By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 4, 2013) US Soccer Players - On Saturday at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas, the rest of Major League Soccer got a glimpse of one of several possible futures for an already good team in the midst of reforming itself. After a slow start to their season opened questions about the ability of Peter Vermes and Sporting Kansas City to transition from the high-energy, high-pressure, style they made their calling card over the last two seasons, Saturday’s victory over Montreal provided the beginnings of the answers.
The key to that victory rested squarely on the feet of midfielder Benny Feilhaber. Acquired in the offseason from the New England Revolution to help replace some of Sporting’s departures in the midfield, most notably Roger Espinoza, Feilhaber’s role is new in Peter Vermes’s setup. Rather, Feilhaber’s particular skillset, when added to that of another midfield replacement in Oriol Rosell, required a shift in philosophy. Without the vast ground-covering ways of Espinoza and defensive bite of Julio Cesar, Sporting’s old ways wouldn’t work anymore.
Feilhaber set up both of Sporting’s goals with similarly perfect passes to streaking attackers, the first to Claudio Bieler in the opening five minutes and the second to Graham Zusi to put the game away in the 80th. Those two assists sum up what Feilhaber brings to Sporting, and what he’ll need to provide consistently if the change in style is going to push Sporting to the MLS Cup title they’ve been chasing as one of the East’s best regular season teams for the last two years. It’s not often a good team makes such fundamental changes in the midst of a good run of season finishes. Vermes and Sporting smartly recognized two things that forced a change: 1) As good as they were in the regular season, the old style wasn’t enough to beat smartly coached teams (read: Houston) in the playoffs and 2) it would be difficult to find another Roger Espinoza, the engine of those recent Sporting teams.
Granted space to pick his head up and move the ball, Feilhaber was stellar in the early season matchup of overachievers (Montreal) and underachievers (Sporting Kansas City). The early goal helped. It forced Montreal to play more aggressively to make up the deficit, thereby granting Feilhaber freedom to consider his options each time he touched the ball. If Feilhaber plays like that consistently over the bulk of the MLS season, Sporting’s transition of styles won’t see them take a step back in the standings.
It was probably always going to take some time for Sporting to find their new sea legs, and for the new additions to their starting lineup to feel comfortable. One win doesn’t necessarily indicate that they’ve “figured it out”, nor does Feilhaber’s performance guarantee that he’ll become the attacking linchpin that Peter Vermes hoped he would when Sporting acquired the midfielder from New England. During his time with the Revolution, after returning from a European stint that ended with a depressing season in the Danish second division, Feilhaber showed glimpses of the attacking prowess of which he’s capable. Ultimately, the fit went south and Feilhaber became expendable.
In Kansas City, Feilhaber faces not only the new challenge of becoming Sporting’s predominant playmaker, but the requirement that he contribute on the defensive side of the ball as well. If there’s one knock on Feilhaber’s game, it’s that he’s not much help in that regard. Yet, on Saturday, Feilhaber pulled his weight defensively, helping Sporting to win back the ball more than a dozen times over the course of 90 minutes.
Sporting’s first four games were distressing: a win over a hapless Philadelphia Union side that required a second half comeback; a surprising loss to Toronto FC full of defensive mistakes and offensive ineffectiveness; and two scoreless draws with New England and Chicago, teams that don’t appear to be contenders thus far into the 2013 season. It wasn’t the start of a team that looked ready to continue its Eastern Conference domination. It wasn’t the start of a team that looked capable of making such basic changes to the way that they play and remain a top team in the league. It wasn’t the start of a team comfortably integrating new players without skipping the proverbial beat.
Which is why Saturday’s victory over Montreal is so encouraging. Feilhaber’s individual play - rising to the level of the creative provider everyone knows he can be - is the focus, but his step into the role of playmaker also has a knock-on effect throughout the Sporting formation. Graham Zusi, previously tasked with much of the creative responsibilities in a team that was rich in goal-scoring types but needed someone to provide the final ball, can slip into a more active role. No longer asked to be the man dictating the rhythm, Zusi’s abilities to provide crosses and make cutting runs come to the forefront.
Sporting Kansas City’s performance against Montreal in a comprehensive and stylish 2-0 win on Saturday means little if they can’t carry it over from week to week. Whether they can, and whether Benny Feilhaber--as the key to the transformation--has truly found his groove as the maestro of a new, more attractive, style, will be borne out of the course of months.
If Saturday was the moment when everything clicked for Peter Vermes’s side, we’ll be talking about those first four games as nothing more than a short learning curve. If that’s the case, the Eastern Conference would be wise to watch out.
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