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“In the box”: Sporting KC’s initiative takes a hit v Austin FC

Can Kansas City find itself in regular season finale?

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Austin FC Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Sporting Kansas City’s fearsome attack faced a test last Wednesday evening vs Austin FC at their Q2 Stadium. They failed it by an expected goals of 2.5 to 0.6, and a final score of 3-1. Let us look at why.

Austin’s sat three front defenders in when Sporting was in possession. The goal of those three was to hinder interior penetration into Kansas City’s midfielders, and, with their deep enough position, to team with their own midfielders to harass the ball when Sporting went wide to its advanced wing backs and when they tried to use their inner channel #8s. Meanwhile, Austin’s back four had a great view of the field to win flighted balls and track (if necessary) and impede runs from the striker or wingers coming in or running behind.

Overall, Austin’s idea was to keep the field small and the time little for Kansas City’s high possession attack and hope they can contain any Sporting counterattacks with a high line, again keeping the field small even when Austin was on the attack.

The defensive tactics were not new to Sporting. Thus, their mission was to take what they were given, and use it. To pass the test.

The Big Question: When an opposing defense presents the above “high block”, what is the proper response?

Is the answer A - Lobbing long passes over the line of confrontation?

Within the first six minutes, Kansas City hit three long balls up to their frontline. None of them produced a benefit. A second ball win was the outcome of the fourth long ball. According to my informal count, Sporting’s approximate ratio of similar unsuccessful long balls to successful for the match was 3-1 (19-7).

When #6 Ilie dropped to the backline when Sporting was in possession, long balls were more frequent. Smartly, Manager Peter Vermes’ charges varied their play by often placing Ilie behind Austin’s front line in the space between lines. When Ilie was there, #8s Gadi Kinda and Remi Walter would come closer to facilitate. However, Ilie did little more than nudge the shape of Austin’s front three. Absent was Ilie being an active seeker of space, an active disruptor of their organization. Rarely did Ilie demand the ball by his positioning between lines or between the front trio.

Is the answer B - Playing to width to pull apart the defensive organization?

Using their width mostly thru their advanced wing backs to combine with and access (or go directly to) their talented wingers’ varied skillsets is Sporting’s bread and butter, its most dependable aspect of their attacking patterns.

Against Austin, those attacks often sputtered due to Austin’s positioning that made for tight quarters and Kansas City’s connections being off. And because of times like this:

Scotland’s most dangerous winger (oops… not according to their national team coach, however…) is marked well. Yet, there is plenty of space to be attacked. But nothing happens - Shelton being the big culprit - thus Zusi’s clear chagrin.

Is the answer C – playing to width then mostly lobbing in looping crosses?

According to, Sporting sent in 25 crosses in Austin, 21% being successful, in other words, successful in contacting a teammate’s body I am assuming. The high in their previous five games was 19 crosses in a 2-1 loss in Vancouver.

Is the answer D - Making use of a and b above, and using aware movement to exploit the space provided and to create other space?

In the 12th minute, midfielder Gadi Kinda is released after Sporting defuses an Austin attack. The counterattack should be on.

Some may blame Kinda for dribbling too much. But he had no choice but to try and dribble out after no one, no one, comes to his aid, let alone effectively so.

Defense is organization. Offense is coordinated chaos to disrupt that organization.

The answer is D.

Sporting’s play on this night – and similar performance in the previous loss at Minnesota United – was too vertical, meaning not enough lateral movement to make the most of gaps (see the Zusi chagrin gif); too stagnant; and too predictable.

All soccer clubs have their necessary patterns of play, yet in-match adjustments, improvisation, and alert action are the true determining factors when an opposing defense has you figured out.

As an outcome of the lack of urgent movement and the failure of the usual patterns, Kansas City often displayed a lack of patience, sending too many long balls and not circulating the ball with persistent purpose.

It may be that a lack of patience, a lack of showing effectively for teammates, and a lack of movement off the ball are all symptoms of mental and physical fatigue. But it is for certain that the run initiates the pass. Sporting did not, for whatever reason, do much initiating Wednesday night in Austin. Thus, an Austin backline including two players playing out of position – Jon Gallagher and Alex Ring – had an easy test.

Let us hope Sporting Kansas City brings their A game this Sunday when they host Real Salt Lake at 5:00pm at Children’s Mercy Park. A first or second or third place finish depends on the result (and other results) after Kansas City failed to take care of business in Minnesota and Austin.