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“In the box”: How Sporting KC’s midfield creates a vicious cycle

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Or “Of pancakes, waffles, and a man on the moon.”

Sporting Kansas City v Los Angeles FC Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images

So… (forgive me Chad).

And Sporting Kansas City won the West in 2018 (with a 1.17 Goals Against Average, 3rd in MLS); then they dropped out of the playoffs in the conference finals after surrendering three goals in the home leg against Portland Timbers. “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”

No mention of the 2019 season will be mentioned here…Moving on…

In 2020, Sporting won the West (with a 1.19 GAA, 10th in MLS); then they plummeted out of the playoffs in a 3-0 conference semifinal loss to Minnesota United, after surviving a 3-3 regulation and overtime draw with San Jose Earthquakes by winning a shootout. “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”

If you believe Sporting Kansas City’s defense will win MLS Cup, “nothing is cool.” Neither the defense they exhibit in the marathon regular season or in the sprint of the playoffs will put a “Man on the Moon”, let alone put one of their players on a podium holding the MLS Cup. “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”

What exactly is (and has been, more or less, for a few years) the trouble with Sporting’s defense? The symptoms are many. At times, it is a “take your pick” smorgasbord: a giveaway, a failure to mark in the box, or to communicate, or to be aware of the developing situation, like in the opening goal allowed at Vancouver Whitecaps last Sunday:

Like in the opening goal in the September 26, 2-1 loss at home to current Western conference leaders Seattle Sounders:

Granted, things happen on the fast-paced pitch. Bad things. All teams fall victim… although it may seem Sporting KC does more often than others…

But the majority of the time, it is the caught unaware, near flat-as-a-pancake shape of the midfield when Kansas City loses possession (somewhat evident in the above clip as well) that exposes the above symptoms and reveals a full-fledged illness. The case-in-points are many. Here are a select few that help the diagnosis:

From the October 3rd match v Houston Dynamo, 2nd minute:

Dynamo midfielder Matias Vera receives the ball from an inner left channel pass that Sporting winger Johnny Russell properly directs inside with his pressure, where Kansas City’s defensive numbers (particularly the three midfielders) are supposed to be. But the closest midfielder is 10-12 yards off. No pressure there. Vera’s unchallenged pass splits dual #8 midfielders Gadi Kinda and Remi Walter, and bypasses #6 Jose Mauri. One pass beats three, three who are a max of 12 yards apart, with a gaping hole between the first two. Houston is in on Sporting.

Fortunately, Houston’s Darwin Quintero hesitates to play his forward mate – who is behind left back Luis Martins and center back Andreu Fontas and onside. That hesitation also allows Mauri an eventual recover to pressure the ball and slow Quintero.

No midfield pressure. No midfield cover. Unaware midfield balance. A midfield eliminated with one pass. Forced to react are center backs Andreu Fontas and Ilie Sanchez. Not the fleetest pair, pulled up field with acres of space behind them. Think about it. When was the last time you heard or saw someone state, “___________ did a great/good job of protecting the back four” about the defensive performance of one of Sporting’s defensive/holding midfielders or the midfield in general in their 4-3-3?

And that’s exactly why opposing teams take this approach:

The Player positions chart from whoscored.com shows Houston exploiting the gaps Sporting leaves in the midfield with three players repeatedly infiltrating that area, their #10 advanced on the midfield fringe, and their striker sitting between Sporting’s back line and the midfield to pull Kansas City out of shape. Houston may have lost the October 3rd match 4-2. But they also had two goals called back.

Seattle’s Player Positions chart from the September 26 match is even more pronounced:

The Sounders plug the gaps with two midfielders, while a wider spread than Houston’s pulls out Sporting’s wing backs (or exploits the space behind them on the counter), and, most dramatically, three attackers operate in Sporting’s soft underbelly between the lines to force the center backs to support the midfield, instead of the other way around.

Thus, situations like this one in the 57th minute happen:

The ball starts in Seattle’s inner left channel 25 yards from the midline. Seattle back Nouhou lofts a pass to midfielder Cristian Roldan lurking at the edge of the center circle in Kansas City’s half. Nouhou’s pass beats all three of KC’s midfielders, who are in a flat triangle from the center line to 5-7 yards short of Roldan. That is a 3-6-yard-deep midfield triangle. I’ve had waffles deeper than… you get the idea. US International Roldan can now attack in whatever direction or pace he chooses.

59th minute:

A right-back-Graham Zusi-to-striker-Khiry Shelton-connection short circuits with Shelton, Zusi, Russell, Walter, and center back Ilie Sanchez (who had carried the ball over the midline and into Seattle’s half on the right side) all near the ball. The ball falls to a Sounder, who lifts his head to find forward Will Bruin in space all alone on Sporting’s right flank with Walter hurriedly trying to recover. The wing backs are advanced, and the midfield is in disarray. It’s a panicked retreat for Kansas City (except for Kinda, who is too far advanced on the left side to matter). Meanwhile, top MLS striker Raul Ruidiaz is darting through the seam between Fontas and Mauri in the middle of the pitch. If not for Bruin’s subsequent bending ball for Ruidiaz being slightly off the mark, Sporting is down 3-0 with little hope for a turnaround.

Forget those who say, “it doesn’t matter if the loss is 3-0, we have to push forward to score.” In the playoffs, every moment will matter. Turning off for a moment can kill off a chance to win a playoff match. As it was, Sporting scored the very next minute to give themselves a way back into the match. At a possible 3-1 with a better Bruin ball, Sporting has not yet made a game of it.

A flat, unaware midfield triangle often fails to provide pressure on the ball, proper midfield cover, and proper deep balance: all things necessary to protect the (relatively) lead-footed back four and goalkeeper Tim Melia. Sporting’s foes notice, and when combined with advanced wide backs supporting the attack (necessary in a 4-3-3), those foes salivate at the possibilities. The casualties become a back four – often only the two center backs – that has to employ emergency defending as the midfield and wide backs frantically effort to recover. That level of urgency infects all and lends itself to errors and missed assignments. It is a vicious cycle.

Kudos to Sporting Director and Manager Peter Vermes for staying true to the Sporting’s attack-minded 4-3-3, aided by players adept at using possession as a weapon and a salve for the inherent defensive trappings. The style entertains the home fans and likely appeals to players Kansas City hopes to recruit. But it is a high-reward, high-risk venture.

Sporting is capable of being stingy on defense. On the season, the team GAA is 1.13, the lowest of the last three seasons. Three times they have allowed only two goals in a four-game stretch. In one four game stretch, only one (scoring only three in that same stretch).

However, the past three MLS Cup Champions have posted GAA in the playoffs of 0.40, 0.80, and 0.50 respectively, garnering seven shutout wins in 11 games played. Kansas City’s GAA in the 2018 and 2020 playoffs? 1.5 and 3.0 respectively. One shutout, and it was a draw.

Assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin played a strong holding midfielder for the Wizards in his days (albeit in a midfield of four). Sporting KC II Head Coach Paulo Nagamura was a heady #8/6 in his days in Sporting’s 4-3-3. Vermes himself was a center back in a stout defense with the Wizards. All three players won trophies. Two won multiple trophies. Perhaps Sporting would be well-served by training focused much on midfield shape and defense in the lead up to the playoffs.

REM’s 1992 song “Man on the Moon” from the album Automatic for the People reflected some people’s doubt about long-believed facts and theories across many dimensions. Sporting’s defensive breaking points cast not only doubt on postseason fortunes, but outright incredulity.

An offensive explosion in the playoffs? A return to full health for Alan Pulido and Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, leading to 75 to 90-minute shifts? A change in shape or formation? A change in mindset? Which will it take for Sporting to set themselves up for a true run at MLS Cup? If the first doesn’t happen, the rest will have to. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.