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Sporting Kansas City working for the numbers

Team has “hunger” and “huge quality.”

MLS: Sporting KC at Chicago Fire Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

From Merriam-Webster online:

Definition of associated, transitive verb, 1 : to join as a partner, friend, or companion 2 : to join or connect together: combine

Soccer – Association football. Although the term “Association football” is derived from the associations that formed within the sport during its origin, the word “associated” and its meaning certainly fit with the sport: Players must associate (join; combine) with each other to be successful in the object of scoring goals. Association football.

That association – required for individual and team success – is what Sporting Kansas City has been focusing on the most. The results thus far? Down and Up in the 2-0 season-opening loss at home to New York City Football Club two weeks ago and the wild go-up-two-then-come-from-behind 4-3 away win at Chicago Fire last Saturday.

For Sporting Kansas City, the two starkly different matches had some common threads. Two on the offense are numbers in attack and ambition.

“We did all that [preparation] through preseason. We knew that we had to get forward and have a lot of numbers in the box,” said veteran midfielder Roger Espinoza.

But the focus on getting multiple players forward to support attacks has had inconsistent results within games and from game-to-game. During the NYCFC match, former MLS and Kansas City Wizards’ goalkeeper Tony Meola commented during the FOX Sports 1 broadcast that “It’s taking far too long in transition for Sporting to get forward.” Ironically, this was being stated as NYCFC shuttled off on a 3 v 3 counter for their second goal.

Yes, numbers must be present on counters (although to a somewhat lesser degree). It is in the buildup from the back that Sporting Kansas City has struggled to find the combinations that result in advantageous positioning and numbers on the attack, perhaps due to opposing teams pressuring high on the back four.

“The first game, we were not ready for the high pressure,” said Spanish midfield general Ilie Sanchez. “In Chicago, sometimes in the 2nd half, we also were not ready. We know it’s about ourselves, so we have to get in the correct spot and have a good location, the eleven players, starting with Timmy [goalkeeper Melia] and the rest of the 10 players that are on the field. When we do that, we can build through anything – high pressure or if they press man-to-man.”

Sanchez implies that whatever the opposing side’s tactics are do not matter, however.

He confirms, “It is dictated by what we are doing. If you have the ball and you have the ability to keep the ball and move the ball fast, you are going to create chances and you are going to have numbers in the box. It’s also about the individual quality of the players. This year we have huge quality in this aspect.”

And it was Daniel Salloi (two assists) and Johnny Russell (one goal) and Espinoza and Sanchez’s midfield partner Felipe Gutierrez (two goals) whose quality shone through in Chicago.

“If they press man-to-man, it is what we are looking for – 3 v 3 on top. Just throw the ball[forward], and they are going to do the rest. At the end, if you are building from the back, it’s to be able to get in this position – 1 v 1 with our three guys on top,” said Sanchez. “If they want to press us, we have to get into good locations and then look at what’s going on. If we can play short, perfect. But if we have to play long, it’s more than perfect for us.”

And the first three goals emphasize what Sanchez states:

1st goal – 5 v 4 numbers off a cross-field long-ball switch from center back Matt Besler to right back Graham Zusi getting forward. With individual isolation and quality, and numbers in and around the box, magic happens as Zusi beats his man inside and feeds a splitting ball for Russell whose run results in a goalkeeper rebound put in by a supporting Gutierrez.

2nd goal – Espinoza plays a long cross-field ball to Salloi isolated on the left wing. Salloi beats his man with a change of pace and feeds back to a supporting Russell – one of four Sporting KC players in the box – at the spot for the finish.

3rd goal – Espinoza (again) plays a splitting ball for Gerso Fernandes’ clever run behind the defense. The rebound of Gerso’s shot is finished by left back Jimmy Medranda, one of five attacking around the box.

Yet all the tactics and numbers and quality of players do not matter unless a critical factor in scoring goals is present – hunger.

“All the guys in front, they are ambitious, looking for the goal and trying to score, to assist,” Sanchez espoused. “So it’s both the team is able to keep the ball and move the ball fast to create chances and this hunger we have inside the individual players.”

Even in the lackluster loss to NYCFC, Sporting Kansas City attackers showed hunger. In the 80th minute, Salloi’s ambition to run down a wayward pass drew a penalty (though overturned by VAR). Minutes later, Gerso’s desire showed in a defense-splitting run, where he was found by an Espinoza pass that resulted in a dangerous free-kick at the top of NYCFC’s box.

Most classically, this hunger was displayed by Russell’s 50-yard determined bolt up the field for the winning goal in Chicago. The Scot – quickly becoming a media and fan darling – beat two Fire defenders cutting inside from the right flank before laying off for Salloi whose clever backheel is smartly dummied by Gerso for a finish by the on-running Gutierrez. Hunger. Quality. Five in the box.

“But I feel we [got numbers in the attack] last year, we just had to be more clinical about it,” Espinoza claimed. “We have to finish. And it’s not that we don’t have the players. We have the players to get on the end of it, it’s we just haven’t been good at the final product.”

Ahhhh, finishing. One last good sign. Perhaps the quality finishing by newcomers Russell and Gutierrez is catching, for Jimmy Medranda, one often under the curse of poor finishing in years past, put the match tying goal in the back of the net.

Numbers. Quality. Hunger. Good times seem to be coming for Sporting Kansas City.