Sporting KC and Trying New Things

Peter Vermes trying a formation change against the LA Galaxy is a good sign for Sporting this season–and beyond.

My wife was bouncing up and down in her seat as Sporting and the LA Galaxy lined up before kickoff at Children’s Mercy Park on Sunday.

“We’re playing three in the back!” she announced, squeezing my arm for emphasis.

Without the benefit of the Fox Sports pregame, I had assumed that the lineup announced on Twitter, with Opara at right back and Espinoza at defensive midfielder, was probably how the team would lineup. I had a few niggling doubts that Vermes would put his players in those positions, but there really wasn’t evidence that Sporting was trying something new. (To be fair, my wife had speculated about the 3-4-3 as soon as she saw the lineup)

Turns out, the reality was even less expected than Ike at right back and Espinoza as a makeshift d-mid: Vermes started the match with Sporting in a 3-4-3 formation. Opara, Coelho, and Besler played across the back. In the midfield, Espinoza and Feilhaber played in the middle of the pitch with Seth Sinovic and (of all things) Graham Zusi featuring as wing backs. Up front, Dwyer was in the center, flanked by Brad Davis and Jimmy Medranda (Jimmy was a revelation, but that’s a topic worth its own post).

Watching from the West Stand, my wife and I were surprised by the new formation, but the LA Galaxy were absolutely gobsmacked. Sporting ran roughshod over the flummoxed Galaxy for the first twenty minutes or so, a spell in which LA was lucky to have not given up multiple goals. One wonders whether a Sporting team more familiar with the 3-4-3 formation would have had better timing and better results in front of goal.

Peter Vermes demonstrating that kind of tactical flexibility is a big deal for Sporting. A. Very. Big. Deal. If you root for Sporting Kansas City, Sunday night was a good sign for the team this season and beyond, even if SKC had to settle for the draw against the Galaxy.

Vermes has been committed to Sporting playing a 4-3-3 since the beginning of his tenure. He’s arguably forced players into roles that didn’t particularly suit them in order to play his preferred formation. While Kei Kamara excelled as a winger with Sporting, the fact that he found success at center forward in the English Premier League (a bit of a step up from MLS, we can all agree) and scored 22 goals in Columbus last season makes it hard to argue that center forward isn’t his natural position. Claudio Bieler never, ever worked as a lone striker in Kansas City, but that’s what he was for Sporting because that’s what is needed in a 4-3-3. Even though he was the most talented player on the roster, Omar Bravo never really set the world afire on the wing. Don’t even get me started thinking about what could have been with Soony Saad in a different system.

Vermes has been devoted to the 4-3-3 system for all but the most dire of circumstances, so no one–not my wife and I, and certainly not the LA Galaxy–expected him to begin the match in any other formation–but that’s exactly what happened. Even if the formation change didn’t get a win, and even if the whole thing morphed back into a 4-3-3 with Coelho as the defensive midfielder before the match was done, the switch was the kind of tactical adjustment that needs to be in Vermes’ managerial tool set if Sporting is going to keep challenging for trophies.

Peter Vermes has long been one of the top team-builders in MLS. The talent he’s found from around the world includes the aforementioned Coelho, as well as Nemeth, Uri, Mustivar, and everyone’s favorite Frenchman, Aurelien Collin. Vermes has also successfully salvaged the careers of players who, for whatever reason, weren’t succeeding at the level their talents could permit, guys like Feilhaber and Kamara. Vermes has shown that he can develop talent, turning guys like Chance Myers into a quiet star. Vermes has shown that he can oversee an academy system by turning Kevin Ellis into a solid contributor and Erik Palmer-Brown into an international prospect. PV can build through the draft–he’s repeatedly drafted players that no one else spotted, guys like Graham Zusi and the now departed CJ Sapong. Speaking of CJ Sapong, as much as I miss him, it’s a tribute to Vermes’ roster building skills that he could turn a guy who was going to be lost in an expansion draft anyway into Connor Hallisey by making a trade with the Philadelphia Union. Peter Vermes has proven that he can excel at everything a Manager and Technical Director needs to do in MLS–other than make tactical adjustments.

Unfortunately for Sporting fans, as great as Peter Vermes has been at building a roster, and as much as he’s succeeded playing his preferred system, we need Vermes to improve as tactician if this team is going to win more trophies.

If you remember how much it hurt to see Sporting repeatedly eliminated from the playoffs by the Houston Dynamo, you know what a tactically minded coach can accomplish in MLS. If you watched San Jose effectively own Sporting for the past two seasons, you learned the same lesson–from the same coach. Dominic Kinnear doesn’t exactly coach scintillating soccer, but in both Houston and now San Jose he has demonstrated just how successful a tactically brilliant coach can be in MLS. Even with a roster of merely decent MLS talent, I’ve seen Kinnear out-coach Vermes.

At the other end of the MLS talent spectrum, Bruce Arena has had to figure out ways to make those top-heavy rosters work. That’s something he’s done over and over again, and something that I doubt anyone else in MLS could accomplish. It’s certainly not something Peter Vermes is known for, what with the disappointing tenures of stars like Bravo. Arena has a stack of MLS Cups to show for his managerial magic.

On Sunday against the Galaxy, Vermes tried something new. He made a tactical adjustment to put his best players on the field. The extra Sporting players in the midfield created mismatches, and the abundance of players in the attack overwhelmed the Galaxy defense (oh, how I enjoyed watching Ashley Cole for a change!). Plus, Sporting basically just surprised the daylights out of the visitors. They also gave every future opponent something new to worry about; it’s not so easy to prepare for Sporting anymore.

I doubt that we will see a 3-4-3 again this weekend, because it’s not exactly a formation built for a road match against a team with high scoring offense and a shoddy defense. Who knows, though? Once you start trying new things, sometimes you just want to experiment more. Heck, who’s to say that we won’t see a 3-5-2 with Dom and Rubio paired up top? That’s the sort of thing the Dynamo have to wonder about now that Sporting Kansas City is willing to try new things.