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Sporting KC’s Defense - Is this really an Aberration?

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MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Sporting KC Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Death, Taxes and SKC has a Stout Defense

Those are the constants of the universe, right? When it comes to Sporting Kansas City, everyone knows that they are a defense-first team, able to rely on the superior defensive abilities of their 2017 Goalkeeper of the Year Tim Melia, 2017 Defender of the Year Ike Opara and 2012 Defender of the Year Matt Besler along with the whole-team defending that starts all the way with the #9 (after all, that’s why Sporting doesn’t have a golden-boot winning striker, yes?)

Well numbers don’t lie, so let’s take a look. Yup, in 2017, Sporting had the fewest goals allowed at 29, less than 1 goal a game, and well ahead of the 2nd best of 37 goals allowed by Toronto F.C. Since it’s always easier to see things when you use charts for visualization, here’s a nice chart of how many goals Sporting Kansas City has given up per game in the MLS Regular Season since the beginning of 2017:

Chart of goals allowed per game by Sporting KC since 2017

It clearly shows that everything past that orange line, signifying the beginning of the 2018 season, is completely out-of-character for this team.

Or... does it?

Yes, the number of goals has increased, but upon closer inspection... this team actually hasn’t been keeping clean sheets for quite some time. In the past 21 games (since 6/24/2017), this team has held its opponents scoreless only 2 times: August 19th vs a F.C. Dallas team which was undergoing the an epic collapse and October 15th when Houston came to Children’s Mercy Park with every intention of getting a single point.

The Primacy Effect and Confirmation Bias

There’s a psychological effect which boils down to the notion that people tend to treat the first information that they receive as being more important. The notion that Sporting Kansas City had an impenetrable fortress of a defense probably stems from this type of thinking: at the beginning of the 2017 season, Sporting managed to accomplish an outstanding 6 shut-outs in 9 games.

Of course, that isn’t everything. Kansas City won a MLS Cup and multiple US Open Cups on fantastic defense. The most defining attribute of many a Peter Vermes team has been the approach to defending. It wasn’t an illusion that got so many people to consider Sporting to be one of the best defenses in the league (if not the best).

So this is not to say that Sporting has never had a great defense, but the point is that the change that we are looking for did not occur in the 2017-18 off-season but may have happened as early as the middle of the 2017 season. The reason that nobody has really noticed it until now is that we were blinded by confirmation bias; we saw what we thought we were seeing - a team which has a great defense... which was just letting in a few goals uncharacteristically. People were seeing it, they just didn’t appreciate it for what it was: Sporting was moving from being a defense-first team which wins games by never conceding a goal and hopefully nicking one to being a team which is OK with trading off some risk of getting scored on in order to have a better chance of scoring.

The Jimmy Medranda & Dom Dwyer Effect

So, I’ll be honest. I (like everyone else) have been trying to figure out what is going on, why we suddenly concede goals on a regular basis. Unlike most, however, I was not limiting myself to just this season, but I was still having trouble figuring out what had changed. Possession statistics weren’t noticeably different, shots allowed weren’t, etc. None of the statistical measures I looked at really jumped out at me. Then Thad Bell (you may have heard of him) had pinged me and when I told him my thoughts for this brought up Ike Opara’s concussion, and that event did occur around the same time that we start to see SKC concede more goals, but 3 of the 21 games occur before that happened.

It did get me thinking about looking at what type of personnel changes were made and I believe I came across an explanation: Sporting Kansas City stopped recording shutouts around the same time that Jimmy Medranda stopped starting games in 2017.

Now, those of you who know me on Twitter (@SombraAla, BTW) you would know that I am a big Medranda fan, so some of you may be rolling your eyes at me at this point, but bear with me.

Jimmy Medranda lost his spot on the squad to Dániel Sallói. I also happen to be a huge Sallói fan and I absolutely want to see him in the squad, playing as much as possible, but he isn’t nearly as defensive as Jimmy Medranda is at the wing-forward position. I consider Jimmy to be the forward to use when defense is needed, or the defender to use when offense is needed.

Jimmy’s departure from the forward line, along with Dom Dwyer’s departure at roughly the same time, demonstrates a shift from employing only forwards which are as much in the lineup for their defensive qualities as they are for their ability to get the ball in a position to score. Jimmy and Dom have been replaced with Sallói/Croizet and Shelton, and while the direct change in players is important by itself, that change really underpins a broader change where Sporting is simply sacrificing some defense in the roles of its forwards in order to get more offense.

As you probably already are aware, defending is not just about the back 6. That the forwards are not as focused on being a part of the total team defense as they once were is going to have impacts down the line. While we can scratch our heads and wonder why Ike is so far out of position chasing the ball, the real reason he’s doing it very well may be because of the decisions made by the forwards up the field before it got to that point - or, perhaps, it looks nonsensical because of the decisions the forwards are making after he does it.

The Evolution of Peter Vermes/Change Blindness

Peter Vermes has the reputation of not changing and always doing the same thing, but perhaps he changes a lot more than we appreciate. There’s another perceptual effect called Change Blindness where people do not notice changes in an image, particularly when the image is not shown continuously and most of it stays the same. It seems that this could apply to situations like a coach evolving between games or across many years - it is difficult to see how the team changes when most of it stays the same and the games are a week or more apart.

Hopefully the changes that Vermes and his style and approach to the game have not been fully implemented, and I’m 100% positive that Vermes, as much as he plays coy with the media when they ask about it, is not simply ignoring the fact that the defense has been a tad bit leaky recently. To shore things up it may require changes to approach from the back 6 or it might require a better understanding of what the forwards and advanced midfielders are doing. These issues, however, almost assuredly will not last the whole season.

Ultimately I believe that the very reason Sporting continues to leak goals is also the reason that it has been scoring them at a pretty decent clip; the dynamics of how this team defends has changed, and Vermes has (finally?) decided that a defense-first approach is great, but it has its limitations (esp. in a league which has grown considerably since 2013). When the team gets more comfortable with how it is operating things should settle down, but until then we could be in for a bumpy ride.