As Sporting Kansas City and its fans take a quick breather during the club’s well-earned bye through the knockout round of the 2018 playoffs, here are five quick thoughts on the team’s 2-1 victory yesterday over Los Angeles Football Club, and the game’s implications for the club’s upcoming playoff run.
It’s Salloi-Shelton-Russell or bust at this point
With apologies to Diego Rubio, who has been downright surgical in mostly appearances off the bench for SKC this season, and Gerso Fernandes, who likewise in many substitute appearances and starts has continued to show flashes of the ability that fans saw during the first half of 2017, it sure looks like the success or failure of Sporting Kansas City’s front line in the playoffs will come down to the triumvirate of Daniel Salloi, Khiry Shelton, and Johnny Russell.
Given the club’s longtime woes at the #9 position (the years of Dom Dwyer’s peak notwithstanding), a great deal of ink has been used to discuss Shelton’s contributions as a striker who may not score a lot of goals, but who certainly makes the attackers around him better by setting them up and doing lots of the necessary-but-thankless defensive work that Peter Vermes prizes in his strikers. As long as Salloi and Russell continue to produce—and I would argue that Shelton’s presence on the pitch helps them to do that—Shelton’s place in the gameday 18 should remain secure.
While Russell was coming off a torrid reign with Derby County in England and was priced accordingly, the other two-thirds of the front line trio have largely been bargains for Sporting KC. Despite being rather profligate with his chances before burying the game-winning goal, Salloi might be the bargain of the season not just across Sporting KC’s roster, but across the entire league. Salloi’s total guaranteed compensation this year is only $81,625, and he does not turn 23 until July. I would be shocked if SKC doesn’t start receiving feelers from European clubs regarding Salloi’s services pretty much the minute the 2018 season ends, and similarly shocked if Salloi does not either strongly consider any such offers or parlays them into a raise to remain in Kansas City for the foreseeable future.
Matt Besler is still the man
There is some writing on the wall for the SKC backline going into 2019 in the form of Andreu Fontas’s million-dollar salary. An MLS club simply doesn’t pay a player, much less a defender, that sort of money to sit on the bench game in and game out. The team’s defense should look different in 2019 than it does now.
For now, however, this is still Matt Besler’s backline, and he continued to demonstrate that in snuffing out attack after attack from LAFC. SKC’s defense endured several close calls that could have resulted in a tied or lost game. While the penalty kick was a badly botched call—I’ll get to that in a bit—on the balance of play, LAFC certainly had a goal in them. SKC’s defense endured several close calls that could have resulted in a tied or lost game, but there would have been several more if not for Besler’s heroics. Besler was justly rewarded for his performance with a spot in the starting XI of MLS’s final regular season Team of the Week.
Tim Melia continues to be rightly celebrated as SKC’s last line of defense, but the pairing of Ike Opara and Besler must be considered as one of, if not the, most successful center back pairings in club history, right up there with the pairing of Besler and Aurelien Collin on the 2013 MLS Cup-winning side. And for my money—and I say this as someone who is not even remotely attached to three-at-the-back soccer—I think a three-at-the-back backline of Opara, Fontas, and Besler, with Zusi and Medranda/Sinovic/Lobato as wingbacks, will be an awful lot of fun to watch work in 2019.
How lopsided will the bench be?
Peter Vermes—understandably, when looking at the level of talent of the team’s attackers—stacked his bench with attacking options for the LAFC game. Diego Rubio and Krisztian Nemeth are strikers, Gerso Fernandes is a winger, and Gianluca Busio and Yohan Croizet are attacking midfielders (although Croizet has been deployed all over the field), leaving Andreu Fontas as the one true outfield defender on the bench. Murphy’s Law then promptly swooped in during the second half to stretch this gameday 18 as much as possible.
Peter Vermes was put in a bind when Seth Sinovic was sent off (which we will get to next), as there was no natural fullback on the bench to replace Sinovic with. It was potentially the worst position to have a player sent off from, and that SKC persevered is a testament to their recent form and collective focus that Vermes has instilled. If Sinovic remains suspended for the team’s first playoff game, I would fully expect Vermes to withhold Jaylin Lindsey from his upcoming U-20 national team call-up.
Going into the playoffs, will Vermes similarly gamble with his seven substitute slots? Especially at fullback, his hand is forced. But Vermes would have also been one injury or red card to, say, Ilie Sanchez away from a similarly difficult decision of how to cover the tasks of a player who is absolutely critical to the team’s success without a like-for-like replacement immediately available to him.
I’m certainly not trying to armchair-quarterback Peter Vermes of all people. And we can say that with all three points in the bag, that is all that really matters in the end. But it should be interesting to see how he stocks his bench for the team’s playoff fixtures.
VAR = WTF
There is no way to sugarcoat this: this game is not how VAR should be used. On paper, yes, the introduction of VAR makes sense and should (emphasis on “should”) lead to fewer officiating errors which irreparably affect games. In practice, though...well, that continues to be another story.
The guidelines concerning the use of VAR state that in order to use it reverse a call (or non-call) on the field, a “clear and obvious” error must have taken place, and it is very difficult to argue that was genuinely the case when Seth Sinovic was retroactively shown the red card—and a penalty kick awarded to LAFC—after VAR review of his goal line block in the second half. Even if the ball did in fact hit Sinovic’s arm rather than his chest, another factor to consider is whether or not he would not have had enough time to pull his arm out of the way on a point-blank play.
Put another way, not only should it need to be “clear and obvious” that Sinovic had in fact handled, rather than chested, the ball, it should also need to be clear and obvious that his doing so was arm-to-ball, not ball-to-arm. Yet the available video evidence just does not support those conclusions in a “clear and obvious” manner.
Compounding concerns is that the review itself was extremely quick and seemingly cursory, lasting a relatively short amount of time. This should raise the question of what exactly center referee Allen Chapman saw that caused him to arrive so quickly at so decisive a conclusion—according to the Kansas City Star’s Sam McDowell, Chapman told Sinovic that it was “100 percent a handball”—and especially in a Decision Day match between the then-top two teams in the Western Conference.
Finally, as my TBT colleague Chad Smith pointed out in the game thread, Sporting KC has every incentive to appeal Sinovic’s red card. Each team is allotted a couple of such challenges each season, and considering the impending depth crisis at fullback for the club’s first playoff game with both Jimmy Medranda and Cristian Lobato out for the season, and Jaylin Lindsey scheduled to depart for U-20 national team duty, I would be positively stunned if the team didn’t appeal Sinovic’s suspension. Any appeal may well come to naught, but there will probably be no better time to at least try.
There are no more excuses
For a nice change of pace, Sporting Kansas City seems to have finally peaked at the right time, with three impressive wins in a row against Vancouver, FC Dallas, and LAFC after a disappointing home draw against the decidedly not-playoff bound LA Galaxy. As a result of this nine-point surge, the club will not only avoid the dreaded knockout game that has been the bane of its existence for the past four years, it will enjoy home field advantage up until the MLS Cup final (should the club make it that far).
Aside from the aforementioned depth crisis at fullback, the team’s core is all intact and healthy. There may be a question about Graham Zusi’s fitness after he came up injured at the end of this past game, but his durability at this point in his career is unimpeachable, and it would take a genuinely serious injury to keep him out of any playoff match.
Finally, SKC’s Western Conference rivals do not seem to be in the same vein of good form as the boys in blue. FC Dallas followed up its spectacular 3-0 home loss to SKC by managing to lose to the conference punchline Colorado Rapids, LAFC came into this past match having coughed up a 2-0 lead to the Whitecaps to tie 2-2, and second-place Seattle needed two late goals to avoid an embarrassing loss to the hot mess that is the 2018 San Jose Earthquakes.
All of this is to say: many of the biggest factors (rest, home field advantage, opposing team form) are finally in Sporting KC’s favor for the first time in years. Yes, another major officiating error like the ones that marred the recent matches against both LA-based clubs could happen. But the team’s fortunes are firmly in its control, and a fifth quick exit in a row from the playoffs should be seen by club and fans alike as an unacceptable result.