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Old 05-03-2012, 02:51 AM   #956
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Sporting's second phase starts now.

Charles Gooch
The Kansas City Star
The only things, so far, that have been able to stop Sporting Kansas City's torrid start are a Chance Myers own goal and the schedule makers.

That both happened at the same time seems rather fortuitous.

While feels like a month ago, but, really it's only been a little over a week since KC fell 1-0 to Portland. Though it has been long enough for the Royals to end and begin another multiple-game losing streak in that period.

After the break, however, it's time to get back and re-focused -- like eating a taco, you never really forget how to do it. So, let's get going with XI Questions I have about the second phase of Sporting's season. Here goes.

1. What's the biggest challenge that Sporting face now?
Living up to expectations.

Peter Vermes and company have been the biggest surprise of the young MLS season. Many thought that KC would be good this year, but definitely not 7-1-0 with victories over Los Angeles and Salt Lake.

Well, now the element of surprise is gone.

Which is what happens when you sit at the top of the table with a six-point cushion in the Eastern Conference.

The element of surprise gets replaced by expectation.

While the expectations to start the season were already fairly high (repeat trip to the Eastern Conference finals), the expectations have risen higher -- main challengers for the Supporter's Shield and early favorites for the MLS Cup.

Any team that's trending toward ascendancy faces this obstacle. It comes from fans, from the front office, from the rest of the league, from the players themselves.

It's a huge beast that sits in every meeting and every huddle. You will take every team's best shot. You don't get the benefit of being the hunter (as KC were last year). Nope, you're now the hunted.

In 2000, the Wizards started 10-0-2 but struggled during a nine-game stretch with just one victory in early summer. That team managed to put things back together, re-focus and re-gather themselves. As the season closed, that squad lost only three times after August 1.

It's unknown how this current team will react to being the overwhelming favorite -- this is a position that not many of the players on this team have ever faced professionally.

Though, it can't hurt that Vermes and assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin were both there in 2000 to experience this first hand as players.

2. Speaking of expectations, what's logical to expect (points-wise) from Sporting at the end of the season?
Wow. That's a great question. I'm glad I asked myself that and then gave myself time to actually do the math to figure it out. (Math isn't my strong point.)

It's probably logical to expect KC to finish somewhere in the 58-67 points range based on current form.

To earn 58 points, KC would need to finish the next 26 games a slightly better than mediocre 10-9-7. To get to 67 points -- equal to Los Angeles' Supporters Shield total from last year -- KC would need to go 12-4-10.

By comparison, over the last 26 games last season, KC went 12-3-11.

3. How does this strong start compare to the trophy-winning seasons of the Wizards?
Thankfully, my colleague Tod Palmer already nailed this one. The cliff notes: Pretty favorably.

4. More recently: How does SKC '12 through 8 matches compare to SKC '11 through 8 matches?
Much better, obviously.

The eighth match of the season in '11 was a 1-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders. Sporting were 1-6-1 and mired in last place.

The starting XI that day? Jimmy Nielsen; Michael Harrington, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza (at left back!); Davy Arnaud, Craig Rocastle, Omar Bravo; Kei Kamara, Teal Bunbury, Ryan Smith.

This was the game that Vermes started to figure where his team was going. Four of those guys are no longer in KC; two aren't regular starters. And, in the next fixture (a 1-1 draw at Colorado), he added Graham Zusi, C.J. Sapong, Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic into the lineup as KC began its 14-match unbeaten streak.

That right there is the foundation of the current team, with only Bobby Convey tossed into the mix.

Kansas City never has looked back from there.

5. Is there a cool stat that bears mentioning right now?
Oooooh, I love stats that bear mentioning.

Sporting Kansas City have yet to draw a red card this season. By this time last year, KC had already drawn three red cards.

What's more, only three players (Collin -3, Myers -2, Nagamura -2) have multiple yellow cards this season.

6. There's got to be a more interesting stat than that?
This one comes from Tod Palmer's story on Monday. Sporting KC have more points right now (21) than the 1999 KC Wizards earned all season (20)!

7. Is Kei Kamara on pace to absolutely demolish the MLS shots record in one season?
Well, in the modern era (2002-present), the most shots registered in one season stands at 119. That was done twice (Ante Razov in '03 and Kenny Cooper in '08).

Kamara is averaging 8 per game so far. Which puts him on pace for 248 this season.

Or, if you added Cooper and Razov's shot totals together... you'd still fall 10 shots short of the pace Kamara is on.

8. What is the schedule like for Sporting KC the next month?

Only four MLS games are on tap: Montreal this Saturday, back-to-back road swings with Chicago (May 12) and Colorado (May 19), then hosting San Jose on Sunday, May 27 in KC's first NBC Sports match. After that, another long bye week.

If you play the "reasonable expectation" game with this stretch, 7-9 points from those four fixtures seems logical. The San Jose and Colorado games are especially dicey. Trips to Chicago aren't always easy either. My guess is two wins (Montreal and San Jose), a draw (Chicago) and a loss (Colorado) -- 7 points.

9. Doesn't the U.S. Open Cup start soon?
Yes. Yes it does. Major League Soccer teams will enter the competition in the third round on May 29.

10. Who needs to step up the next few matches?
Michael Harrington and Teal Bunbury.

Harrington will get at least one start -- on Saturday against Montreal -- while Sinovic recovers from hand surgery. The one-time starter probably figured to have more minutes this season than one. It tells you how well Sinovic has played that it came to that. Saturday will be Harrington's chance to showcase his skills and prove the power of Kansas City's depth.

For Bunbury the challenge is more internal and harder to figure out. He's struggling to find the net and his way into the lineup. (He also won't have the consolation of U.S. Olympic matches either.)

Can Bunbury keep his focus and find a way out of this slump so he can remain a key young contributor to Sporting Kansas City? That's a question I think we'll have an answer to by this time next month.

11. What tactical tweaks has Vermes been working on this week?
I would hope that he's working on scoring in the run of play.

Of the 12 goals Sporting scored this season, only four have come from open play. And, depending on who is doing the counting, half of those appear to come from the New England game when KC was up a man.

It hasn't presented itself as a problem in seven of the eight games so far -- Zusi's dead ball ability, Sporting's counter-attacking and Sapong's relentless nose for rebounds have staked KC enough goals. But against Portland, KC's inability to circulate the ball and create scoring chances from possession hurt them almost as much as Myer's own goal.

If teams are going to bunker (especially when making trips to Livestrong) or if teams are going to give KC a bit of room on the flanks while clogging the middle (which Portland did at times), Sporting need to find a way to turn that into an advantage.

Which is really what's now expected of them.
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