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“In the Box” Winning small: The building of Sporting Kansas City’s big win in San Jose

Giving credit (mostly) beyond the highlights.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at San Jose Earthquakes Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Matias Almeyda, San Jose Earthquakes manager, just before halftime after Sporting Kansas City had controlled much of the half at San Jose Saturday evening:

Almeyda’s reaction is one of my favorite moments of Sporting KC’s 3-1 eventual victory. He might be wondering… How were the Earthquakes going to counteract Sporting’s control of the pace of the match, their exploitation of San Jose’s spine, and match their intensity?

The Earthquakes never did. The tremendous team and individual goals that Sporting produced were, of course, the biggest moments of Sporting’s second win in a row. Yet, many “small” factors frustrated San Jose and ultimately won the day for Peter Vermes’ Kansas City.

Tim Melia Part I: Melia > Marcinkowski

I mean, duh, right? But this is what I mean:

Tim Melia made himself available all match, doing much to facilitate Sporting’s control of the pace of the match and its spells of possession that demoralized a San Jose attack yearning to run rampant. If Melia does not show for Martins there, the moment is likely a dangerous give away. Melia’s availability and care of the ball deepened, and in some ways enabled, the dominance of ball wizards Ilie Sanchez, Gianluca Busio, and Alan Pulido. What follows Melia’s clearance is exactly that… Sporting wins the second ball, releasing a sweet Roger Espinoza (what a pass btw) to Alan Pulido to Gadi Kinda combination.

San Jose goalkeeper TJ Marcinkowski did not provide that facilitation for San Jose.

Tim Melia Part II: Tim and his alpha-blockers

The 24th minute. 52nd. 75th. 84th. 89th. Melia. Jaylin Lindsey & Melia. Busio. Melia & Kaveh Rad. Ilie.

Without the above strong saves by Melia and/or shots blocked by the sacrificing player stated, it is a different match. Sporting would have been down one or two by the time Pulido scored to put Kansas City up one in the 60th minute. The match could have been at a stalemate in the 75th and who knows if Daniel Salloi’s world class strike (thank goodness it did) would have ever happened. The saves and blocks afterwards saved Sporting from a harrowing, hanging-on final minutes.

The great team performance, grit, and urgency that gained this victory is exemplified further by three more instances before Pulido’s go-ahead goal: 54th – Ilie heads clear a dangerous ball at Sporting’s near post; 55th – Rad boldly tackles San Jose winger Cade Cowell a minute later to deny a cross; and in the 58th, Luis Martins slips after cutting off Javier Lopez deep on the left side of Kansas City’s box, persists, and corrals the ball while scrambling to his feet despite a harassing Lopez.

These types of alpha-interventions also come from being focused in and reading play in the open field. Nineteen-year-old Kaveh Rad has that down.

Rad’s eyes are first focused ball carrier Florian Jungwirth’s eyes while being cognizant of first possible pass target Lopez. Once Jungwirth sees Rad’s aware movement, he switches to the deeper pass, Andy Rios. But, Rad sees and acts on that too. Denied!

The highway inter change

“Passing wizards” Ilie, Busio, and Pulido were mentioned above. However, Sporting’s passing highway inter change is not due only to them. The flow is due to an interchanging of yes, Ilie and Busio at the back as one of the two pushes into the available space, and Pulido coming back to receive and keep possession and combine, but also Kinda combining and dribbling from all angles, Espinoza spraying the ball around smartly, and Salloi and opposite winger Khiry Shelton slicing through the middle, getting involved on the opposite wing, and sometimes (along with Kinda) being the striker when Pulido vacates that space.

It will not always be as easy as it was versus Vancouver Whitecaps in last Sunday’s 3-0 win or this one in San Jose. Rush hour in San Jose was right through their midfield as Sporting’s passing network reveals:

Instances like Lindsey’s opening goal are created by movement (Kinda to Pulido to Kinda to Shelton to Pulido to Lindsey), but also by taking advantage of what the opponent gives you.

Best foreign acquisition by Kansas City ever?

Alan Pulido is Sporting’s drive belt. That Lindsey goal is a perfect example. Pulido finishes the play by persisting after losing the ball and then by skillfully chipping through defenders with a flick of his right foot to a running Lindsey.

But Pulido is more. When the biggest money acquisition in franchise history is totally bought into the team first concept and shows it in every effort he makes, others are motivated to do their job and to work for their teammates too. The persistence – and the joy – spreads like wildfire.

Pulido’s 32nd minute tackle on Eric Remedi and his 77th minute defensive battling in Sporting’s own box on two successive San Jose corners (among other actions) reveal a man who cares, and better yet, fights to make things happen.

And it does not hurt that he can make things happen all his own. Pulido’s goal was a great example of opening the body and receiving with the downfield leg and how the defense must react to those foundational movements.

Without further ado, the condensed match highlights.

The successive victories by the aggregate score of 6-1 have catapulted Kansas City up the table and have raised fans’ spirits, fans’ spirits that were pretty much down in the dumps after Sporting lost 1-0 at Houston Dynamo. At that point, Sporting had won only twice in five matches to start the season.

The adage of allowing success to get one too high and a lack of success to get one too low applies here. The hope is for consistency. That is the goal after seven matches into the season. If Sporting keeps executing the small things, those big moments will keep coming and consistency will be theirs.

It will certainly be interesting to see how Sporting Kansas City develops when Nicholas Isimat-Mirin, Graham Zusi, and Johnny Russell are consistently available for selection. (And let’s hope Pulido is okay after limping off Saturday evening in San Jose.)