Friends, Kansas Citians, and Wizards’ Faithful,
Preseason for the 2020 edition of Sporting Kansas City season ended Saturday with a 2-1 loss to the New York Red Bulls (the retreaded NY/NJ Metrostars, remember). The match, and the preseason, was a bright light here, some dim play there, some rise here, some ultimate failure there. Thus, my current state of mind, riddled with opinions and takes I’m sure some will fiddle with. Be gentle, after all… I can be pretty right about some things (imagine a small, but perceptible wink.).
What the opposition giveth and taketh away… “Welcome, one mess is like to be your cheer.” Taming of the Shrew, 4,4,70
Intriguing tactical battles are always a draw. Sporting KC has held firmly to a somewhat morphable 4-3-3 in the Peter Vermes’ era. Smartly, Vermes has realized that as MLS grows in quality, the ability of his players on the ball is critical for his system to be sustained and to grow.
By building a wall in front of the KC back four to cut off penetration into the middle channels where Ilie and Gadi Kinda can operate freely (and Felipe Gutierrez when he returns), the Red Bulls forced a change in Sporting’s shape. The midfielders and forwards had to come back for the ball, as did the wide backs. Then, the field was much smaller and manageable for the New York defense. Then, Sporting had to adapt.
Ilie came back to help the backline distribute, wide backs Graham Zusi and Luis Martins came back farther than usual, and the rest of the midfielders and the forwards, especially center forward Alan Pulido, dropped back lest they be starved completely of service. The Red Bulls’ midfield and backs, of course, gladly obliged, even pushing in front of them to win the numbers battle and to make the field even smaller.
It was messy for Kansas City.
Once Sporting figured out that long balls over the top were a low percentage counter-tactic on the day (more on that later), they persisted - through early struggles - in feeding the ball wide to Zusi and Martins. As the first half progressed, the connections with and between Johnny Russell, Gadi Kinda, Khiry Shelton, and Pulido grew stronger owing to their individual skills and teamwork and Sporting was no longer as often blocked by New York’s wall.
The final piece in winning the on-field battle, unfortunately, did not come until after halftime when KC’s ball movement took a marked upturn and switching fields quickly paid off in the joy and cheer of a number of opportunities. Yes, a squad builds its identity via a particular style of play. But that team builds success from how it adapts to the opponent’s trying to take identity away.
The Ilie, Gadi, and Roger Odyssey…
“I know you can be underwhelmed, and you can be overwhelmed, but can you ever be, like, whelmed?” Ten things I hate about you (adapted from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew)
Gosh, Chastity, yes. All three of your intended meanings come to mind with the Sporting Kansas City midfield this preseason. The coordinated defense from this trio is underwhelming, Kinda’s skill and quick pace into space with a healthy dose of dekes, feints, and acceleration is overwhelming at times, and, well, Ilie – though still great on the ball – is, uh, yah, just there in transition, although he made some strong tackles early against New York. He just did not stand out and impact the match Saturday (or the past match versus Phoenix Rising) like each performer in this trio must. He just too often whelmed this preseason.
Sometimes, Ilie is “engulf”<ed by the play around him. Those early calls on the broadcast of “Besler makes another emergency tackle” were not all Ilie’s failures (and some were due to the Red Bulls’ tactics), but can the defensive, or holding, midfielder stop those attacks more often before they become “emergency”? How was Roger Espinoza’s impact on the match? Just as whelmed?
Petering out… “We’ve been duped!”
To deal with the Red Bulls’ wall in front of the backline, Sporting early and often sent long balls over and mostly out to the wings. When these passes didn’t end with Russell with his back to goal in the corner or with a ball flighted or touched out of bounds, they found Shelton on the right, marked by a single defender. The apparent prodigal son, junior, as he has all preseason, showed his confident skill on the ball by beating his man and breaking into the final third. But in the first half these promising runs either petered out by recovering defenses, or Shelton losing control, or when the ball was played to Pulido, the actual prodigal son.
If there was one thing all those watching Sporting Kansas City this preseason wanted to see, it was to see the recent leading goal scorer in LigaMx arrive and put the ball in the net. It wasn’t a big ask. It’s what he was brought here to do. But… None. Notta. Zip. Zero. The goose egg. No goals in all of preseason. Pardon the Sporting KC faithful for perhaps invoking SpongeBob just this one time…
Hey, it’s okay. Pulido is adjusting. Or is it? Each preseason match saw Pulido in an advantageous position in front of net where a goal scorer was expected to score, but it didn’t happen. Maybe it was one-too-many touches, maybe it was trying to be too fine, maybe it was a sign of adjusting and just not comfortable in his new team yet. Whatever the reason, it was, and is, concerning.
Plenty of happy harbingers happened this preseason. On the backline, Martins and Robert Puncec emerged as solid, sometimes elevating contributors, and an EPL-experienced back was added to the center back stable. In the midfield, Kinda and Gianluca Busio showed consistently well. It is salivating to think of what these two could do this season to add more dynamic play in the midfield and in the box and in their developing connections with Pulido.
Pulido was strong holding the ball and in playing for others. And Shelton is a new man, maybe Kei Kamara-on-the-wing-esque? His run down the right channel found Pulido and led to Kinda’s goal on Saturday. Daniel Salloi found the net early and often. And Russell was Russell, Gerso mostly Gerso. And that’s just a few encouraging signs to quell the unrest.
Overall, the 2020 Sporting Kansas City side appears to be more athletic, more deep, more adaptable, hopefully less porous, more entertaining, and more threatening than its didn’t-make-the-playoffs-forerunner.
Yes, despite all the potential downfalls, I choose to stand by the 2020 edition of Sporting Kansas City.
Grrrrrrrrr. Preseasons are such fickle, teasing, tormenting shrews. I hoped to see so much more (And no Felipe!!!) in Arizona.
Do preseasons mean anything (yes, in soccer more than most sports, I believe)? Do they mean everything (of course not)? But, we humans, we sports fanatics and pundits, tend to get too high and too low at times. Because, well, it’s MLS season now. And we can’t wait… to get too high and too low all season.