There’s only onnnne Jimmy Nielsen
Only onnne Jimmy Nielsen.
He’s guarding the post, saving some goals,
walkin in a Jimmy wonderland!
Founded: 1996 (Originally called the Kansas City Wiz. The team changed their name to the Kansas City Wizards in 1997, and finally to Sporting Kansas City in 2010.)
Record: 13-9-6 (Second place in the Eastern Conference, three points ahead of the Montreal Impact. They are also tied on points with the New York Red Bulls for First place.)
Pedigree: 2000 MLS Cup Champions, 2000 Supporters Shield, 2-Time Winner of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (2004 and 2012.)
Rivals: Chicago Fire, F.C. Dallas
Supporters: The Cauldron (a nod to the team’s former nickname, the Wizards,) Fountain City Ultras, the Brookside Elite, Omaha Boys, King City Yardbirds, La Barra KC, Northland Noise.
Coach: Peter Vermes
Top Returning Players: GK Jimmy Nielsen, DEF Matt Besler, DEF Aurelien Collin, MID Graham Zusi, MID Paolo Nagamura, MID Oriol Rosell, and FWD Soony Said.
Key Additions: DEF Frederico Bessone (Oldham F.C.-England,) MID Benny Feilhaber (New England Revolution,) MID Josh Gardner (Montreal Impact,) and FWD Claudio Beiler (LDU Quito.)
Key Departures: DEF Michael Harrington (Portland Timbers,) DEF Yang Songo’o (Blackburn Rovers,) MID Roger Espinoza (Wigan-England,) MF Kei Kamara (Middlesborough F.C.-England,) FWD Bobby Convey (Toronto F.C.,)
Young Player to Watch: Saad
There is no team that embodies the spirit and evolution of Major League Soccer more than Sporting Kansas City. Starting out as the Kansas City Wiz, the team originally played at Arrowhead Stadium home to the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. Through multiple name and stadium changes, the club struggled to find its identity. I remember watching a Wizards- D.C. United game back in 2008 and wondering why Kansas City was playing in a park that looked like a high school field (the park they were playing at was Community America Ballpark and is used for community college and minor league baseball games.) Although the team has played in some interesting stadiums, their play has always generally been good, making the playoffs 11 of the 16 years the club has been existence and of course winning the MLS Cup.
Much in the way MLS’ attendance and impact dipped in the middle 2000’s, it felt like Kansas City needed a boost. The club seemed to bottom out between 2005 and 2010, where they only made the playoffs twice and attendance dropped. In 2011, the club changed its name once again, this time to Sporting Kansas City and moved into their own park at Sporting Park (it used to be Livestrong Park, but the name was changed after the Lance Armstrong fiasco.) While I am skeptical that a new name and new pitch changes everything, the club’s play and attitude has certainly changed. With 19,000 people on average attending each home match and the club currently in second in the Eastern Conference, Sporting Kansas City is a club that is on the rise.
When watching Sporting Kansas City, one of the first one things one comes away with is how physical they are. Of course the first name that catches any U.S. Soccer fans eyes on the Sporting backline is Matt Besler. Obviously Besler is a very good defender, but there is more to this defense than just Besler. To me, the real key cogs to this defense are Ike Opara, Seth Sinovic, and Aurelien Collin. I remember watching SKC earlier this season play against D.C. United and just being impressed by how difficult they made it for other teams to enter into their defensive third. They just play a brutal, physically punishing brand of defense. The club has only given up 28 goals this season, which is tied for the lowest in MLS. At fortress Kansas City, they have only given up 14 goals which is the best in Major League Soccer.
They do have a few weaknesses though. In the Columbus match, the Crew were able to find some success in stretching out their defense and if it had been a better team they may have actually scored some goals. The Red Bulls did the same thing in their August 3rd victory over SKC. The club also looked very lackadaisical on the goal that Chicago Fire Defender Hunter Jumper scored against Kansas City on August the 23rd. Perhaps because it was only the 13th minute there was not much urgency, but in a game with playoff implications I am not sure if that is the correct approach.
The club is also going to have to lay off of the reckless challenges. While their team plays a very physical brand of soccer, they seem to make very poor challenges from time to time that could affect the game. The club has committed over 431 fouls which is the most in all of Major League Soccer. The club also has three of the top five league leaders in yellow cards in Aurelien Collin (First-11,) Midfielders Oriol Rosell (Third-8,) and Peterson Joseph (Fifth-6.) They do have a quality reserve in Chance Myers, who has shown that he is a serviceable when the club is short on players. But it would be wise for the club to exercise some control, especially in November.
Of course, the club also has one of the best goalkeepers in all of Major League Soccer in Jimmy Nielsen. I like to refer to Nielsen as the Mad Dane because he is one of the most vocal goalkeepers that I have ever seen. While it is customary for goalkeepers to be leaders on the pitch, due to their ability to control the ball and the flow of the game, Nielsen is by far one of the loudest. But he does it because he is an excellent leader. When you watch him orchestrate his defense, you can tell that each player leans on him for advice and to keep the team together.
He is also more than just bark: the man is incredibly effective with making diving saves and for reading what an opponent’s attackers are going to do. The save that he made against Chicago Fire Forward Juan Luis Anongano three weeks ago proves this. Throughout that entire play, Nielsen never loses sight of the ball, is able to make a jump at it, and makes an incredible save. He has a Goals Against Average of .97, which is one of the lowest in all of Major League Soccer. So much of the playoffs is about having a keeper that is in form and right now Sporting Kansas City has one of the best in Jimmy Nielsen.
Earlier in the season, one of the things that was apparent with this squad was how much they missed having Roger Espinoza in their midfield. Espinoza, who now plays for Wigan in England, was the type of midfielder who had a creative flair that could help SKC break down their opponent’s offense. He was also an excellent distributor and could post up really well in the box on set pieces. While one player has yet to take over his role entirely, the addition of Benny Feilhaber and the improvement of Paolo Nagamura and Oriol Rosell has helped this club maintain their form from last season.
In particular, Rosell has really stepped up this season. As a center midfielder, he orchestrates their play very well and is an asset on set pieces. In the Columbus match, he was able to push the ball down the field on the left-hand side on at least 4 or 5 occasions, opening the field up for Midfielders Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber, and Forwards Claudio Bieler and C.J. Sapong. His set-up of C.J. Sapong’s goal in the 55th minute against Columbus was just splendid.
Like many people, I have come to appreciate what Graham Zusi brings to the table. Although he plays in the midfield, he almost plays like a forward on the left hand side because he likes to make long runs on the flank. He does his best tossing crosses into the box. He leads the team with 7 assists and has 5 goals, which is third-best on the team. He needs to step up more now that the club has sold Forward Kei Kamara to Middlesborough. With one less attacking option, they will need their Designated Player to be more aggressive in making his own shot, and continue to set up chances on the inside.
Without Kei Kamara, who was sold to Middlesborough earlier this month, their second leading goal scorer, the club will need better performances out of their strikers. While Forward Claudio Bieler does lead the team in goals with 10, he has only scored 2 goals in his last 10 matches one of which was on a penalty kick. Earlier in the season, Bieler with a much greater pace, but seems to have slowed down as the season has carried on.
I also really like the strides that the Lebanese international Soony Saad has made this season. Although he has only scored 4 goals this season, he has shown himself to be a real spark plug for their attack. He seems like he is always open and is able to get excellent position for an outside pass. His confidence in his shot showed with this half- bicycle kick effort against Real Salt Lake, and in taking a shot from distance against Toronto F.C. “With the Kamara money we should sign up Saad long term like we did with Zusi,” says Global Football Today writer and Sporting Kansas City supporter Brian Sanders. “With him starting an international career there are thoughts that he needs to stay around because Lebanon is a long way away. He is a future star but unlike Besler he will eventually leave.” He could be a real difference-maker for this team in the playoffs, much in the same way that Will Bruin was for the Houston Dynamo during last year’s playoffs.
For this team to reclaim the Eastern Conference title, they are going to have to get more out of C.J. Sapong. A tall, bruising forward Sapong does his best work by crashing in the box and using his physical skills to create opportunities for others. He has had an up and down seasons this year, include spending multiple games with Sporting Kansas City’s USL PRO affiliate, the Orlando City Pirates. In the Columbus match he proved his worth by being able to finish two excellent crosses from the outside for goals.
If and when Forward Teal Bunbury regains his form after having ACL surgery that SKC could be able to go with 2 forwards. This could allow Sapong to move back to his natural position. However, given Bunbury’s injury history, it may be a good idea for SKC to look to their bench for other options. “Teal..he isn’t match fit. He hasn’t looked more than average in his appearances,” said Sanders. “Plus he hasn’t done anything to merit a spot. He should go on loan to a NASL team because he is just doing nothing.” Their other Forward, Dom Dwyer, has shown that he can score with Orlando City (13 goals in 15 matches,) but has only scored 1 goal in 8 matches for the senior squad. He has also had limited minutes with the club, so perhaps in an enhanced role he might be more valuable. The aforementioned Mr. Saad can also play up front, when necessary.
Though Sporting has a fantastic defense and a very good midfield, success will depend on the club’s ability to score. At this point in the season, it would appear that they have not done enough to replace the losses of Espinoza and Kamara. While this is a club that will certainly make the playoffs, anything beyond that depends on Sapong’s ability to score goals and if the club can find a complement to his skills set up front.
Beer of Choice:
Tank 7, Boulevard Brewing Company
Whenever I think about Kansas City, I think of Preki, Barbeque, George Brett going apeshit, and of course Sporting Kansas City. Whether you are at the match, your home, or just traveling through the general area it would be a shame if you did not sample some of that smokey Kansas BBQ and have a good local brew. Boulevard Brewing Company, SKC’s official beer, provides multiple beers for your plate of rubs during the ninety minutes. The Tank 7 is particularly good. A farmhouse ale with a Belgian-style influence, it has a hint of grapefruit to it with a taste of pepper to at the end. When you are eating BBQ or watching an SKC match, you are not looking a beer that takes over the situation but enhances it.