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 By Matt Pentz

Sporting KC's team defense delivers consistent success in topsy-turvy MLS

Go behind the scenes with Sporting Kansas City's equipment crew for a look at the work they do during training.

"Benny said that?" Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes asked.

"Benny wouldn't have said that in 2013. So either we've brainwashed him, or it's something that he really believes."

A day earlier, Benny Feilhaber had ascribed Kansas City's consistent success, at least in part, to a commitment to team defense. That even Feilhaber, who arrived four years ago as a stereotypically attack-minded playmaker, sees it that way is testament to just how deeply Vermes' principles have taken root.

Sporting enters Saturday's matchup against Minnesota United (5 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) in second place in the Western Conference and having given up fewer goals than any team in MLS besides FC Dallas. Even off a pair of consecutive road losses, SKC still sit six points clear of the postseason cutoff line and just one back of first-place Houston.

Kansas City has gotten used to the loftier parts of the league standings. It hasn't missed the playoffs since it changed its name to Sporting from the Wizards prior to the 2011 season.

It has won two U.S. Open Cups this decade plus the 2013 MLS Cup. Many within the organization will tell you that they liked their odds for another league championship in each of the past two postseasons, too, when they were eliminated by eventual champions Portland and Seattle in the knockout round.

"The hardest thing in MLS is to be consistent," Feilhaber said. "The worst team in the league beats the best team in the league, and that kind of thing happens all the time. There just isn't that much difference between the teams."

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Sporting are one of the few teams that have managed to lift themselves above the teeming masses year after year.

The club has built wisely around an experienced core that includes Feilhaber, U.S. national team regulars Graham Zusi and Matt Besler, and forward Dom Dwyer. Children's Mercy Park, which the organization moved into the same year it rebranded, has become one of the toughest places to play in MLS.

But just as importantly, under Vermes the club has established a signature style of play, which it leans on through good times and bad.

The high press is in vogue around the world. From Dortmund to Liverpool, teams pressure the ball all over the field, harrying opponents from the moment they turn it over. So Vermes' tactics are no longer novel, not even within MLS.

"The way we press might not be unique anymore," Feilhaber said, "though it might have been two, three years ago. But teams don't have as much experience as we do. It doesn't come as second nature as to what we do. That's something Peter made a staple of our team."

Building possession out of the back, too, is not uncommon around the league, but few stick to it as religiously as Kansas City does.

"Most teams won't try to do that every single time," Feilhaber said.

Benny Feilhaber
Even attack-minded playmaker Benny Feilhaber has bought into the defensive system that's delivered Sporting Kansas City so much success.

It all starts with Dwyer, the 26-year-old Englishman who had to prove himself with the team's minor-league affiliate before he finally earned his shot to break in during that MLS Cup title run. Dwyer's numbers have fallen off somewhat since he netted 22 goals in 2014, but his influence goes beyond statistics.

Vermes describes him as "relentless". Dwyer doggedly defends from the front, harassing opposing defenders and pinning them deep inside their own half.

"It starts with our center-forward," Vermes said of Dwyer. "That is a very, very important aspect of how we play. Of all the forwards in the league, he probably takes the most abuse of anybody, and he just keeps on going."

The back line, too, is illustrative of the way SKC is built. There is the hard-won chemistry of Besler and Seth Sinovic, who have played together since they were kids growing up in the Kansas City suburbs. Ike Opara's durability is an open question -- he's appeared in more than 20 games just once since joining the club in 2013 -- but he's also well schooled in how this team likes to play.

Zusi has picked up his new position of right-back quicker than anybody might have hoped. Formerly a winger who once dished out 15 assists in a season, the 30-year-old has looked a natural in defense.

"The number one thing is that he has an incredible attitude," said Vermes, who made a similar position change in his own playing career. "If he didn't have the attitude that he has, he wouldn't be the player that he's been.

"When you strip away everything, he's just a good soccer player. He has a lot of qualities that translate well into the position. ... It's amazing, but week after week he improves in the position."

Taken together, and you've got a team that again looks like a legitimate contender in the Western Conference. By both staying true to a trusted ethos and innovating around the edges, Sporting KC have been able to buck MLS' tendency to pull teams down toward its status quo.

Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.

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