one and use the former English Premier League standout as his attacking midfielder for a night. In that event, rookie Dom Dwyer becomes a candidate for his first MLS start as the left winger.
This year’s lone change in starting players alluded to earlier also represents the total number of goals conceded by Sporting on the season – one. For comparison’s sake, through six games in 2011, Vermes had used 21 different players in the starting eleven, which translated either directly or indirectly into conceding 13 goals in the same time frame.
It’s now time to find out for certain whether Vermes’ squad really is “built for two or three competitions in the same season,” as it has been dubbed early on. Performances of the highest quality late in games – from starters and substitutes alike – suggest Sporting will not come back home Sunday morning emptyhanded.