At times last season, it felt like a black hole had engulfed the wide areas of the attacking third where Sporting Kansas City hoped to spark its attack — any attack.
Five wingers combined for a meager 10 goals, six of which came from a player in Jacob Peterson who had previously never scored more than four in a season, and 7 assists. Injuries made the position something of a revolving door, and opposing fullbacks gladly give Sporting KC room to work out wide, because the threat with the ball out wide was nonexistent.
For a club once known for swinging in cross after cross with significant success, the wings were a shell of what once was. Fast forward a few months, to a season opener on the road against a defensive-minded D.C. United side, and the black hole suddenly displayed life.
That life is Gerso Fernandes.
The 26-year-old Bissau-Guinean winger dazzled fans with his speed and creativity. More importantly, he has the full confidence of his teammates and manager. Tactically, he controlled the left side of the field and, especially in the first half, using his width to open up running lanes for Benny Feilhaber and Dom Dwyer. He finished with 10 passes in dangerous areas, including three passes that set up scoring opportunities.
Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes wasn’t surprised to see those qualities on display. In fact, he believes Gerso can be even better and add another element to his game: scoring. Over the past six seasons, Gerso has scored just 12 goals in 158 appearances for four different clubs in Portugal.
While scoring is a work in progress, at least four Sporting KC players mentioned how much more room there was to work with against D.C. United, no doubt a byproduct of Gerso’s play.
Even when he overlapped into the middle of the field, the attention he required pulled defenders out of position, making life easier for his teammates. Feilhaber said there were two or three occasions where he and Roger Espinoza could’ve gotten into space quicker. Doing so, he feels, likely would’ve given them a chance to score.
Regardless, guys like Feilhaber, who endured clogged midfields throughout 2016, are ecstatic to see a playmaker like Gerso.
“His speed and ability to go one-on-one is something that’s going to be crucial for myself and for Dom as well,” Feilhaber said. “I think Dom will get a little bit more service in the box from the outside. It will be difficult for defenses to really hone in on Dom between the two centerbacks, and obviously myself and Roger. That should really open things up.”
Sporting KC’s star striker seems to agree.
“He,” Dwyer says with a massive grin, “pulls guys away.”
Social media — too much of a look behind the curtain?
Sporting KC President Jake Reid and Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman twiddled their thumbs on an illuminated screen as fast as the notifications rang in, firing away reply after reply during what they called #TweetnFly.
Indeed, a two-hour flight to Washington, D.C. felt like just a few minutes thanks to Twitter, a platform which both have taken to as a forum and tool to give fans a little more insight into what goes on behind the scenes.
It’s a take on transparency many have come to respect: executives taking their time to answer questions from the price of beer, to who the club is targeting in the next transfer window. But as Reid has learned, there’s a balancing act with when, and how much, to share.
“Robb has like 18,000 more followers than I do, so my job is a lot easier than his in that regard,” Reid said, laughing. “But I think that’s part of our DNA and who we are. It’s a careful balance, right? I think if you say too much or are too leading sometimes in where you’re going, then you can get penalized for that, whether it’s fair or unfair.”
“I think we always want the fans to feel like they have a voice and that we’re listening. The thing I always tell people is that we’re probably not going to implement everything you want us to, but we at least hear you and we do our best to change what we’re constantly told we’re doing good or bad.”
Maybe the best example happened this offseason, when Heineman sent out a series of tweets voicing his desire to see Montreal Impact winger Dominic Oduro come to Kansas City. Oduro, who was out of contract and available as a free agent, quickly re-signed with the Impact, drawing some levels of frustration from those who felt let down.
That fine line may be impossible to completely navigate, Reid and Heineman have no doubt learned. It’s virtually — no — actually impossible to appease everyone. Perhaps that’s why the two have elected to choose transparency over keeping the cards close to their chest.
“I think (it is),” Reid said. “There’s a balance with Robb and I, too, right? As an owner, I think he has a different perspective and can do different things than I can as a lead of the club. You can look back on the history since those guys bought the team, this isn’t anything new and it won’t change — it’s just how we operate. So far, so good.”
Injecting energy: Small-market approach molds 2017 roster
Look across the field during warm-ups on Saturday, prior to the home opener against FC Dallas, and you’ll probably notice it, too. Excitement. Energy. Expectation. Not the type that comes with the first home game of a new season, but authentic passion that rubs off on everyone around it.
All of it, Sporting KC players hope you see, is rooted within team chemistry, something that’s been on full display during preseason. This is a tight-knit Sporting KC side, and one that’s been rejuvenated by its decision to bring in a slew of young, new faces that are pushing the veterans in the opposite direction of complacency.
“I think with the addition of all the new, young talent, I think everyone's just excited,” goalkeeper Tim Melia said. “I think last year other people thought we were missing things, but this year we’ve brought in a lot of quick guys, talented guys, and just the injection of those players is giving everyone energy.”
While certainly all of Major League Soccer has skewed younger this offseason, Sporting KC can honestly say it has to. As a small-market team with limited resources, big-name stars are nearly impossible to come by. When they wind up elsewhere, they lift the top of the roster, but do so at the expense of the middle and lower class of players who often make the difference in October, November and MLS Cup.
As Reid has learned, messaging that to a fanbase hungry for championships isn’t easy — a fanbase that has stood by and watched big spenders like Seattle and Toronto reach new heights. It’s a tough sell, no doubt, but as fans start to see a more energetic and, thus, entertaining product on the pitch, coupled with results to show for it, Reid hopes it’ll be harder and harder to deny that blueprint for success.
“I think we’re just believers in, if you get them (young players) in the culture and you get them going, then bringing them up through is going to be better for everything because they adapt easier when they’re with the first team,” Reid said. “I say what (owner) Cliff Illig always says, it’s not to say if the right player came along and it’s a $5 million Designated Player that we’re not going to spend it. It’s just not (typically) for us. We view it as a much larger risk. If you miss on that guy versus missing on a couple guys that you have invested time in and are replenishing, it’s a lot easier to stay relevant and stay a high-quality team on the pitch.”
As Dwyer gets poked in the back by a first-year player not to be named, he pauses and smiles from ear to ear. It becomes very evident.
“It’s a very close group. It’s an exciting time to be at this club,” he adds. “There’s a very deep roster of players with a lot of competition for places. I think everyone is pushing each other. It’s a good group and everyone seems to like each other.”
Quotable: The best of Media Day
Vermes, on dealing with pressure: “I think the pressure is always there with us because it’s internal — we want to do well. I also think that we realize that one of the things we have to be better at is that we have to get ourselves higher in the table over the course of the season. Every point matters.”
Dwyer, on how becoming a father has changed his approach to the game: “I think mid-season last year it was having an effect. It’s easier to get up and work hard every day. I already have that mindset, but I’m obsessed with this so it adds to my work rate. It gives you something nice to come home to — a little baby. No matter how much pain you’re in, you get a hug from you kid and everything is good.”
Feilhaber, on his whirlwind of an offseason: “Obviously last year I had everything in the back of my head. It’s part of the business, to make money, so getting that contract was big for me and my family. It was satisfying to get a new contract here and not have to go anywhere else. This is where I always wanted to stay. Now it’s about paying it back and being able to play well for the team and win something here.”
Dwyer, on postseason disappointments: “Every time it hurts when the season ends and how it has (the last two seasons). We’re very focused this year on not letting any outside factors affect us. I think if we perform as group as we know how to, there’s no excuses this year.”