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Sporting KC 2021 Playoffs, “In the Box” Game one observations

Raising hands, taking steps, and the shame of it all.

MLS: Playoffs- Round One-Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Sporting Kansas City Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

Raise your hand if you called them:

Goals by Khiry Shelton, Nicholas Isimat-Mirin, and Graham Zusi in Sporting Kansas City’s first tilt in the 2021 MLS playoffs.

NO, YOU DID NOT. Put your hand down!!!

Yah. Who would have thunk, eh? And that was Zusi’s first playoff goal in his 13-year career. What?? (More on that later.)

To be real, Sporting Kansas City played the most complete playoff match it has since… well, to be honest, since before 2012.

The performances and Manager Peter Vermes and his staff’s tactical approach Saturday afternoon in the 3-1 victory over Vancouver Whitecaps at Children’s Mercy Park have been discussed thoroughly both within the comments on The Blue Testament’s match recap here and in more than one feature on

If you didn’t have the pleasure, here is the match condensed in 15 minutes. And here are a few other observations.

Tim Melia Saves

In the 69th minute – still plenty of time left for Vancouver to get back in the contest – Sporting’s 35-year-old goalkeeper Tim Melia springs right to full extension to deny a Whitecaps’ header labeled for inside the back post.

The Key? Melia’s constant movement and “squaring up” of his feet, which enables him to push off for the needed distance.

The feet of Khiry Shelton

Shelton was all that Khiry Shelton is in this match.

At first take, I thought his critical match opener was fate smiling on Kansas City and on the appreciated, but oft-maligned striker. After a closer look, his intention is clear. Then, he keeps the chance alive by heading the ball back into the six-yard box on Isimat-Mirin’s go-ahead goal three minutes into 1st half stoppage time. In the 85th minute, the 28-year-old flubbed a breakaway, his weak shot far from the mark. Vintage Shelton.

Yet, for me, another play stood out. Sometime in the 2nd half, the striker did something I have been looking for, something that has actually been very rare. With a coming ball near midfield, right in front of me, Shelton moved his feet to front his combatant, shifted his hips, backed in with his backside to shield the ball, and, with a good touch, kept possession for his side, enabling fellow attackers to join the flow.

In the past, Shelton may have had step one, but he would rarely set his feet and then use his significant size to fully back up and block the opponent’s body. Rarely has Shelton invoked the complete package. It was a “Hallelujah” moment.

No doubt, Kirby had a terrific match per the above and holding up the ball consistently better than he has in a long time.

It cannot be overstated

Vermes at the post-game presser:

“The other thing is, (Nicolas Isimat-Mirin), this is why we brought him here. It wasn’t just because he scored the goal, but because his defensive actions 1v1 tonight were big time. They were really big time. He is a tremendous defender. I’ve said it all along, if he were - and I don’t take a lot away from (Andreu) Fontas because he’s played really well all season long - but if he would have been in all season long without his injuries, there’s no doubt that he would be defender of the year. He just has unbelievable quality.”

It cannot be overstated how important Isimat-Mirin is to Sporting’s overall scheme. For a deeper breakdown of Isimat-Mirin’s faculties from earlier in the season see Nicholas Isimat-Mirin: A Tactical Look at Sporting KC’s French CB - The Blue Testament.

Scream Therapy

Early in the 2nd half, right back Graham Zusi had space and time to let fly. I yelled for him to fire away. But he did not.

Later, here is me just before his 58th minute bolt:

Shoot the ball!!!!!

Maybe it was many of you also… Ahhh, the craziness and joy of being a fan!! Scream therapy is even better when it pays off.

Ilie’s La pausa plea

Watch Ilie (just in front of Zusi) in this GIF:

Ilie to Zusi: “Hold it up, hold it up… What are you...?”

“Ohhhhh, yah, you’re right.”

Switching wide to the wings was the game plan, Ilie. LOL.

Let’s take a micro-look at what happens when Salloi receives.

Once Salloi receives the switch from Zusi, he knows what he wants to do. But those defenders must remain in that flat line for Salloi’s instinctual movement to come off. Coming midfielder Gadi Kinda continues his run – because he sees Salloi’s end game – to pull his defender out of space. Companion midfielder Remi Walter’s run keeps #17 from impeding Salloi, as #17 has to mark Walter.

Now, it is right winger Johnny Russell’s movement that creates the necessary space for Zusi’s strike. Russell takes six steps wide, forcing his mark to move laterally toward him and the sure danger Russell possesses. It is that same mark that is then forced to make a bending run of pressure towards Russell and then to Zusi. If that Whitecaps’ defender had only the onrushing Zusi to worry about, he would have been drawn to Zusi directly. The difference little movements make…

And how many right backs would make the run that Zusi does? Zusi’s involvement was not necessary in the developing situation…

Enjoy Zusi’s magic again:

The Shame

Many have commented how this win was a team win, how all were “locked-in” and focused on the task at hand.

That. The home crowd inspiring. No one (perhaps Martins?) having a bad game. The tactical approach: The entire scenario will be nearly impossible to duplicate on the road that may be the rest of Sporting’s playoff picture as the West’s 3rd seed.

But now the belief is there. Belief that Sporting can play well, can dominate, in the playoffs. That belief can take a team far, especially one with the acumen that this team can bring.

It will be a sure shame if they don’t come home again.