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Seven Ailments of Sporting KC’s Defense

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We break down many of the things going wrong for SKC defensively and suggest some solutions.

MLS: New England Revolution at Sporting Kansas City William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Sporting Kansas City are off to a less than ideal start in MLS play in 2019. They are 2-2-4 through eight league games and are coming off of a 4-4 draw to the last place team in the Eastern Conference, the New England Revolution. Before that they got a 4-1 pounding at the hands of what had been a terrible San Jose Earthquakes squad.

I’ll take a look at several possibilities but in no way do I promise any answers. I’m not a regular on The Shades of Blue podcast, but much like that pod, I have questions but only the vaguest hint at an answer.

Before we look at what’s wrong, let’s try to illustrate how wrong things are going. Sporting KC have allowed 15 goals in eight games. That’s 1.875 goals per game. SKC are on pace to allow 63.75 goals this season. For comparison, these are the goals allowed over the last five seasons:

  • 2018: 40
  • 2017: 29
  • 2016: 41
  • 2015: 45
  • 2014: 41

I could keep going, but you get the point. Sporting are allowing goals in at an alarming and unfamiliar rate. Let’s take a peek at what the reason could be.

Ike Opara is Gone

Right in the middle of preseason, Sporting KC dealt Ike Opara to Minnesota United. We weighed the Pros and Cons at the time and one theme that came up over and over from myself and others was the loss of Ike’s athleticism. His replacement is Spanish center back Andreu Fontas and they are far different players. Ike’s raw speed no doubt would have made the difference on some of the goals this season, but the team simply plays a different way now.

They want to possess the ball and pass out of the back. No doubt Fontas is better than Opara at this. Honestly, Botond Barath is better than Opara at this. Abdul Rwatubyaye may be better than Ike in this regard. Whether it’s a mistake to play this way is another argument, but I’m confident the defense will get better than they are now, though they may simply not be as good as they were with Ike.

A New Cast of Characters

Turnover on the backline is a real thing. Obviously we mentioned Fontas, Barath and Abdul above. But there are other issues at play. So far in 2019 the following players have lined up in defense: Graham Zusi, Andreu Fontas, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic, Botond Barath, Nicolas Hasler, Abdul Rwatubyaye, Nicolas Hasler, Jaylin Lindsey, Rodney Wallace and Yohan Croizet. 11 players for four positions. That doesn’t even mention Jimmy Medranda who will play when he’s back from injury and Graham Smith who may be forced into action at some point.

However you look at it, that’s a lot of different combinations of players who are simply not very familiar with each other. Barath, Hasler, Rwatubyaye and Wallace are all playing in defense for the first time with SKC. Croizet played a single game there in 2018. Fontas played in two games last year. There will be growing pains as they work on their chemistry.

Oh the Injuries!

Part of the reason for the massive turnover is injuries. Wallace is out most of the year. Lindsey is out for most of the year. Medranda will have been out a year by the time he’s back. Besler is currently out. Fontas has missed time with injury. The way Zusi is playing you have to wonder if he’s hurt. The team is banged up.

Has Zusi Lost a Step?

Speaking of Zusi, that three year deal he signed in 2018 suddenly looks too long. He signed a new deal along with Roger Espinoza and Matt Besler (both of whom got two years) and the three year deal looked great. Zusi played perhaps his best season ever last year and it looked like he defeated father time. But as we know, father time is undefeated.

In 2019, something is wrong. Would you be surprised if they announce he’s been dealing with an injury? I wouldn’t.

What we do know is he started the season fine but Monterrey seem to have broken him. He struggled in both those games and has looked pretty poor since then (though he looked a little better against New England). Zusi is probably being misused (more on that in a bit) and maybe he’s just tired (both physically and mentally). The offseason was incredibly short and he is the oldest player on the team.

The Team Misses Roger

One thing worth considering is the impact not having Roger Espinoza is having on this team. He hasn’t started the last two games and in that time Sporting KC have allowed eight goals (it’s worth noting Besler was injured for six of those goals too).

Then again, I think that’s too simple of a solution. Espinoza also sat out the 1-1 draw at FC Cincinnati and though Sporting relied heavily on backups, they looked like they could have won that game. And Sporting did win the other game Espinoza sat (due to a red card) against the Philadelphia Union. That game was ugly, but Sporting shut out Philly at CMP.

Roger is vitally important to the team, but for me, it’s a couple other things. Partially it’s the weak center back pairings without Besler (Rwatubyaye was pretty good in relief but looked lost in his first MLS start). Partially it’s the absence of Seth Sinovic. And of course, those damn tactics.

The Team Misses Seth

I’ll start by stealing a stat from my colleague Mark Baehr:

With Seth on the field: Five goals against in 423 minutes, goal difference of +7, 1.6 points per game.

Without Seth on the field: 10 goals against in 297 minutes, goal difference of -3, 0.67 points per game.

Those numbers probably aren’t entirely fair. Sinovic was in for the 7-1 beating SKC handed to the Montreal Impact (who BTW, are tied for first in the East now). But it emphasizes a greater point. Seth is literally the most defensive fullback on the entire roster. Zusi is a midfielder masquerading as a right back. Wallace is a winger turned fullback. Medranda is another midfielder who plays fullback. Jaylin Lindsey is a true fullback but he’s hurt. The only competition for “most defensive fullback” is Nico Hasler, who has barely seen the field.

So why isn’t Seth playing? It goes back to a point my colleague Mike Kuhn pointed out after the second loss to Monterrey.

“After the game last night, in his post-game press conference, Peter Vermes spoke about his lineup selection for the game saying ‘When I look at the guys who I put out there today, they had an opportunity. I believe some of them fell short.’”

“...it wouldn’t surprise me if a couple players are ‘sent a message’ and lose their place for a few games.” continued Kuhn. ”Obviously the question is who ‘fell short’ as Vermes put it, and certainly fingers can be pointed at the defense.”

Mike goes on to talk about all the defenders struggling and putting a special emphasis on the struggles of the fullbacks. Since that game, only one player has consistently not played and it’s been Sinovic. Three games and every single one he was replaced by Croizet (a winger? CF? midfielder?) who played out of position at left back.

This isn’t a knock on Croizet. I think he may have been the best defender against New England (though that’s not saying a whole lot). The more time he gets at fullback the better he’ll be at it. But for me, this isn’t the time to play him there. Let Seth be the steady, stabilizing force he can be in defense. Or at the very least, if Peter Vermes refuses to take Seth out of the dog house, the team must change tactics.

Sporting are Playing the Wrong Tactics

Remember the beginning of 2019 when Sporting KC smoked Toluca FC? Bobby Warshaw pointed out something I didn’t notice immediately. Sporting KC were playing with three defenders in the back. And it wasn’t just Ilie Sanchez dropping between the center backs (though that does happen), it was Graham Zusi staying home and playing defense instead of constantly bombing forward with Sinovic moving way up the field like a wide midfielder.

For me, it doesn’t have to be Zusi staying back. If Sinovic started, it might make more sense to keep him home and let Zusi, who is clearly the more offensive player, get forward. Part of the reason it may have been Zusi early in the year is because that put Fontas in the middle of a three man back line (a 3-4-3 when in possession). Fontas is the Ilie of the backline with his deft passing skills. He has the ability to cut through lines of defense with a pass on the ground or bypass the midfield all together with a long ball to either wing or even up the middle to the forwards.

But with Besler out, Fontas is playing left center back as the only left footed healthy CB left. Because he’s shifted over, playing Sinovic next to him on one side and Barath on the other would allow for three solid passers in the back. Not to mention three solid defenders in the back. And Zusi could roam forward. And since three players are back, there is less space for teams to play the ball to hit a counter and the channel teams are passing the ball into would be smaller.

When Besler is healthy and Fontas can move to RCB, let Croizet play LB and bomb up the field with Zusi staying home. Until then, SKC need to realize they are too slow to push everyone up the field and they need to sacrifice a little offensive excitement for the sake of some defensive stability. Tim Melia has been hung out to dry way too often this year. At least give him a chance to make a save by keeping defenders in a spot to pressure attackers if not eliminate attacks all together.

Overall

So, it’s not really one thing that’s ailing Sporting KC, but instead a lot of things. The one I’ll give the least weight to is Opara being gone. The team can defend without him (and they did early in the year), they just need to remember they don’t have his speed and play differently to cover for that. The injuries, the unfamiliarity and most importantly the tactics are more heavily to blame.

Atlanta United’s speed will be a good test on Sunday. If Vermes leaves Fontas and Barath/Rwatubyaye/Smith on an island, Joseph Martinez will blow by them and light up the defense (even if he’s been on a brutal cold streak this year). If he changes things up (and you’d think he’d have to with this recent form), Sporting KC can still be an offensive threat, but every counter shouldn’t end in a goal for the opposing team.