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Sporting KC: Observations (and arguments) from Orlando loss

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Indictments, Shelton takes, and more, plus the most difficult thing in team sports

SOCCER: SEP 23 MLS - Orlando City FC at Sporting Kansas City Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It is one win in the last seven for Sporting Kansas City, fans, pundits, and fair-weather fans… oh, wait, fair-weather’s aren’t interested anymore anyway. But, yeah, Kansas City fell to Orlando City 2-1 at home last Wednesday evening.

The most frustrating thing, though, is that it could all be so different. Like… Well, okay, I’m tired of 2020 COVID jokes too. And Sporting KC not getting three points. So grab a drink (I chose wine; I’m going to try and be couth here), and compare your observations with mine.

Cred to Orlando and other quick bits

  • Good teams take advantage of what the other team gives them. Check for Orlando City (5-0-3 in last eight). Similarly, even better teams know the key to winning is to keep pressure on the opponent in whatever way possible until the opponent makes a mistake. Orlando does both with their quick, pinpoint ball movement and active, smart runs off the ball to initiate those passes. Both actions force errors and create opportunities. Enough about them.
  • Gerso’s drive for goal in the 86th minute was a bullet!! Not often seen from him, unless he’s cutting in from the right.
  • Gadi Kinda is a very dynamic, very good, very driven soccer player. Yeah, his shooting accuracy needs some work, but next season is going to be his breakout year. He has grown more mature as a player even this season. The man plays with joy.
  • I am liking Amadou Dia. He’s athletic. He’s versatile and just the right amount of daring on the ball. He plays with vim and vigor, and he wins a good amount of headers. I want to see more of him.

The two goals allowed…Or the (mostly) false indictment of Matt Besler

Sporting Kansas City puts a high (high, high) value on winning the ball high up the field in the opponent’s end. That’s a lot of “highs.” That line varies depending on who they play. Combined with the high line the back four played against Orlando City, it takes considerable pressure, cover, and balance between the three forwards and the three concentrated midfielders to make it payoff. If those first lines of defense are broken, attacking teams often find space and time (wide or through the middle) to run right at the back four. A lot of woes (and lows) can result for Sporting and their fans.

36th Minute

A pass from Gerso to Khiry Shelton is intercepted at their box, and Orlando is on the counter. Make no mistake about it, the blame begins here. Four Sporting players effort to win the ball or stop Orlando’s forward progress. Fine. Orlando plays quick, beats them and releases out wide. But Johnny Russell stops, failing to retreat with his mark – eventual assist man, #2 Ruan – who has oodles of space on the ball.

Tesho Akindele, #13, continues his run in the right most inner channel, while three (a total of five) others also run at Sporting’s back four. Ilie pressures Ruan from the left to stop any square pass, but is still a good five yards off him. As the lead runner, #19 Benji Michel approaches the defensive line 32 yards from goal, he angles to the left of center back Matt Besler for a ball down the line.

Left back Dia is still nine yards off from the ball in no man’s land as Michel runs behind him. So, it’s up to Besler and his partner Roberto Puncec to make the decisions. Yet, only Puncec can see the complete picture. It is his job to make the decisive move knowing all he knows, or at least communicate what should be done.

Besler makes the absolute right decision and steps up as Michel runs through: danger averted as Michel pulls up. But then Puncec – instead of going with the coming Akindele – steps up. There is no cover and Ruan splits Besler and Dia, and Puncec is left to watch Akindele freely go in on goalkeeper Tim Melia. 1-0 Orlando. To the eye, a hapless Besler pursues in desperation and seems to be the one to blame. That roll call actually includes Russell and Puncec to the highest degrees.

38th Minute

Orlando’s Nani receives with time and space (bad things are gonna happen) on the extreme left wing 10 yards into Kansas City territory. Besler and Puncec both have marks left-center as Ilie tracks the passer and right back Graham Zusi goes to pressure Nani. Dia sees this all from his left back spot in line with Besler.

Nani sees Michel (Besler’s mark) and wisely turns to his right to play for him one-on-one. Besler follows his instincts… But instincts can sometime betray you; like that time you thought it was a good idea to date your friend’s sister… and either steps up, or thinks Nani is going to flub his (ground?) pass and it will be an easy steal… I don’t know. Either way, Besler’s move is inexplicable. Nani delivers a flighted ball like the world class player he is; Michel goes in haggled mildly by a retreating Besler. 2-0 Orlando.

However. Dia is not blameless here. He needs to recognize the situation: a center back one-on-one with no cover. Instead, Dia looks left briefly, loses the moment, and then looks on in dismay at the carnage some ten yards behind him.

Things only get worse for Besler. To some, he is the goat on both goals. When Winston Reid comes on for Besler at the half, Fox Sports 1 commentator Stuart Holden repeatedly states that Besler has been “yanked” from the lineup by Manager Peter Vermes. Only later do we find out Besler may be injured, confirmed by a somewhat less-than-convincing Vermes in the post-game presser. Maybe the Reid substitution was already planned as a part of squad rotation? We will never know. But Besler surely does not deserve the ire for all that transpired.

While here… Reid’s performance was solid. Certainly not spectacular (though a step-up tackle and long ball for Gerso in the 64th was impressive). He had little to do in urgent situations due to Kansas City dominating the play second half, nothing to do with him. He was good on the ball (like Besler and Puncec are). In the attack, his aerial presence is consistently impactful (unlike Besler and Puncec). But that is it.

I would like to see Reid more to get a better gauge on how good he can be. It will be interesting to see who Vermes goes with at center back next match this Saturday in Houston. By the way, Puncec was excellent during the second half. He stepped up his game big time.

Khiry Shelton… Get him back to where he once belonged.

Khiry Shelton at center forward. We have all seen this film before. Within the first 12 minutes he:

  • makes a poor touch on a ball played to his feet in the box, losing Sporting possession.
  • runs into Kinda’s space after passing to him, nullifying any positive outcome.
  • flops to the turf when “going” for a flighted ball instead of actually battling for it.

Except for a few diversions, the pattern from Shelton repeated the above all match. Yes, he won two aerial battles, but he should have done better in front of goal in the 47th minute because it is his job to do better, especially when his team really needed a lift at that point. And that miss on the low Dia cross in the 62nd… smh. (Yes, my friend texted me with a “You think you could do better?” after I complained to her about Shelton. Note to self, choose friends more wisely…)

But, seriously, compare Shelton’s effort and skill on winning aerial battles and headers to Russell’s goal later in the match and any of DP center forward Alan Pulido’s efforts. Both men will kill to get their head on a ball. In the 78th minute, Shelton did flick a header on nicely.

Perhaps even more impactful is Shelton’s failures to be at the near post when warranted. A center forward often makes his living at the near post. (Somewhat random quiz question: Where is Gerso likely to end up placing the ball after his patented tricks on the wing to get him to the end line? Thank you.) How many times did Gerso get the ball against Orlando? Lots. Besides a good near post run in the 80th minute that proved dangerous (Hmmm…), Shelton repeatedly failed to be at the near post when he should have been, often being too early or just absent.

Clearly, Shelton has been more effective on the wing this season. And he was very good early this season. But I am not convinced that him getting time on the wing should disrupt Russell on the right and Gerso on the left – Kansas City’s most dangerous wing combination. Russell, at the least, should not be forced from his right wing to the left just to give Shelton time.

Overall

Let’s be real. Hitting a baseball thrown by a major league pitcher is the agreed upon most difficult individual thing to do in sports. Good enough. Let’s agree that organizing 11 players to defend all 120 x 75 yards of a soccer pitch consistently well against 11 other powerful and skilled athletes bent on disorganizing that defense is the toughest thing to do in team sports.

Vermes cited “poor decisions” as the culprit defensively in his post-match presser. Agreed: by multiple players in multiple ways. They happen in any competitive environment. But we can all agree these mistakes were… disappointing in many ways. Players did not take responsibility. Urgency lacked in moments. And tactical smarts took a vacation at the wrong times.

Offensively, 10 corners by the 75th minute and nothing to show for them and only two shots on goal from a game total of 16 shots and 13 corners is just not good enough.

Can Sporting make things different? What are your thoughts? What should be done differently? Are you confident Sporting Kansas City will right the ship and position themselves well for the playoffs? Put your comments below. Be cordial…