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Sporting Kansas City’s latest performances provide more questions than answers

A loss at Philadelphia and home draw with RSL disappoint.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Sporting KC Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

A could have been opening to a story after Sporting Kansas City’s match this past weekend:

“With four games left in the 2018 MLS season after Sunday’s 3-2 come-from-behind win over visiting Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City has clinched a playoff berth for a club record eight straight years. Yet, they have achieved two even more critical things: they have put themselves in top contention for a top-two finish in the Western Conference – and the knockout first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage that goes with it – and have squarely put their destiny in their own hands and feet.”

What could should have been provides most of the painful reflections in life.

The good news, and reality, here is that Sporting KC are nearly in the same situation as that “could have been” opening relays after an unsatisfactory 1-1 draw with visiting Real Salt Lake. But it is tighter and with more questions.

Sporting Kansas City (15-8-7, 52 points) sits two points under Western Conference leaders FC Dallas and two points above LAFC. In their four remaining matches, Sporting KC will battle four of the eight teams vying for the six playoff positions: LA Galaxy (8th, 40pts) at home; the Vancouver Whitecaps (7th) and FC Dallas (1st, 54pts) away; and LAFC (3rd) at home. Only 8 points currently separate the top six and only 14 points separate teams 1-8 in the West as the battle for the six playoff spots intensifies. FC Dallas is the only club that has clinched a playoff date.

Combined with last week’s 2-0 loss at Philadelphia Union, the draw means Sporting dropped five of a possible six points in the midst of a playoff-positioning war. It’s a faltering that can cause those with a vested interest to get antsy and to push that dinner plate away a bit earlier than usual.

“Frustration. This is a stretch of games we need to be winning, especially our home games,” stated winger Johnny Russell of his feelings after Sunday’s draw. “Results went for us this weekend, and we haven’t capitalized on that. That’s the most frustrating part. It was an opportunity really for us to put a bit of space in the standings… We just need to get back to winning ways.”

The faltering and the way it has happened bring questions.

Sunday, Real Salt Lake clearly had two clear intentions from the start: be physical and counterattack. After fouling four times in the first eight minutes, RSL scored on the counter, beating an indecisive, unaware, and seemingly uncommunicative Kansas City.

After a turnover, RSL’s Jefferson Savarino carried into Sporting KC’s half, unpressured by a near, yet retreating Graham Zusi who had vacated his right back defensive spot to get forward. Perhaps comfortable with even numbers, no Sporting player pressured Savarino. Seeing this and eyeing a seam between a retreating Ike Opara and a still-recovering Matt Besler, rookie Corey Baird began a run behind the defense. Now nearest the ball, midfielder Ilie Sanchez stepped to put light but distant pressure on the ball. Seemingly surprised by Ilie’s action, Opara stepped up aiming to put Baird offside. Yet, the still-recovering and not-yet-covering Besler kept him on. Savarino’s astute ball beat Ilie, a stumbling Opara, and Besler, leaving Baird to finish past onrushing Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia.

Pressure is critical in that moment after a turnover – especially with no right back in position – to slow the ball down and to gain the proper cover. But no one pressured the ball until too late. Zusi ran with a wide man, but he should have pressured Savarino immediately. Sanchez, Opara, Besler, and likely Melia needed to be more aware and to communicate more effectively. These things are expected from a veteran group. Dramatic and timely interventions by left back Seth Sinovic and Opara and a hitting of the crossbar by Baird in alone on Melia off a counter in minutes 32, 58, and 73 respectively kept the score at only one for the visitors, or the final score could have been vastly different.

Will these moments of turning off spell doom for Sporting KC?

A scrappy match high on tackles and going through players for the ball (characteristic of a playoff tussle) and direct play stripped Sporting out of their possession-orientated game to easily and played right into RSL’s hands. The opposition wants to be physical and run? Make them chase the ball and make that quick movement work for you.

On average, Sporting KC has 58% of the possession; RSL cut that to 51%. On average, Kansas City’s overall passing accuracy is 84.5% ; RSL cut that to 79%. Is Sporting Kansas City too easily taken out of their game?

After last Sunday’s loss to the Union in soggy conditions, Ilie stated, “We came here with a plan, obviously because of conditions and the good job that Philadelphia did today, we could not do this plan, so we should have changed that plan faster.”

His comments echo the trouble RSL gave Sporting early. Is Sporting KC slow to adjust tactics in-game?

On the attack against RSL, Sporting KC had some fine moments. But Gerso Fernandes on the left and Johnny Russell on the right were often efforting in isolation, taking players on out wide, somewhat due to a lack of numbers in the attack and a lack of runs/combinations available.

Is Sporting Kansas City too easily splintered into their individual parts, negating their unified goal scoring by committee approach?

However, when comparing the last two matches, Manager Peter Vermes saw a marked difference.

“I think we were a lot better this week than last week. I thought we had a lot of urgency. I thought that this game was much different,” he said. “It would be nice to score some of the chances, because we created some really good ones. I can’t criticize the team for the fact that I thought we played very well… We scored off a set piece.”

Vermes continued, “We could have lost ourselves when we went down 1-0 and maybe conceded another one. We didn’t do that so that part was good.”

Accentuating the positives sounds like “coach talk”, and it is to some extent, but those are empirical truths and reflective of Sporting KC’s team-first culture, of a team and its leadership in control and not reactive.

Yet, Vermes and his side have been here before. They have fought for playoff positioning and fell out of the top four (where a home playoff game is guaranteed) the last four seasons. And a lack of scoring has been a consistent culprit. Thus, the talk sounds all too familiar.

“Right now, I feel comfortable with the fact that we’re playing well and creating good chances,” Vermes also stated.

But how much longer is that comfortable? One more game?

In Philadelphia, Gerso failed to convert a golden opportunity to grab the lead in the 27th minute.

Against RSL, Krisztian Nemeth missed a strong chance to tie the match in the 18th minute. Diego Rubio had a chance in the 87th minute that a skilled goal scorer is supposed to put away (there is plenty of square feet of the net available).

Vermes gave venerable RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando his due after the match for some strong saves such as a foot save on Russell in the 22nd minute and a quick-reaction to a deflected Zusi shot in the 48th minute. Yet, while Opara’s headed goal off a Russell corner in the 52nd minute was picture-perfect, Rimando had committed when he shouldn’t have, contributing to the goal.

Scoring, it’s the hardest thing to do in soccer. No surprise. But patience alone isn’t going to make shots go in that should. Vermes knows.

“The problem was that we didn’t execute it in the goal, right? It doesn’t matter at the end of the day,” he said. “You still have to score and it’s about execution.”

After his miss in Philadelphia, Gerso was not yanked out of the match, nor should necessarily should have been. Nor did he start on the bench this past Sunday because of it. MLS isn’t the Premier League and Sporting Kansas City is not Manchester City where Pep Guardiola can pull off Raheem Sterling for a critical miss.

“When that happened with me against Philadelphia, my teammates, and even the coaching staff, said, ‘The ball will go in, just keeping working and creating the chance’…,” Gerso said. “It’s important for us to not lose confidence. No one is saying, ‘Hey, you should do this or do that’ because everyone approaches a situation a different way.”

But how long can critical misses be tolerated? And how are they best dealt with? Reduced playing time? A piece of advice to take the shot with your strong foot when you have the space and time? Little moments impact the big picture, especially now.

Like a poor life-decision that can irritate but can’t be allowed to destroy as one looks to the next opportunity, the loss at Philadelphia was stomached because of the prospect of three points against an average-performing Real Salt Lake at home beckoned. Now, the draw with RSL is much less appetizing. Yet, all (okay, most) is forgotten with a win over the Galaxy come Saturday at home. But it must be executed. In every moment. It’s the playoffs now. Forget it at your peril.

What does Sporting Kansas City need to do in the last four games to stay in the top two? Avoiding sub-par halves that have popped up too often during season, for sure. Opara was matter of fact when asked.

“Win, by any means. I don’t care if it’s 1-0, 4-3, 5-3. I don’t care,” he said. “We just need to win games and get ourselves in a good position going into the playoffs.”

“I know exactly who we play and how many games we have left – two at home, two away. When I looked up the schedule a few weeks ago and saw that we have FC Dallas away and LAFC at home the last two games, I had a feeling it was going to come down to those two games,” said Besler. “It didn’t really matter how many games a team won because those are all six-pointers… until then we have to accumulate as many points as possible.”

Russell was as blunt as Opara. “We know how difficult it’s going to be in this stretch of games with everyone still having something to play for…,” he said. “We are where we are. It’s up to us to keep ourselves there. If we don’t, we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves.”

Answers will need to dominate in the remaining four games for Sporting Kansas City. And answers, like actions, are revealing.