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“In the Box”: Observations on Sporting Kansas City’s season opening win

Sporting scripts a glorious comeback story, warts and all.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Elation. That was the second half (well, after the 48th minute) of Sporting Kansas City’s 2-1 victory at New York Red Bulls. Going in missing target striker Alan Pulido, midfield fulcrum Ilie, starting goalkeeper Tim Melia, and sparkplug right winger Johnny Russell meant not just adjustment, but a tall task. I mean who had 18-year-old Gianluca Busio at the false 9 on his or her lineup card??

Some things looked good. Other things brought groans, all too familiar ones. But what a win, huh???

All players were strong in moments. Nineteen-year-old goalkeeper John Pulskamp came out boldly in the 70th minute to tackle the ball away from a would-be attacker. That Roger Espinoza is still a player (seriously, he is such a consummate pro in there, with strong field vision and skills!). What about Khiry Shelton’s assist… daaaaannnngggg, that was a ball! Both foreign offseason acquisitions showed well. And, Daniel Salloi found joy.

All in all, I am inspired to recall moments and quotes from one of my favorite sports movies (shunning the obvious choices of many): Seabiscuit, the consummate underdog story with Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks, and Chris Cooper. Here, troubled Jockey Red Pollard has just failed in the moment, losing the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap on Seabiscuit’s home track.

“You don’t throw a whole life away just because it’s banged up a little bit.”

If a team wanted to exploit Sporting Kansas City’s weaknesses, they would high press Kansas City, attack either wing back, flood the center of midfield with numbers, and, on the counter, target the space vacated by one of the wing backs.

When Ilie is at the #6, his knack for being in the right spaces to receive from the backs and his incredible ability to maintain possession and then find the strong outlet forward or square diminishes the impact of a high press. Busio is good at these things as well, but not on Ilie’s level.

With Sporting debutant Remi Walter at the #6, that outlet for the backs was often times missing. Thus, as the Red Bulls purposely attacked Sporting’s weaker right side – where left center back Andreu Fontas and left back Luis Martins resided – New York’s high press when losing possession gave Fontas, especially, fits in the first half. His passes were often off the mark or marked by poor decisions, his clearances ineffective.

And it didn’t help that Sporting’s attack was not holding possession. Gadi Kinda was very active and enterprising on the ball; his efforts brought smiles. Yet, he made poor decisions in haste and in tight spaces (instead of releasing), especially in Sporting’s end. Similarly, Sporting right back Jaylin Lindsey’s play in the attacking end begged for the simple, being more selective with his passes and more composed on the ball. The left side of Luis Martins and Daniel Salloi faired worse with less reps.

Sporting began finding better outlets from the back and then, finally, switching the ball to the opposite field quickly near the 25th minute. But the previous issues still plagued them, despite Busio doing as well as could be expected at the false 9, using some cleverness on the ball and in combination with his wingers, and doing what he could to hold the ball up.

And these types of things kept happening… (both images taken from YouTube).

New York wins the ball on the wing and plays inside in the 33rd minute. Neither #8 (Kinda or Espinoza) nor #6 (Walter) is in position to delay or neutralize an attack. Fontas and Isimat-Mirin and Lindsey (out of the picture) are back to deal with what becomes a 5-man Red Bull foray up Sporting’s gut.

Yes, Fontas should have previously been in a position to pressure the New York player who dishes back to the running Cristian Casseres. Yet, the key problem is all that space in midfield.

Above is in the 87th minute, a Red Bull pass into previous goal-scorer Caden Clark wholly unmarked. Walter is behind the play and Lindsey is caught too wide.

These things are going to happen no matter what a team does, but Sporting is still in search of a way to stop them from consistently happening. The Red Bulls had a number of chances that later in the season may be put away when the ball does not roll Kansas City’s way.

“You want a horse that won’t run from a fight.”

Sporting kept fighting. Under their misgivings, boiled a confidence, a belief individually and as a team.

Once New York went up three minutes into the second half, Sporting was consistent in moving the ball more quickly from wing-to-wing and finding combinations to create space. Slowing things down and knocking the ball around to probe provided the necessary pauses.

Subsequently, Busio continued his good match and had two chances as Sporting created through the middle in tight spaces. Then, through Lindsey drawing a PK that Kinda finished and laying off for Shelton’s wonder ball a minute later, Sporting took the lead.

Sporting’s line of confrontation fell back to the half at that point. But the fight continued. Nicolas Isimat-Mirin continued to be a beast all over the field (see his defensive header in the 73rd minute), Remi Walter continued to be a work horse in midfield, and Fontas made up for some of his earlier issues with good composure in the box during a sticky situation late.

Perhaps the biggest sources of elation for Sporting fans are that this roster seems to have loads of potential, and they seem to have that typical, yet critical Manager Peter Vermes invoked unity and character. Cohesion can smooth over the “banged up” parts and only bring out the potential, unity, and character all the more as Sporting grows through the coming matches.

Friday night versus Orlando City is the home opener and the next chapter.