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Is Sporting Kansas City the Team to Beat Out East?

Anyone who has been looking for a new home understands the feeling of displacement that comes with it: the yearning for something new and different which you can model after your vision, while still feeling unsettled because you haven’t found that perfect place yet.  In June, MLS fans looked at Kansas City and either pitied or ignored them.  For a team who should have had Ricky Nelson sing its theme song, the season looked like a lost one.  Despite the new name and new logo, it was the same ol’ Kansas City, going from road game to road game trying to hang on until they could move into a new home.

Yet after last night’s 2-1 victory over Columbus, Sporting Kansas City sits atop the Eastern Conference.  With the Eastern Conference margin so narrow, their position may be tenuous (especially with DC and Philly having games in hand) but they are the in-form team in the East right now.  How did a team that looked so beaten early in the season rally to become maybe the favorite to win the top seed in the East?

The first place to look is last night’s game.  A few things stand out that point to reasons for their success.  The first is their suffocating offense, something that has been there all season but is really beginning to click.  Kei Kamara is an absolute weapon, and playing next to Omar Bravo in a 4-3-3 type formation allows him space to find his shot.  Teal Bunbury, who has struggled all year and is seemingly on the “outs” for the U.S. national team, is beginning to contribute in little ways and refine his game; while the goals aren’t there yet the consistent play is.  Add in some quality play from midfielder Graham Zusi and the rotating cast of starters, and this team can score with anyone.  Even the threat of their offense is dangerous, as both goals last night came from Columbus defensive mistakes under pressure.  The first was a penalty after Robbie Rogers took down C.J. Sapong in the box, the second was a Julius James own-goal after a throw-in.

But the biggest key to the KC ascent has been their defensive improvement.  The team that went from allowing over two goals a game to running a streak of late blown leads has now settled into a pretty good team defensively.  They have allowed 11 goals in their last 10 games after giving up 28 in their first 21.  The starting back four last night had an average age of 24, which while not terribly young was still somewhat inexperienced.  However, two players that have really helped defensively are keeper Jimmy Nielsen and centerback/midfielder Julio Cesar.  Both are veterans with years of international experience who are providing veteran leadership to the club.  While their defense is still not up to par with some of the elite MLS teams, it has improved to their point where it is no longer an eye-closing liability.

Outside factors also have played into Kansas City’s rise, the biggest being their obvious home field advantage.  After playing the first ten games of the season on the road, Sporting KC has gone 8-2-6 at home.  Their field is beautiful and creates a definite home field advantage, which gives the team a boost.  They also are benefiting from an Eastern Conference with no dominant team which of course has both allowed them to overcome early season struggles and grab needed points (like they did last night).

Looking ahead, can Kansas City keep this up?  Their schedule sets up nicely to allow them to control their own destiny: they play an inconsistent San Jose team on the road this weekend, then host New York and travel to DC, both of whom are chasing them.  New York’s away record (2-4-9) and DC’s home record (4-3-7) bode well for them.  However, Kansas City may have set themselves up for a late stumble, scheduling a friendly against CD Guadalajara on October 12, three days before the Red Bulls match-up.  Regardless, Kansas City is hot right now and securing the Eastern Conference crown is not only a possibility, but maybe even likely.

It’s good to be home.