MLS Features: Sporting KC entering crucial month

Sporting Kansas City entered the season as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference and the first three weeks this year have proven why after it earned three wins from as many games.

But in the end, Sporting Kansas City will be judged by its success against the Western Conference, and that's the challenge the month of April presents.

Sporting was the only team to win its first three games - and finished the run with a 2-1 victory over FC Dallas on Sunday in the first of six straight games against Western teams.

When the calendar flips to April, Sporting will play games against Chivas USA, the defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, Vancouver Whitecaps FC and the Portland Timbers.

At a glance, the month of March proved Sporting is ready for the challenge. It edged D.C. United on the road 1-0, overwhelmed the New England Revolution 3-0, and disposed of FC Dallas at home.

But a deeper look inside those matches uncovers some concerns, as the win over D.C. United was only secured on a stoppage-time goal from C.J. Sapong. Against New England, Sporting played with a man advantage for 76 minutes.

The comeback win at Livestrong Sporting Park against FC Dallas was impressive, as Kei Kamara notched the match-winner with 2 minutes left in normal time. But Dallas was without Brek Shea and 2010 league MVP David Ferreira.

Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman was convinced of Sporting's talent, saying after the match: "They are much further ahead than any other team in the league, and they have a lot of weapons."

Sporting coach Peter Vermes has assembled an incredible blend of veteran and young talent, with midfield general Graham Zusi arguably the brightest of the emerging stars.

"I don't think there is another team in the league playing at the level they are playing at," Hyndman said.

Sporting has maintained a high level of play, one any other team in MLS would be hard pressed to match, since it opened new Livestrong Sporting Park last season.

Starting with its 0-0 draw against the Chicago Fire on June 9 of last season, Sporting has gone 15-3-9 in regular-season games and 2-1-0 in the postseason.

Three wins to start this season has shown the team has not lost last season's momentum, even though it bowed out of the playoffs in the conference finals.

"We had a strong end to last year, and we knew we could come out this year playing the same way, or even better," Sporting midfielder Roger Espinzoa said.

"Our goal in the offseason was to get in great shape and continue playing well, and I think game by game we are getting better."

But the only losses during Kansas City's impressive stretch were to FC Dallas, Seattle Sounders FC and Real Salt Lake - all from the Western Conference.

Sporting KC did manage a pair of playoff wins over the Colorado Rapids, but it lost the Eastern Conference final to the Houston Dynamo, a West team in East's clothing. The Dynamo just switched to the East prior to last season.

Kansas City also posted a few nice wins over West teams last season, including victories over FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake. Sporting also beat Houston in the regular season.

But with an unbalanced schedule in MLS this season, Sporting will face each of the Western teams only once during the regular season. And after April it will have just three West foes left, with the last June 20 at Seattle Sounders FC.

As the obvious team to beat in the East, and 25 of its 34 games against weaker teams in its conference, Sporting could easily claim the Supporters' Shield as the best regular-season team.

Heck, Sporting's final 19 games are against East opponents. While the win over FC Dallas was a positive start, a poor showing over the next month, and in its other West matches over the following two months, could distort the award.

"We're high on confidence," the 25-year-old Zusi said, "and we know we can get positive results every game."

Vermes admitted "we have a few tough games coming up," but the next month may prove Sporting Kansas City is the toughest of them all this season.


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