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“In the Box”: Sporting Kansas City going universal, just in time

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Goals from last two matches reveal diversity.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Sporting Kansas City Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Three of Sporting Kansas City’s goals in last Sunday’s 4-2 win over Houston Dynamo were the type that should be set to music, perhaps the lyrical, yet dramatic layers of Mendelssohn’s “Op 30 no 6” or the driving, pounding “Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young. Choices from any genre could fit Daniel Salloi’s 26th minute finish or Gadi Kinda’s 57th drive thru the defense. Because music, like beauty, is universal.

With only six matches (4 away, 2 home) left in the regular season, Sporting Kansas City need to be universal in their methods and execution. That universality is coming to the fore.

A textbook use of quick ball movement on the left to open space on the right wing (and find that space) saw right winger Johnny Russell draw, and then convert, a penalty to get things rolling for the home side.

Yet, the next one is what is beginning to set Kansas City apart.

Sporting is in attacking formation on the left side when midfielder Remi Walter wins the ball: Left back Luis Martins is wide left, with left winger Daniel Salloi tucked in on left channel. Left midfielder Gadi Kinda is cruising the inside left channel.

Walter wins ball inside the right channel deep in his own half and carries inside right to left as Russell stays wide right and striker Khiry Shelton makes an inside-out run deep, left to right. Although the defense does not bite, the moves leave enough space for the left to have the necessary room. Not that they need much.

As Walter carries, Kinda is waving his arms for the ball. Houston defender Griffin Dorsey is side-on facing Salloi. Dynamo center back Tim Parker is closing the gap between Dorsey and himself as Kinda receives. And Parker continues to do so.

With no pressure from his defender, Kinda pushes at the defense in all of his five touches. The gap for a through ball to play the forward-moving Salloi in is closing. Yet, the pass needs to beat only Parker due to Dorsey’s position. Kinda’s release is inch-perfect in space and in pace. Salloi touches once to prep, then a flick of his left foot stamps the ball for the only space it could go to find inside netting: just out of reach of Houston netminder Michael Nelson’s momentum and inside the far post.

The goal is not a pure counterattack, but it is a transition goal that exploits the given space. It is the type of goal that Kinda and Salloi have worked all season to perfect.

“I love playing with Gadi… The passes he gives me; the combinations we play together. We always find each other in great spots,” said Salloi at the postgame presser. “That’s why making runs for Gadi is good because you are already planning the next move because he can put the ball on your feet.”

The next goal Sporting conjured may be the most important type of goal.

Mid-play, Shelton’s movement, just as Kinda turns after receiving the ball on the inner left channel, takes Parker away; Shelton’s fade out wide is subtle, but huge as the space Kinda later exploits would have been filled by Parker and Shelton if not for his check away. Witness it is Parker who frantically later efforts to recover, then cover his goalkeeper as the ball goes past Parker and into the net.

But the play itself begins with left back Andreu Fontas playing a chancy ball from 10 yards inside Sporting’s half into an opposite positioned Kinda as Houston’s 5’10”, 161 lbs., Cory Baird closes in on Kinda. Kinda uses all of his 5’8”, 146 lbs. frame and a skillful right-to-left foot turn to steal away from Baird, only to now face coming heat from both sides.

Fontas failed… to play it safe. As has been the case all season, Fontas reads risk vs. reward situations very well. If only that critical ability manifested itself throughout the squad.

Meanwhile, in the middle, 15 yards off the top of the 18 – and this is the most subtle and perceptive of all the involved movements – Salloi backpedals six steps to the right as his marker tucks inside, the marker’s eyes on Kinda.

To escape pressure, Kinda clips right on a dime with the outside of his boot, then, with head up, dishes for the now open Salloi. Caught up in the speed of it all, and realizing he has lost Salloi to those six steps, the overzealous defender slides by the receiving Salloi, who touches big and lays off unselfishly for the diagonal running Kinda. Kinda pushes past the onrushing Nelson and fires past the beleaguered, late-covering Parker.

The play evolved from Sporting’s possession in the back. The theory, of course, is to pull out the defense to chase the ball and then attack that space in behind as the defensive lines get pulled apart. Like no other on Sporting’s roster (watch Cameron Duke though…), Kinda can take advantage.

“[Kinda] needs to get assists; he needs to get goals. He needs to set things up on the field. And he did that today… He’s there. We need production from him because we count on him. I wouldn’t make that demand if he wasn’t capable of doing that,” Manager Peter Vermes relayed. “He takes [the demand] the right way. He was really getting into form, then he fell off a little bit. Hopefully, this is a good step in that direction again, especially as we push into the end of the season.”

The unselfish-in-the-moment Salloi sounded off on Kinda too, albeit in a jovial tone. “It was such an open pass, I had to pass it. I’m happy he scored; I’ve given him many passes in the past games, and he’s been missing them. I was telling him this needs to stop. He needs to start putting them away. I’m happy he did it. I love watching his celebration; I think it’s awesome.”

Just prior to Kinda’s goal, Kinda was foiled on a great chance by his touch letting him down in front of the Houston goalkeeper. The fine touch needed in tight space comes with game minutes, which Kinda is getting now after a layoff.

But that touch also comes with focus, as Salloi commented in reference to his goal. “It’s funny because I actually make this mistake many times: I get these balls, and I don’t take a good first touch. On that one, I took a perfect touch and placed it in the corner. Z [Zoran Savic], our assistant coach, and I were looking at situations like that after the FC Dallas game. I’m just trying to focus in that situation. I’m glad I can fix my mistakes from games before. That’s why I get more and more goals.”

What defenses will throw at Sporting down the stretch and into the playoffs will vary, or follow the formula that has been most effective - bunker and counter. The sure in-training focus on situations Sporting will face is beginning to show, especially methods that can be used against a bunkering side. Go back one match and see Salloi’s long distance strike and his solo counterattack run from a Jose Mauri ball (don’t forget Shelton’s penalty kick draw via route one). Both of those types of skills will be needed for Sporting to win out down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Sporting’s universality is getting there. More so, it is becoming instinctual. (It will need to be to get past Seattle Sounders…)

The actual questions Salloi was asked in Sunday’s postgame presser were framed to find out what he was thinking during the two goals in which he was involved. Salloi did not reveal his thoughts, because there likely were none. Just instincts, the same instincts that vibrate out of strong musicians and performers.

Mendelssohn. Young. Drake. Luke Combs. Santana. Post Malone. Whoever, it doesn’t matter. The problem with theme music, however, is that it cannot capture all the details of the scene. Sporting is creating a type of music all their own, at the right time.

But I can’t resist choosing a song for Johnny Russell’s 90th minute goal that iced the match for Sporting (Yes, I realize my musical choices reflect my age.).

It was the type of goal Russell has been trying to score, and hasn’t, all season. The solo run featured a change of pace push to the line that beat two and a confident finish (that many would miss or hit at the ‘keeper). It was pure Russell. And a release for all. “Times Like These” from Foo Fighters – specifically the opening or the solo. Even the lyrics fit: “I’m a one-way motorway… I’m a wild light blinding bright… It’s time like these you learn to live again.”

Long live the Kinda-Salloi orchestration. Long live the JFR searing solo.