During the early part of Sporting Kansas City’s 3-1 loss to Real Salt Lake on Saturday a stat was shown on the screen regarding the debuting Kaveh Rad. Rad became the 10th player to play center back for Sporting since the beginning of the 2019 season. That stat got my mind thinking about all the different combinations of center backs KC has used during that stretch, so I went back and pulled information on KC’s center back partnerships in that stretch.
Since 2019, Sporting KC have played 58 league games, 34 in 2019, 21 in 2020, and three so far in 2021. Over that time there have been 16 different partnerships to start a game for Kansas City, and another partnership that never started a game.
The most prolific partnership in the last 58 league games belongs to Botond Barath and Matt Besler. The pair started 13 games together at center back and two other times one of them came into the game later as a substitute to make the partnership. In starts the pair finished with a 5-6-2 (W-L-D) record, 1.31 points per game (PPG). That puts the two in the middle of the 16 partnerships in terms of PPG.
The second most prolific partnership was Besler Roberto Puncec, the pair have played eight games together earning a 4-4 record in those eight games.
On the other end of the spectrum, four partnerships were only utilized once by head coach Peter Vermes. Andreu Fontas and Abdul Rwatubyaye started the 4-4 home draw against the New England Revolution in 2019. Fontas and Graham Smith started a 2-2 draw away with Toronto FC in 2019. Matt Besler and Winston Reid started Sporting’s 5-2 loss to the Houston Dynamo at home in 2020. And finally, Kaveh Rad and Andreu Fontas started the club’s latest game, a 3-1 loss on the road against Real Salt Lake.
The best partnership for Kansas City in terms of PPG goes to the partnership Sporting rode late in the 2020 season of Puncec and Reid. In regular season play the pair were 4-0-1 a 2.6 PPG average for the pair. After that are four partnerships that averaged two PPG in their games played. Puncec and Fontas went 2-1 in three games together while Puncec and Smith, Smith and Reid, and Fontas and Nicolas Isimat-Mirin all have gone 1-0-1 as a starting pair.
Beside the previously mentioned Besler/Reid and Rad/Fontas partnerships who have a 0 PPG average in their one game each, the next worst partnership in terms of PPG was Barath and Smith. The pair started three games together going 0-2-1 in those three games for a .33 PPG average.
One center back partnership didn’t ever start together but did play one game together. Barath and Rwatubyaye partnered in KC’s 4-1 loss to San Jose in 2019 after Besler left in the 15th minute with an injury.
Of the 58 games, only one player started more than half of the games at center back for KC, that was Besler who in his 34 games starting at center back went 15-17-3 a 1.32 PPG average. He’s followed by Barath who started 20 games at center back. Barath also finished with the worst PPG average of any player who played more than two games at CB, going 5-10-5 in the 20 games, a PPG of just one per game.
The player with the best record as a started is Reid who in his eight starts at center back accumulated a 5-1-2 record in league play, 2.13 PPG. Behind him is Isimat-Mirin’s 1-0-1 record currently (2 PPG) and Puncec with a 11-5-2 record, 1.94 PPG.
Because I didn’t want to look at these last 58 games in a bubble of their own, I went and looked at the 58 games before that as well to see what it was like before this stretch. The prior 58 games saw seven players start a game at center back for Kansas City, but unlike the current stretch of games where five players have started more than 14 games at center back for KC, in the 58 games prior to the start of the 2019 season, just TWO players started more than seven games at center back.
Those two players are unsurprisingly Besler and Ike Opara. The pair together started 43 of the 58 games from the end of the 2018 season to the 11th game of the 2017 season. The pair accumulated a 22-8-13 record together, 1.84 PPG. The only center back partnership during that stretch to play more than two games together was Opara and Erik Palmer-Brown who started five games together during that stretch. There were in total 11 different partnerships during this stretch.
Opara himself started 52 of the 58 games during that stretch, going 23-12-17 (1.65 PPG) while Besler wasn’t far behind starting 47 of 58, going 24-10-13 (1.81 PPG). The player with the next most starts? Palmer-Brown who started seven games in that 58-game stretch, going 0-4-3 (.43 PPG).
Going back further
To take the comparison further, I went back and looked at arguably the most successful period for the club on the field, the 2012 and 2013 season. I looked at both the 58 games from the start of the 2012 season through the 24th game of the 2013 season as well as all 68 games of those two seasons.
During the 58-game stretch, the Besler and Aurelien Collin partnership was the dominate pairing, though not like the previously mentioned Besler/Opara partnership. Besler and Collin played 39 games together in that stretch, going 22-6-11, besting Besler and Opara’s partnership, averaging 1.97 PPG.
In that stretch, especially in the 2013 season, Besler missed a lot of time with the US team leading to Opara and Lawrence Olum also getting games as Olum played 11 games in that 58-game stretch at center back and Opara played nine. Those were the only four center backs to play a league game during that stretch with the Besler/Olum and Opara/Collin partnerships playing the most outside of Besler/Collin with both of those partnerships both playing six games, Besler/Olum going 3-1-2 (1.83 PPG) and Opara/Collin going 3-2-1 (1.67 PPG). Each of the four players partnered one of the other three at least once during this stretch.
Collin played 49 of the 58 games, going 26-10-13, 1.86 PPG. Besler was just two games behind him at 47 games played but had a better PPG, going 25-7-15 as a starter, 1.91 PPG.
Because I was curious about the rest of the 2013 run, I added that in. During the last 10 games of 2013, Besler and Collin only started four of the remaining 10 games going 2-2, finishing those two seasons with a 24-8-11 record, 1.93 PPG. The Opara and Collin partnership played just as many games together over those final 10 games, going 2-1-1 in those four games. Opara and Besler partnered the other two games in that stretch, finishing with a 2-0-0 record.
Full 2012-2013 Pairings
Full 2012-2013 Players
So, what can we make of all these stats? The big take away I think from these numbers is that KC has been at their best when they’ve had a consistent center back pairing to rely on. If you have two strong players that you can immediately write in at center back position you can build around that. Even during the most recent 58 game stretch, when KC could have some cohesion at the center back position, they were able to find success with the Puncec/Reid pairing. That consistently just needs to be there over a longer period of time.
It obviously also helps to have MLS Defender of the Year, MLS Best XI, national caliber players starting regularly at the center back position as well. And that’s not as easy to come by. In the current crop of center backs on the roster there’s not a single player you can point to who immediately springs to mind when thinking about those three. The jury is still out on Isimat-Mirin. Fontas still has a few questions about his game. Puncec proved to be the most consistent defender on the roster last year but was passed over for Rad when Isimat-Mirin was out injured. Smith looks good in short stretches, but the more consistently he plays the more it seems teams figure out how to beat him. And like Isimat-Mirin, the jury is out on Rad, who looked good at times against the USL Championship, but needs to raise his game for the MLS level.
The questions on the center backs aren’t immediately going to be answered, but consistency at the center back position would be a start.