MLS Closeup: SKC still adjusting to life without Dwyer

More than a month after swinging the biggest trade of the season, that of forward Dom Dwyer to Orlando City in exchange for lots of allocation money, the identity of Sporting Kansas City hasn’t greatly changed.

Built on a bedrock of solid defense, SKC is on course to post the second-best defensive mark in league history. It has already conceded the same number of goals, 20, as did RSL in its remarkable 2010 season that consisted of just 30 games, but if its average goals-allowed mark stays near its current figure of 0.77 it will rank No. 2 on the all-time list.

And as for shipping off Dwyer on July 25, it cut loose a player who had scored just five goals in 15 games after bagging 50 in his three previous seasons. A hot start to his U.S. national team career -- one goal apiece in his first two games -- belied a cool strike rate in MLS that, along with stalled negotiations on a new contract, persuaded SKC management and head coach Peter Vermes to listen to offers that eventually yielded $900,000 in allocation money to which another $700,000 could be added if benchmarks are met.

“This situation escalated to a point where there was a deal we really had to consider,” said Vermes when the trade was announced. “Unfortunately sometimes that’s the way it goes in a salary-cap world. But at the same time we’re provided with a bunch of resources we’ll be able to use not only in the short-term but also in the long-term to continue to look at the fluidity of any MLS roster and for us to continue to try and improve it.”

Jettisoning one of the most prolific goalscorers in MLS the past few seasons is clearly a short-term gamble no matter what the potential long-term benefits may turn out to be. Scoring by committee has been SKC’s method this season: offseason signing Gerso Fernandes leads the team with seven goals, Benny Feilhaber’s five goals include two penalty kicks, 20-year-old Latif Blessing has three, and nobody else has more than two.

In five league games since the trade, SKC has scored six goals, but three of those were netted in the first game without Dwyer, a 3-2 defeat of Chicago. Feilhaber converted a penalty as SKC tied Atlanta, 1-1, and Diego Rubio and Gerso hit the net in a 2-0 defeat of FC Dallas.

The issue, with or without Dwyer, has been scoring consistently, especially on the road where SKC is 2-6-5. Only the league’s worst team, Colorado (five), has scored fewer than SKC’s six goals away from home.

SKC has been blanked in its last two road games, including a 1-0 loss Wednesday to New York City FC. Playing without U.S. international defenders Graham Zusi and Matt Besler, SKC held NYCFC scoreless until the 84th minute, when a sharp strike by Jack Harrison deprived keeper Tim Melia and his mates of what would have been an 11th shutout.

“I think we’re going to be upset when we go back and look at the tape,” said Melia, who looked sharper than many of his teammates while making five saves. Two were of the excellent variety. “It was a sloppy game. I don’t think the conditions helped, but that can’t be an excuse. I don’t think the things we’re good at, we executed at all and that led to us losing the game 1-0.”

Driving rain and the aftermath of an 18-day layoff due to the FIFA international break and a match in Houston postponed by Hurricane Harvey yielded a rather sluggish SKC attack. A fast start to the second half produced SKC’s only shot on a goal, a knuckling blast from distance by Roger Espinoza that keeper Sean Johnson fisted out of danger.

Vermes is giving minutes to a lot of players in the wake of Dwyer’s departure, which followed by a few weeks the acquisition of Spanish attacker Cristian Lobato.

Homegrown Player Daniel Salloi, 21, has scored twice this season and managed three shots at Yankee Stadium. He went the full 90 minutes against NYCFC; Rubio replaced Blessing midway through the second half, and Vermes sent on Gerso for Lobato after Harrison scored.

“I think at the end of 90 minutes, they competed with more intensity than we did,” said Vermes. “There were times when we were competing at a good level and maybe even a little bit more than they did. But I think over the 90 minutes they wanted the game a little bit more.”

Said Espinoza of the layoff and wet conditions, “It’s difficult, but I don’t think it’s an excuse for us. If anything, I think we should have been more energetic. You know, no excuse. I thought we could have done better. It wasn’t an easy game for us. Like I said, the conditions were tough, but you know, we need to do better.”

SKC is in the midst of a four-game swing against Eastern Conference teams that includes the Open Cup final against the Red Bulls Sept. 20. SKC plays at Columbus this weekend and then hosts New England and NYRB before finishing the regular season with six games against Western foes that include the postponed game at Houston Oct. 11. The teams meet again four days later at Children’s Mercy Park.

In a wide-open Western Conference, in which only five points encompass the six playoff teams, SKC can finish anywhere in those slots or miss out entirely. It is second in points per game at 1.54, just a hair behind leader Seattle (1.56), but not all that far ahead of sixth-place FC Dallas (1.42).

A strong defensive foundation is all well and good but SKC's 31 goals scored are fewer than all but three MLS teams -- D.C. United, Colorado, Orlando City --  and none of those teams is anywhere close to a playoff spot.

The NYCFC game kicked off a crowded schedule of five matches in 19 days including the Open Cup final yet the mindset of SKC is that busy is better than bored. Zusi and Besler are expected to play in Columbus Sunday, by which time the rust should be completely removed.

“I think we’re going to recover from this,” said Espinoza. “We know our identity. Sometimes we have tough games like this and we have to recover right away and do it all over again on Sunday.”
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