Sporting Kansas City is finding out how hard it is to stay great in Major League Soccer

Eleven months is enough time for MLS to molt – to shed its skin, emerge a slightly larger, slightly changed self. Along the way, Supporters’ Shield winners drop to mid-table, historically bad teams can claim top seeds, and teams destined for extinction climb out of their cellars. You think Manchester United’s collapse is notable? Welcome to salary-capped soccer. That happens every year, sometimes to more than one club.

Last season it was D.C. United and the San Jose Earthquakes – teams that finished 2012 near the top of their conferences only to plummet in 2013. This time around, it’s New York, Portland, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Sporting Kansas City.

I say “most surprisingly” because Sporting is supposed to be the model. New facility, rabid fan base, model U.S. internationals like Graham Zusi and Matt Besler? Even the losses of Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara couldn’t offset the work put in by president Robb Heinemann and head coach Peter Vermes. December’s victory over Real Salt Lake not only claimed the franchise’s second MLS Cup, it served as a proof of concept: A rebrand, new vision, and a few sharp minds could take a mid-market team to the league’s pinnacle.

Yet here we are, just under 11 months later, and Sporting Kansas City is arguably the weakest of the league’s 10 playoff teams. Coming off a 2-0 home loss to close its regular season against New York, the defending champion travels to Red Bull Arena, hoping a sharp reversal of fortune can see its title defense survive beyond tomorrow night. Unfortunately, four points in its final five games hints Sporting’s primed to bow out.

Regardless of whether Vermes can craft a reversal, how did MLS’s new exemplar wind up here? The answer could also explain why D.C. United could go from worst to first in the East, how New York went from the Supporters’ Shield to a play-in game, why Seattle climbed from the brink of a breakup to the top of the league, and how the Portland Timbers (first in the West last season) couldn’t return to the postseason.

In a salary-capped league, one where roster rules keep teams from hoarding too much talent, the margins are thin. The salaries of your key players give you little room to address needs as they surface throughout the season. Instead, you’re left cultivating the talents you already had on the shelf, a selection that was already limited by the league’s roster restrictions. And you’re doing so in a world where the gap between average and elite is already extremely narrow.

Sometimes, fortune breaks your way, and a squad player like Bradley Wright-Phillips has an unexpectedly dominant season. Maybe a former Mexican international like Gonzalo Pineda just really likes the idea of playing in a place like Seattle. Perhaps you’ve got a journeyman’s Svengali like Bruce Arena who can weave Baggio Husidic, Dan Gargan, and Robbie Rogers into gold. Or maybe you were so bad the year prior that you could snare Sean Franklin and Bobby Boswell in the Re-Entry Draft. In a league where “competitive balance” is treated like a commandment, little changes seed huge turnarounds.

For Sporting, however, the opposite proved true. What if your goalkeeper-captain retires, as Jimmy Neilsen did after Sporting claimed MLS Cup? What if your young midfield anchor (Uri Rosell) decides to jump back to Europe? What if one part of your league-best back four (Chance Myers) misses the entire season, and the World Cup takes your biggest stars (Graham Zusi, Matt Besler) away in the middle of the campaign? Bad things happen, that’s what.

But what if you were also playing slightly over your head last year? This is anathema to the model franchise doctrine, but last year was the first time this Zusi-Besler-Aurèlien Collin core made it to the MLS Cup. The previous seasons they were picked off by decent-but-not-great Houston teams. Even last year, New England almost snared them in the conference semifinals.

What if the three previous seasons under Vermes were closer to Kansas City’s reality? What if the same variance that’s allowed D.C. and New York to yo-yo across the Eastern Conference table also allowed Sporting to make a final, use a weak East to claim a better record than Real Salt Lake, and win a home final after 10 rounds of penalty kicks? What if this Sporting slide is more explicable than we thought?

Next season will give us better information, particularly with Sporting moving to a stacked Western Conference. For now, however, we’re left with a series of half-explanations for Sporting’s state. Perhaps it’s regression, and perhaps we exaggerated the team’s place as the league’s exemplar. But more likely, it’s just really really hard to stay at the top of a parity-based league.

Though 2013’s version of Sporting may have been the league’s best, two losses at the back, a departure from midfield, and the disruption of this summer’s World Cup may derail it. Travelling to New Jersey for a win-or-else, the team’s back is already against the wall.

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