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Sporting Kansas City offseason ponderings, plausibilities, and propositions

Calls for change in possibly the most uncertain offseason in the club’s history.

Minnesota United FC v Sporting Kansas City: Western Conference Semifinals - MLS Cup Playoffs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Sporting Kansas City’s MLS offseason moves began the minute after they fell 3-0 at home to Minnesota United in one of the MLS Western Conference semifinals back on Thursday, December 3rd. That fact is a bitter pill, but it also creates a compelling, mind-bending time as we ponder and then pontificate about how to make this club the MLS Cup-winning side (and beyond) we fans want it to be, and, of course, wait to see what direction Technical Director and VP of Player Personnel Brian Bliss and Manager and Sporting Director Peter Vermes ultimately take this club. That process has many incarnations throughout the offseason.

Coming off a possible smokescreen of a regular season conference top finish, a dramatic move-on from club legend Matt Besler, the many ongoing contract negotiations, the financial impact of COVID, and a questionable playoff performance, there is a lot to consider.

Let’s get to it.

The following was a long-held belief before Columbus playmaker Lucas Zelarayan’s special performance in MLS Cup 2020 (If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor) and before Minnesota United’s Emanuel Reynoso dismantled Sporting in the Western Conference semifinal:

First, the playoff stats for the four playmakers on each of the conference finalists:

  • Minnesota’s Emanuel ‘Bebalo’ Reynoso: 3 assists v Colorado, 3a v SKC, 1 goal 1a v Seattle. Reynoso either scored or assisted on each of Minnesota’s eight playoff goals.
  • Seattle’s Nicolas Lodeiro: 1 goal 1 assist v LAFC, match-winning assist v FC Dallas and Minnesota United. Lodeiro either scored or assisted on four of Seattle’s seven playoff goals.
  • New England’s Carles Gil: 1 goal v Montreal, 2 assists v Philadelphia, 1g 1a v Orlando. Gil either scored or assisted on five of New England’s seven playoff goals.
  • Columbus’s Lucas Zelarayan: 1 assist v NYRB, 2a v Nashville, 1a v NE, 2 goals 1a v Seattle. Zelarayan either scored or assisted on seven of Columbus’s nine playoff goals.

Then this from former MLS star Steve Zakuani’s post-MLS Cup article: “This game was also a reminder of why teams continue to heavily invest in superstars — or superstars in the making — playmakers. We’ve seen teams get it wrong and the results can be disastrous, but when it goes right, as it has for the Crew with Lucas Zelarayan, then games like this one can happen. Big players win you big games — it’s a formula we’ve seen work in MLS time and again.”

Yes. Sporting Kansas City did not have Alan Pulido in the playoffs this season due to injury. But Pulido – though a sort of hybrid forward/playmaker – is not a #10. Besides, for every playmaker, top contending sides have a complementary striker who consistently scores: Minnesota’s Robin Lod, Seattle’s Raul Ruidiaz, New England’s Gustavo Bou, and Columbus’s Gyasi Zardes. And these lists do not even include those from Philadelphia Union, or perennial contenders LAFC, Portland Timbers, and Toronto FC. (BTW… Due to COVID, Columbus was without their regular-season assist leader Pedro Santos and their brilliant holding midfielder Darlington Nagbe in the final.)

Detractors will point that Sporting was also missing Felipe Gutierrez this season. Granted, what Gutierrez and Pulido could have done together is unknown. But, currently, it is unknown what Felipe’s status with the club is. Additionally, Gutierrez is not in the class of or the same type of difference-maker that top contending teams possess.

Is a possible midfield committee of Gutierrez, Gadi Kinda, Ilie Sanchez, Roger Espinoza, Felipe Hernandez, and Gianluca Busio one that can provide the attack that is built for post-season success? Are they a difference-maker by committee? Or is being proactive and obtaining a #10 who is that playmaker, who buys in to the side, who puts in the necessary work and cares (a difficult task to find of course) the solution? And, yes, I fully understand it may be a money issue (and that COVID has a say) in what we have been accustomed to calling the “small market” of Kansas City. But is Minnesota a big market? Columbus? Personally, I side with Zakuani and the known facts.

Yet, a side that allows six goals in two postseason matches (including a 3-3 draw with San Jose Earthquakes won in a PK shootout) is not going to go far in the playoffs, anyway. And although defense starts up front, getting the defensive mix and tactics right in the midfield is imperative.

Let’s admit it.

Something is not working for Sporting Kansas City on defense, or in the overall defensive scheme…

Statistically, the team improved significantly from the dreadful 2019 season. But any observer can see that the opposition is often given too much space and time on the ball in midfield still. Sporting’s failure to properly pressure the ball and track runners from box-to-box was evident during the season and on full display in the face of Minnesota’s Reynoso, Ethan Finlay, Lod, and Kevin Molino in the season-ending loss. These failures put tremendous pressure on the back four.

Are the difficulties a purely personnel issue? Is the entire of Kinda’s lack of MLS experience, Busio’s naivety (Reynoso toyed with him repeatedly), Espinoza’s age, and Sanchez’s lack of athleticism fully to blame? Can Jake Davis from SKC II take Espinoza’s midfield destroyer role? Or are these midfielders in a 4-3-3 just asked to do too much? It all worked in a dominant 2018 with Gutierrez, Espinoza, and Sanchez as Sporting transitioned into a more possession-based side. Yet, that season still ended at home in a conference final aggregate loss – a 0-0 draw in Portland and a 3-2 loss at home when Kansas City was daggered by Portland’s difference-makers Sebastian Blanco and Diego Valeri who scored the three goals.

What of a transition to a 4-2-3-1? A Busio, Gutierrez, Hernandez, Sanchez rotation at the dual 6. A real #10 (or Kinda or Busio or Gutierrez). A Kinda, Gerso, Shelton, Busio rotation at left wing (Gerso’s always going left-NASCAR limitations have grown tiring, except to defenses. He again cannot be a 20+ match starter.) Five attacking and defending in midfield… One formation theory is to play to the strengths of your personnel. I feel a 4-2-3-1 does that more than a 4-3-3 for Sporting Kansas City.

[Two side notes: Busio’s versatility has become invaluable. To sell him likely means having to acquire multiple players to replace him. Sure, eventually, he will be sold when the right offer comes along.

Secondly, no matter the formation or personnel in midfield or in the back, Sporting must be more physical, harassing, nagging, and, yes, fouling opposing attackers more often to hinder them physically and emotionally. The English call it “bottle” or “getting stuck in”. Neither is not trying to fancily strip an opposing attacker or a missed tackle or flailing at the opponent as happened often in the match with Minnesota. Against United, Sporting lost both the battles and the war. Johnny Russell was fouled six times by United. Gerso was harassed and taken down (most not called as fouls). And Ilie was fouled three times. Overall, Minnesota outfouled (and manhandled) Sporting 10-3 during the first half when they scored three goals, and 20-12 overall. Sporting Kansas City fouled Reynoso once. And don’t point out the yellow-card peril some Kansas City players were in; professionals know how to harass the opposition within the rules to take them out of their game. It just did not happen.]

It seems that the Sporting brass sees the need for change in midfield, too, as their rumored efforts in the transfer window this summer focused much on midfielders. Nevertheless, no matter the composition or formation of the midfield and the back four, communication, orchestration, and connection between those lines must improve.

Let’s talk about it, again.

If change in the midfield mix and tactics and the overall defensive makeup is imperative, change in the back four is mandatory. And hoping, again, that Andreu Fontas, Graham Smith, Winston Reid (if he is kept), and Roberto Puncec are the answers as center backs, is just that, hopeful.

Sporting Kansas City needs a youngish, fast, strong in the air, seasoned center back to partner with one of the above. Enough said.

Go back four paragraphs to that midfield/back connection… in the 20th minute against Minnesota, left back Amadou Dia fails to stop the forward progress of Jan Gregus deep in Minnesota’s own half after Sporting has lost possession. Then, Dia backpedals, deferring to a too-distant (and not fast enough) Ilie to slow Gregus. Ilie cannot and Gregus carries the ball unhindered for 30+ yards. This moment, though eventually harmless, was indicative of the disconnect between lines and the small, but cumulatively destructive errors made by Dia and right back Jaylin Lindsey all match.

I am not at all convinced that a mix of Dia and Luis Martins at left back and Lindsey (is he athletic enough?) and veteran Graham Zusi (who may be best utilized in on the wing) is good enough to push Sporting forward. The experience Dia and Lindsey gained will make a difference in 2021. But is that enough? Maybe help can be found from SKC II’s Dillon Serna or Kaveh Rad at left and right back respectively.

Surely, Sporting Kansas City will not stand pat this offseason. The upper brass knows they must remain competitive. But, just as surely, significant upgrades need to be made throughout the field to become a true MLS playoff contender, a side that is built for playoff success. A side that possesses weapons that make the difference in the big moments, possesses that one player who can literally dominate a game within the context of a solid, diverse supporting cast.

Would a true #10 and a dual-pivot at holding midfield lethalize Sporting’s possession-based attack and make it a more consistent ball-moving (instead of run-your-ass off) offense that is the best defense and protect the backline more effectively? Will more attitude and more athleticism overall, combined with the acquisition of a complete center back lift Sporting to the playoff elite? Is any or all of this even possible/advisable within the cloud of COVID?

Have I touched some nerves? Compelled any thoughts? Let’s discuss below. There is no shortage of things to discuss. And look for more thoughts from staff.