What is there to say? Just another loss for Sporting Kansas City? Hardly. While Sporting KC was handed another loss Saturday against Seattle Sounders, this loss is a completely different loss than the one in Los Angeles a week before, or even the loss in New York at the beginning of the month. It was, however, far too similar to the loss that the then-named Wizards suffered last year in Seattle - a late goal breaking the nil-nil tie that the game seemed to deserve.
At least it's fair to say that Sporting deserved a point from the match. While they didn't threaten goal very much throughout the game, they held Seattle to only a handful of chances of their own, none of which caused anything spectacular from Jimmy Nielsen in goal. It was a very well organized, good team-defensive effort which also consisted of some of the best ball movement and possession seen in a Sporting match this season. Chances are that the improvement on the offensive side of the ball could be linked back to the availability of two important players for Sporting - forwards Ryan Smith and Omar Bravo.
Still, Kansas City fans' hearts were broken after watching 92 minutes of very decent play from their team, only to have a momentary defensive lapse of some sort result in a free header on a corner kick. Having reviewed the particular play many, many times, I personally would have to say that it was simply a very well designed set piece which resulted in a goal. And for that, I cannot fault any Sporting player for the goal. Sure, there are things that might have been done to change the particular outcome, but without knowing that the goal would be scored in that particular manner - I don't think I can really say that anyone really made the vital mistake.
In any case, it is just another reminder that this game can be very cruel sometimes. I hope that the fans, players and coaches can take away the 92 minutes of much-improved soccer and build on that. And, somehow forget about that single, unjust moment in which an entire game's worth of good work was ruined.
Anyway, back to the beginning of the game, or really, even before that. The lineup presented in Seattle for Sporting Kansas City is one that many people have been waiting a long time to see. Finally we got to see Smith and Bravo on the pitch at the same time. The fact that Davy Arnaud was available after injuring his neck in practice was a plus as well, and midfielder Craig Rocastle also made the starting 11 along with defender Matt Besler replacing Julio Cesar Santos in the back. Nielsen was also back in goal following a stint for Eric Kronberg the previous week. All-in-all, this was a lineup which we were hoping to see for the previous seven matches, even considering that Bravo was probably still not fully back to top form just yet.
As far as the formation, it also seemed to be a variation on what Sporting had presented in previous matches. While still presenting a similar structure to the 4-3-3 which had been employed in the first 7 matches, it did seem that the outside wings up top were playing more withdrawn than in previous games, really giving Sporting more of a 4-5-1 (4-2-3-1) feel than a 4-3-3. What resulted was definitely more of a defensive minded side while keeping a similar structure to the 4-3-3 that had been used previously.
The question of whether or not the improved lineup would impact the game was almost answered within 5 minutes, as Smith was fed through on goal and forced a good save by Keller and another follow-up save on a weaker shot by Bravo. I will admit that camera angles (as well as a bit of 'seeing what I wanted to see') caused me to believe that we had scored in this opportunity, but it turned out to be an optical illusion of sorts. Fortunately I wasn't the only one at Jonny's Tavern (site of KC Cauldron watch parties) to be fooled, but it would've been a lot nicer had it just gone in.
Sporting continued to control a good amount of the game through about 15 minutes before Seattle started to reassert themselves. During this time there was, as previously stated, much improved ball movement while in possession, as well as much better play in maintaining possession. One thing that I found particularly positive was a number of occasions where we switched fields from one side to the other, something that I have felt we have been lacking in previous games.
Kansas City did have some very decent interplay down the sides of the field as well, something that was definitely influenced by the inclusion of Bravo and Smith in the lineup together. Neat triangles and overlapping runs gave players the opportunity to get deep into Seattle territory, but good covering play by Seattle defenders always prevented any truly decent chances from developing. Still, there were a number of half-chances which Sporting were able to produce that just lacked a bit of precision in the final pass. A bit more quality (which I believe we will see out of Bravo as he continues to regain form) or a single defensive lapse at these times and Kansas City could have very easily gotten a goal that they would have very much deserved.
Ultimately the first half was a contest between two patient offenses and two even more organized defenses. Both teams had half chances which were closed off by good defensive play, tried a few shots from distance, but ultimately Nielsen didn't even need to make a single save in the first period and Keller technically had one more save to make after the double save he made in the 5th minute.
The second half was more of the same, though with a growing Seattle bias as the game wore on. This can only be expected as they were spurred on by their large and active fan base and Sporting started to feel the effects of yet another road game, not to mention the strong desire to simply get out of Seattle with at least a point. That isn't to say that Kansas City didn't threaten at times, just that the game went the way I would expect anyone would predict such a game to go - the away side settling for a point and the home side trying to take all three.
One of the 'statistics' which I think can help quantitate how effective a team is playing, especially the away team, is the number of yellow cards given away for professional fouls. These are inherently fouls given to prevent a decent scoring opportunity from developing, and Seattle was carded twice in the 2nd half for such fouls. Kansas City hadn't drawn a single professional foul from the opposing team in the previous 7 games. While the 2nd half was totally devoid of shots-on-target for Kansas City, I think a statistic like this does show that we were still being a threat during this period.
Unfortunately, it all came to an utterly depressing end when Sounders defender Jeff Parke won a header on the decisive corner kick in the 93rd minute. As far as what I can gather happened: Sporting defender Roger Espinoza was fronting Parke when Seattle executed a well-designed play which essentially got Espinoza 'picked' by a large group of players in the middle of the box. Espinoza really can't be faulted for not following his man, after Parke managed to get Espinoza off of him with a slight push-off (these things happen in corners), Espinoza had no way to get around the multiple Seattle players coming the opposite direction. Besler, who, along with forward CJ Sapong, seemed to be in more of a zonal positioning, tried to react to the flight of the ball, but the service was too direct to give either much of a chance to make it there before Parke. Nielsen's positioning was such that he couldn't get to the well-placed header before it went in and, without anyone on the far post, the ball made it's way to the back of the net.
A very well designed play, excellent execution and absolutely no luck to help out Sporting resulted in a game winner for the home team. These things happen, though that doesn't make it hurt any less when it happens so late, or to a team which is struggling - especially after they played so much better. I can only wonder how close the ball was to not going over the endline before the decisive corner. Kei Kamara had sprinted to save the corner and must've missed it by mere inches as the assistant ref gave the corner but the Seattle player actually attempted to take the throw in. Inches could have separated Sporting Kansas City from getting their second, and much needed, draw on the road of this horrific road trip.
These things happen, and we'll just have to pick ourselves back up and forget about the cruelty and focus on all of the good that went into the vast majority of this game. Hopefully this team has it in them to pick themselves up one more time and dust themselves off, because if they can, I think this is the start of a whole new season for Sporting Kansas City.