Lets look back at Wednesday night's game against The Verde & Black in Austin to see what conclusions we can draw from the difficult 3-1 loss. Also for reference I am building my opinions off a few things: 1) Watching the game, 2) Historical Sporting KC knowledge, and 3) the stats page from mlssoccer.com (like a nerd).
1. Slow start
In a non-typical Sporting KC move the team came out sloowwww. It was not just giving up the goals (although those were certainly bad), it was everything! Austin FC largely repeated the playbook of Minnesota United by applying rapid pressure whenever a Sporting KC player would get the ball in the midfield and shutting down passing lanes. And just like in Minnesota, it was very effective. This led to largely meaningless possession and risky turnovers during the first 30 minutes by Sporting KC, with the back four passing it back and forth but lacking any real penetration.
I think we can all reasonably assume tired legs were part of this in that the team was less willing to make runs and were showing mental fatigue in their decision making. Despite Peter Vermes insistence that "No it's not tired legs. They are professional athletes." The sports science of the day and the eye test would certainly say otherwise. After the first 30 minutes a few things happened. First Austin FC seemed to back off (they were up 2-0 at that point). Then Ilie Sánchez pushed further into the midfield rather than sitting between the two center backs. These two changes allowed Sporting KC to start getting some more possession but its hard to imagine a well rested opponent backing off in the playoffs.
2. Khiry needs to use his strength
For those who read my post game observations after the LA Galaxy game couple weeks ago they will know that I have mixed feeling about Khiry Shelton and he once again showed why tonight. He showed fantastic work rate as always but made a few costly mistakes that were really painful. See the first big mistake below:
Khiry Shelton is being pushed by Julio Cascante but Khiry is arguably the most athletic player on the team and should not be so easily shoved off the ball. He would go on in the game to be unable to get on the end of several inviting crosses or putting them off frame when he did get a piece. One element of hope here is that Alan Pulido is rumored to be available this weekend or at the very least the playoffs. I think Pulido likely scores in a game like tonight or combines with Salloi/Russell to get an assist.
3. Meaningful passes
Lets look at the stats page for this game again. If you scroll down to passing you will notice that while completing a significantly higher percentage of passes overall things become much more even or worse when it comes to the final third and crosses. The high possession system that Sporting KC plays should always lead to a high number of passes but the true measure of success has to be the ability of a team to create meaningful passes in the final third. Simply put Sporting KC did not and as such were left with many shots but a brutally low xG of 0.6 compared to Austin FC's 2.5.
4. Russell is a great captain
In soccer what you want from your captain is relentless passion, drive, and willingness to fight for the team. Johnny Russell is all that and more. Not only is he scoring goals out of nothing right now, he also showed the kind of leadership you want when he is visibly angry at being subbed in late in a game despite playing the full 90 for a ton of games in quick succession. Is it any wonder that he is Vermes' skipper?
Sporting KC went out and played with passion but little productiveness. While I hope we can blame this on tired legs and minds I am worried that Minnesota and Austin have created a blueprint for how to break this team down in the playoffs. Ultimately, we now need the Vancouver Whitecaps to give us a hand against the Seattle Sounders and for us to take care of business at home on decision day to take the top spot in the West.
Bonus: a teaser
I wanted to include a quick teaser for an article I am hoping to write after decision day and before the playoffs. I am planning on digging into the psychology of sports fandom and specifically its similarities to religious practices/communities. As a psychology/sociology nerd this stuff fascinates me and with the break in games I should have the time to dig into it a bit. If this sounds interesting to you let me know in the comments. Go Sporting!