KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Remember when Sporting Kansas City were trying to find ways to score, but also making it hard for opponents to put up goals at the same time?
That was three weeks ago, when they had scored six goals through six matches while recording three clean sheets over that span. Now, going into Sunday's home match against the Chicago Fire (5 pm ET, ESPN2), they've scored five times over their last two outings – but conceded six, including four in last weekend's 4-4 draw at Houston.
Entering the weekend, they were in a four-way tie for second in the league with 11 goals scored, but their 12 goals conceded remain the second-worst in MLS behind Philadelphia's 18.
How do they fix that second stat?
“There's no secret formula,” manager Peter Vermes said Friday during the club's weekly news conference. “It's training, it's reviewing yourself on video and talking about the different things that you have to do and attention to detail within the game. If you do those things, you don't have a problem with giving up goals and all those other things. But there has to be that concentration.”
Vermes said he can tell that concentration isn't where it needs to be because his players aren't as worn down mentally after matches as they should be.
“I always say that most soccer players are learned soccer players,” he said. “So that means that the decisions that they're making are being thought of. They're not instinctive. So when the game's done, if a player was truly focused on the game, putting everything he had into it, he should be mentally fatigued at the end of the game because he had to make so many decisions because he's paying attention to everything and he's thinking about those things.
“A player like [Lionel] Messi, he's probably not fatigued – other than physically – because everything he does is instinctive, and it's a part of him. But most players are learned. So our guys, they should be mentally fatigued at the end of each game, and I don't think, necessarily, that we've been that in enough games thus far this season.”
Center back and captain Matt Besler acknowledged that the subject has come up more than once this week, after the team conceded four times in Houston. And while he was proud of Sporting's comeback from 3-1 down to get the point, he wasn't happy with the final scoreline, either.
“Giving up four goals is not who we are,” he said. “If you're a defender, you kind of have a bad taste in your mouth – only from the fact that we gave up four goals.”
And of the six goals Sporting have conceded over their last two matches, three came on set pieces – normally one of the team's strengths.
“We're giving up set pieces because of the things we're not doing,” Vermes said. “I'm not going to speak to what they are, but it's not because of things we're doing higher up the pitch. It's just other things that we're not doing. We're giving up easy opportunities for other teams. We're late. We're reacting. We're not anticipating stuff.”
Losing center back Ike Opara – a monster in the air at both ends of the pitch – with a ruptured Achilles tendon hasn't helped matters, obviously. And Sporting are still working in newcomers at both fullback spots, at defensive midfield and in goal – that last position complicated by a language barrier as new goalkeeper Luis Marin works to improve his English.
“It's a fast game,” Besler said. “So if you have to take a half-second to think about what you're going to say, and it's not natural, then you lose that half-second. It might even take more than a half-second to think about what you're going to say, then translate it or whatever you have to do. Any time you lose that time, it's a big deal because that could be the difference between you reacting and you anticipating a play and defending that play.
“Hopefully we get to a point where everything becomes second nature, and everything becomes habit.”
That time will come, Besler said.
“It's still a work in progress,” he said. “I don't think we were expecting it to be perfect from Day One. I think everyone can see that we're working on it. There have been mistakes that have been made, but I think that's how you learn. That's how you get through these things, is by experiencing them. So we all have to keep working at being on the same page, pushing each other and encouraging each other in those situations.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.