KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Sporting Kansas City branched out from the pack last year with a new formation that catapulted them to the top of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference.
The early signs from the opening game of the 2012 Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic suggest that Peter Vermes’ team can build on that success as they become expert in moving fluidly between systems.
Sporting KC put on a master class of ball retention and movement during the first half of Friday’s 0-0 tie with Houston Dynamo that had the Texans working overtime to keep a clean sheet.
“They make runs from deep, their wide guys make runs inside and they make runs all over the place,” Dynamo midfielder Adam Moffat told The Soccer Observer shortly after the game. “You’ve got to communicate with each other and I think we did a good job of that.”
Vermes started with C.J. Sapong, last year’s MLS Rookie of the Year winner, as his central striker with Teal Bunbury absent on U.S. U-23 duty. Kei Kamara flitted between both wings in support of the central striker and occasionally dropped deeper to provide an additional body in midfield.
KC largely transitioned between a 4-1-3-2 and 4-1-4-1 during the first half, showing their ability to switch from last season’s staple 4-3-3. Luke Sassano anchored the midfield allowing Bobby Convey, Roger Espinoza and Graham Zusi the flexibility to interchange in support of the front line.
Sassano started only five games for Sporting last year after he was waived by New York Red Bulls following the 2010 season. He put in an impressive shift here acting as a shield in front of KC’s back four – a job that New York will pay Rafael Marquez $4.6 million to do for them this year.
Another feature of Sporting’s play is the full-backs’ willingness to push into the attacking third, particularly Chance Myers on the right. Kamara presented him with the first chance to bomb forward in the fourth minute by dropping deeper inside to create space on the overlap and Myers won an early corner kick.
Espinoza exposed Dynamo left-back Corey Ashe’s lack of height on 12 minutes, changing the play with a delightful cross-field pass that again found Myers in an advanced position. He couldn’t provide an accurate cross for Sapong.
The work rate of KC’s revolving midfield was making life difficult for Houston in the opening exchanges. Dynamo tried to launch a counter-attack on 15 minutes after Zusi’s pass was intercepted near the halfway line, but Sporting quickly developed a 6-vs-2 around the ball to crowd out their opponents and retrieve possession.
Houston finally posed an attacking threat on 25 minutes when center-back Geoff Cameron marauded through KC’s midfield from the edge of his own penalty area and almost slipped a pass into Will Bruin. Cameron’s comfort on the ball and all-round ability gives the Dynamo a big asset going forward when he can step into midfield.
“He’s one of the few guys in the league that can do that,” Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear told The Soccer Observer. “Guys try to pressure him and he can skip by them.”
Cameron’s drive rallied Houston and the sides exchanged chances during the rest of the first half. Bruin forced a smart diving save from Sporting goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen on 33 minutes with a shot from the edge of the box before Cameron showed his defensive qualities four minutes later with an outstanding interception on his 6-yard line to beat Sapong to Convey’s sweeping left-wing cross.
Houston’s Brazilian midfielder Luiz Camargo exploited the gap left by Myers on 41 minutes with a deft through ball to Colin Clark. The former Colorado Rapids winger lacked decisiveness and ran out of space when he had a chance to attack Aurelien Collin at the edge of the penalty area.
This is Collin’s first pre-season with KC after joining the club last April. The French defender has becoming a towering presence, physically and mentally, as demonstrated twice in the opening minutes of the second half.
Kamara was first to suffer Collin’s wrath, receiving a verbal volley for a perceived lack of movement. The former Vitoria Setubal player got into a joust with the combative Moffat moments later after a goalmouth scramble, and Collin followed that up by clashing with Clark.
“It’s good to compete against guys like that,” Moffat said. “A little feistiness is good.”
The game pattern altered in the final half-hour as both managers made a host of changes. Brad Davis’ return to the field was a major boost to Kinnear after his chief playmaker tore a quad muscle when these teams met in last November’s Eastern Conference Final.
Davis’ set-piece ability is invaluable, and his inswinging corner on 86 minutes should have led to the winning goal. Cameron found space inside the box but didn’t get enough power on his header to beat Nielsen.