Sometime a handful of matches ago, Sporting Kansas City Captain Johnny Russell was shown on one of Sporting’s social media platforms exultating at the end of a match. He stated directly into the camera (and I paraphrase), “I think this might be our year.”
Around 4:10pm, last Sunday afternoon, Russell stood on the Children’s Mercy Park field just outside the 18-yard box of the goal in front of The Cauldron. Hands on hips and his head level, a turmoiled Russell stared into space with the countenance of a man trying to make sense of all that had just taken place in a 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference Semifinal.
Perhaps the ever-cognizant Scot replayed moments where he could have impacted the match differently in clear, yet subtly foggy recollections. Surely, he saw the moments where things had gone wrong for his side.
Maybe the longer he stood, the more visions of joyous moments from the season took ahold of his state.
In Russell’s first year as captain, Sporting Kansas City had won 17 matches, gained 58 points, and been in the thick of the conference title chase virtually all season. A final third-place finish meant Sporting had made the playoffs for 10 of the last 11 years. It meant a home playoff match to reward their increasingly rowdy fans pining for MLS Cup hardware. “Only we will remain” they pronounced in a tifo featuring Russell before their team took Vancouver Whitecaps to task in a 3-1 victory eight days before to kick off the hunt for MLS Cup.
#SportingKC pic.twitter.com/qGycZHNLgq— Conáll McCourt (@Conall_Mcc) November 20, 2021
There was plenty to be happy about, to bask in, to be spoiled for the riches about. Yet, Russell, like the fans, likely, ultimately, felt empty.
In his now four seasons with Kansas City, and in his career entire, Russell has never won a major trophy. Before Russell arrived at Sporting in 2018, the club had a run of four seasons straight of having to play away in the first round of the playoffs. Each was a one-and-out end.
The club reflected and change was made. In 2018, Sporting won the West and beat RSL as the higher seed in a home-and-away series, winning the home leg 4-2. 2019 brought a dismal MLS season and no playoffs. The COVID-19 riddled season of 2020 saw a mildly triumphant return to the top of the West and another home playoff victory.
However, as 2021 ended with a home playoff loss after an initial victory, so did 2018 and 2020. Thus, it is now three playoff seasons in a row that Sporting has ended their season with a home loss in the playoffs.
And that is unacceptable.
Said Russell’s cohort, Goalkeeper Tim Melia after the match: “It doesn’t make a difference who we’re playing. Losing at home, at this stage of the season, against any team is crushing. It kind of set up for us a little bit with how the results went and ultimately, we didn’t take advantage of it. This game was an opportunity to have the backing of our fans and our support system and essentially, in the biggest moment, we faltered. There’s nothing else more than that.”
In the last four MLS playoffs (thru the 2021 conference semifinals), higher-seeded home teams have a .653 winning percentage (32-17).
What went (most) wrong…
Beyond the fact that Sporting may have set a record for mishit passes in this match and that several incorrect (read passes not made or “negative” passes) decisions were made on the ball, two things stand out:
This was not a match where Sporting pressed high as a unit to win the ball in deep positions up field. Instead, they more often worked to create situations off directional pressure by the frontline, such as in Remi Walter’s steal at the end of the first half, as described by ABC analyst Taylor Twellman:
“This is why the line of confrontation changed a little bit for [Sporting Manager] Peter Vermes in the two playoff games. We saw it against Vancouver, and now we’ve seen it in this first half. They want to bait the two center backs of the opposition into passes that they may not be comfortable in doing so, and allow the midfield engine – Walter, Kinda, Ilie Sanchez, ([Roger] Espinoza when he’s in] – to put pressure through the middle of the field.”
Yet, then shortly after the first half whistle blew, Vermes stated in an on-air interview:
“We could be a little bit better in recognizing when we can step up on them a little bit more because we started getting some pressure, we started winning some balls higher up the field.”
It seems that the defensive strategy was a mixed one – ‘sit back in front of midfield, but when you can, press high.’ The problem is organizing that takes a high amount of unity. If it’s not decided and acted on together, all sorts of issues can happen. In a playoff game, that may be raising the risk even higher.
Most dramatically, this was a match changed by substitutions. Our friend Daniel Sperry writes about this fact here on LastWordonSports.com.
So, what could have been done differently? Real Salt Lake subbed the speedy Anderson Julio and the wily veteran Justin Meram into the flanks at the 57th minute when Sporting held a 1-0 lead.
When the opposing team subs before you do, you are in the beneficial position to either act to negate what subs they have made or make subs that will take the game in your direction, or both. As we know, Gadi Kinda, Sporting’s only consistently dynamic and effective attacker on the day, should have stayed on the field. It is also clear that the insertion of Julio created a mismatch with Sporting left back Luis Martins (Julio beat Martins six times in the next 15 minutes.).
To limit Julio’s attacking verve and speed down Sporting’s right flank, a dual left-sided insertion of Khiry Shelton on the left wing and Roger Espinoza at the left-sided #8 in midfield would have assisted in limiting Julio, while also making Julio have to work more defensively. Furthermore, the athletic Shelton would have presented different problems for the Real Salt Lake defense than the mild play of Daniel Salloi had. Espinoza would come in for not-fully-fit striker Alan Pulido. Then, to provide another attacking nuisance on the right side for Sporting, inserting Cam Duke for Remi Walter would have forced Meram to defend more than he was tasked with otherwise. Additionally, Duke would have disrupted the RSL backline with his speed and ball driving from midfield. Kinda would then step into the false 9 role that he had played effectively earlier in the season.
But as it was, Kinda was pulled for Espinoza and Pulido for Shelton. RSL equalized in the 72nd minute, and even though Sporting had (only) two decent chances – including a head-scratching Salloi pull back from a near post run during a Russell end line surge – after RSL’s initial subs, Salt Lake won the match in 2nd half stoppage time.
The pursuit of Excellence
Before Russell arrived in Kansas City, Vermes had long established a club culture based on four core values: The team is always first. Exhibit a strong work ethic. Be intelligent. Pursue excellence daily.
Russell himself had long exhibited those traits while growing up as a child and as a footballer.
Reliable and occasionally spectacular relative to peers is a level one could say Russell had reached in his native Scotland and at English Championship side Derby County; it is not a level that every player in MLS, Serie A, LaLiga, or the EPL reaches. The same can be said for clubs.
There is no denying that Sporting Kansas City daily pursues excellence; their sustained success proves that. And one could rightfully argue that Sporting KC, in progressing from making the playoffs to hosting home playoff matches via top three regular season finishes in three of the last four years, has been consistent and occasionally spectacular. Indeed, Sporting’s six home playoffs games in the last four years is second only to Seattle Sounders’ eight.
“I want to win here [with Sporting]; that’s why I came here. I want to win trophies,” said Russell in the article linked above.
Or one could argue that failing to win trophies (Kansas City’s stated goal) is not spectacular, is not excellence defined. It is certainly not spectacular to end the season with a three-match losing streak. Not spectacular to lose at home to lesser sides (the regular season made Sporting the higher seed…) anytime, especially in the MLS Cup playoffs, especially to those 21,000+ who paid good money to attend last Sunday’s conference semi-final.
Of the six sides that have hosted four or more playoff matches in the last four years, Sporting ranks last in winning percentage of those games: Columbus Crew 4-0, Seattle Sounders 7-1, Atlanta United 4-1, and both Philadelphia Union and New York City 3-1.
Although the ‘this will motivate us’ mantra becomes tiring, it is that high bar - for Kansas City it equals making/winning MLS Cup (and the CONCACAF Champions’ League spot missed out on that goes with it) - that motivates, that keeps us reaching. The pursuit of excellence.
Excellence is only refined by looking at the specifics – why certain things happen and how they can be eliminated or circumvented – not by looking at the big picture of “I’d rather lose at home in the playoffs than lose on the road.” Otherwise, we would all be complacent in our lives. Being happy with the big picture and the effort and victories it took is one thing, creating joy and exultation and a bigger happiness is ambition.
The ambition for excellence must reign top to bottom, must not be muddled by “Yes” people afraid to question those in the highest authority – the true test of effective problem-solving and finding the most brilliant excellence.
After another season that will fall back in the memory banks, slip out of cache because it contained no authentic cachet (except perhaps for the rise of Gianluca Busio and goalkeeper Tim Melia’s takedown), Sporting must progress.
After long motionless minutes on the pitch, Russell was ready to move his weary body and mind. With a failing result still omnipresent in his mind, he walked towards the far corner of the field. Once there, his daughter, bouncy with delight at seeing Daddy, ran to a crouching Russell ready to take her into his arms.
The embrace lasted maybe a bit longer than usual. When it was done, Russell was a new man. Though he would soon have to put on the captain’s face in front of the media and his teammates, Russell had found a new outlet for joy in the moment, in his daughter, new, lasting chances for success. And like that joyous embrace, Russell and his teammates will embrace a new season rife with possibilities in a few months’ time.
The drive to get better is natural motivation. Surrounding yourself with people who are driven to do the same is even better: life’s ultimate motivation, whether it is your daughter or your significant other or your coaches and teammates, your club or organization. Johnny Russell has that in abundance. And so do fans of Sporting Kansas City.