Sometimes in life, we are all forced to make a deal with the devil. Not the red-faced guy with horns and a tail, necessarily, but some kind of compromise that forces us to do something we really don't want to do in order to get something we really want. Sometimes, it blows up in our face. But sometimes, we end up making out like bandits.
Such was the situation facing Sporting Kansas City when they prepared their 2011 MLS schedule. On one hand, they wanted to make sure they could play all 17 of their regular-season home games at their soccer palace, Livestrong Sporting Park. On the other, the stadium wouldn't be suitable for play until early June. In order to satisfy their wants, while still respecting the realities, they needed to open with a 10-game road trip.
Funny thing about deals with the devil, though, sometimes they pay off handsomely. After going 1-6-3 on that opening road trip, Sporting went 12-3-9 and climbed all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference. That end-of-season run was fueled in no small part by the fact that they played 17 of their final 24 games at home, a stretch that saw them claim 1.88 points per match and post a +17 goal-differential.
Perhaps one of the keys to their run was the fact that most of their long road trip were gotten out of the way during those first 10 games. Among the opponents were the four longest trips Sporting would have to take all year: Two separate trips to Los Angeles and two separate trips to the Pacific Northwest. In all, the team traveled about 21,000 miles, accounting for about two-thirds of their total estimated mileage for the entire season.
The trip started out about as bad as it could. Sporting KC claimed just four points in their first eight, going 1-6-1, and were firmly mired at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. The cherry on top of the crap sundae was a 1-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders in which Sporting surrendered the deciding goal on a 93rd minute header from Jeff Parke, who had not scored a MLS goal since 2004.
The devil was surely having himself a hearty laugh at that point.
Interestingly enough, the season slowly started to turn around from there, although it wasn't immediately apparent. In Game No. 9 of the road trip, Sporting managed a tie at Colorado when Ryan Smith found the equalizer in the 75th minute. That was followed by another tie against Toronto FC. Finally returning home, Sporting was forced to settle for a scoreless tie when Omar Bravo was denied a penalty toward the end of the game.
As fate would have it, though, it was on the road that Sporting finally got into a groove. Facing a FC Dallas team that came into the game on a 7-0-2 run, KC registered a resounding 4-1 victory that was punctuated by a Graham Zusi goal that came from nearly 60 yards out. Three more wins in the next four matches immediately followed and it was nearly two months later that Sporting finally lost a match. By the end of the run, Sporting had climbed all the way to eighth place in the overall table and were third in the East.
One of the keys to the turnaround was coach Peter Vermes' ability to adapt his tactics to changing realities. Early in the season, Sporting came out in an aggressive 4-1-2-3 style that closely mimicked what they were doing last year when they led the league in shots. Over the first seven games, Sporting took 97 shots (13.9 per game). But Vermes eventually backed off the accelerator, sometimes switching to more of a 4-2-3-1, with Sporting taking just 74 shots over their next seven matches (10.6 per game).
Vermes ultimately switched back to an even more aggressive approach over the season's final 20 matches --averaging 14.8 shots per game -- but the shift came once some stability had been restored.
These kinds of changes couldn't have been easy. Vermes built his roster not to be very attack minded. Teal Bunbury, Omar Bravo, CJ Sapong and Kei Kamara form one of the strongest forward cores in the entire league and at least one of them was almost always going to be on the bench no matter what formation Vermes deployed.
Graham Zusi has moved around a fair amount, but has clearly found a home as a lone attack-minded central midfielder. Zusi's regular role, though, has basically come at the cost of giving Designated Player Jeferson one, which couldn't have been an easy decision for Vermes to make.
Whatever Vermes did, it clearly worked. Opening with 10 games on the road was a massive risk. The track record for teams that had opened their seasons on long road trip was not a positive one, and Sporting was setting a record with their 10-gamer.
But Sporting has so far outperformed the 2006 Chicago Fire (47 points after opening the season with nine road games), 2003 Los Angeles Galaxy (36 points, eight games) and 1999 Columbus Crew (45 points, seven games). In fact, they've outperformed them enough to grab home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Wonder if the devil saw that one coming?