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First loss enhances Sporting Kansas City’s mission

Against transitioning RSL at home Saturday, SKC look to continue progress

MLS: Sporting KC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

That initial fall from grace can bite. But from loss, lessons. From loss, gain.

Sporting Kansas City fell from the ranks of the unbeaten last Saturday at FC Dallas in a 1-0 defeat in which they only managed one shot on goal while surrendering six to the hosts. And many of those hits were results of uncharacteristic mental errors under pressure.

Yet a minor setback cannot force one to stray from the mission. For Sporting, the mission is to develop a quick-thinking attack that can punish opponents from numerous spots on the pitch. That mission continues Saturday as they host Real Salt Lake.

Lessons first. For Sporting to play their game, they must quickly supply the ball to their midfielders with enough time and space to transition and create advantageous numbers in the attack. FC Dallas, employing a 4-2-3-1 formation, strangled Ilie, Roger Espinoza, and Benny Feilhaber.

“[FC Dallas] have a pretty solid midfield,” stated Feilhaber, referring to Ecuadoran International and Bundesliga-experienced Carlos Gruezo and U.S. National Team mate Kellyn [Acosta], both very mobile at the ages of 22 and 23. “They did a pretty good job of containing us, but at the same time, I don’t think we did a good enough job of moving the ball like we normally do. We’ll definitely try and get back to what we’ve been doing in terms of possessing and creating opportunities.”

One part of Sporting’s evolution is to consistently free-up lone forward Dom Dwyer in dangerous spaces. It seems at times that Sporting’s best finisher (54 goals in 120 appearances) is on an island. Espinoza, while admitting, “at times we leave him up there alone” was quick to point out that the evolution is only at game eight of the season, a point Dwyer himself emphasized.

“We have a new side, so how we are playing is a little bit different than previous years. It’s great to watch, and as we try new things out, different problems come into play. So it’s something we are working on as a side,” said Dwyer, alluding to the gradual incorporation of team veterans Graham Zusi at right back and Jimmy Medranda on the left wing and pre-season acquisitions Ilie in holding midfield and new Designated Player Gerso Fernandes on the right wing.

“I’m trying to get myself free, trying to get on the ball a bit more,” continued Dwyer. “We need to move a bit better and be more dangerous as a side going forward. We’d like to put a few more goals in.”

In their last home match, Sporting stuck three in on the Colorado Rapids (Seth Sinovic, Gerso, and Dwyer). However, Sporting (3-1-3) has been shut out four times on the season. And even though they are undefeated at home going 2-0-1, recent history against RSL portends a struggle. Since winning MLS Cup 2013 against RSL at home, Sporting has not beaten them in their last seven regular season matches (4L-3D), scoring only four goals in those seven games, and never more than one in a single game.

RSL itself is a team in transition, albeit of a somewhat different type. Former MLS player and New York Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke has been in charge for three matches, winning the first two, since taking over after the firing of Jeff Cassar. Last week, Petke’s side was victimized by Atlanta United’s transition game in a 3-1 home loss that was closer than the score indicates.

“They are still really dangerous. [Joao] Plata is Plata, he can be a real spark for them, he makes really good runs off the ball,” cautioned Sporting Head Coach Peter Vermes. “Then you have [Brooks] Lennon, the young kid, the Homegrown. He does a really good job on the outside. He’s dangerous on the dribble. He’s good at eliminating guys 1v1. He likes to serve a lot of balls into the box.”

Plata and Lennon threatened Atlanta often last week from the flanks, while they continued to incorporate #11 – 22-year-old Slovakian DP Albert Rusnak – into their attack centrally. Rusnak took the goal well against Atlanta last week and has two goals and three assists on the season. Sporting will have to contend with the flank play and center backs Matt Besler and Ike Opara will have to resist getting pulled wide, creating gaps. Yet RSL’s attack doesn’t stop there.

“[Former SKC forward] Yura [Movsisyan] does a really good job with his movement in the box and getting on the end of stuff,” said Vermes of RSL’s leading scorer (4 goals). “They are still who they are. But when you have change, you have to find yourself a little bit. But there are definitely glimpses of what they can do. What you hope is that it doesn’t all show up against you.”

Defensively, Petke has returned U.S. National Team veteran Kyle Beckerman to sitting in front and shielding the back four as he reads the game. But neither he nor his partner, Luke Mulholland, are especially mobile.

Coaches often say their side will take what the other team gives them. RSL is likely to sit back and then break quickly out to the wings. If Sporting can probe with quick possession in an inside-out-inside approach and work transition from RSL’s outbreaks, some joy should be found as Atlanta did-in both of RSL’s wide backs by stretching the field both wide and deep in opportune moments.

“It depends how the game flows. They may have looked at the video from last week and changed that,” said Dwyer. “We’ll just see what see what we get when we get into the game, try and dominate the flow, and see if we can put our stamp on the game.”

Freeing Sporting’s midfield trio and getting balls forward to Gerso and Jimmy Medranda on the wings, both who have made vital contributions in the last two wins, will be key.

When asked, Dwyer confirmed that Gerso’s threat adds a dimension and helps free space for himself. “He’s another piece that has a lot of pace. Going forward he has a nice left foot - inside the foot, outside the foot, doesn’t really matter. We still have a lot more to see from him. [His qualities] change things up a bit. Those forward runs are really helpful. Hopefully, I can try and feed him in as well and link up and make it exciting.”

And it will be fun to see Sporting take their lessons to heart and continue their evolution on Saturday.