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An “In the Box” look at two Sporting KC goals allowed v Real Salt Lake

Of squares and two (or 14) steps to greatness.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Real Salt Lake Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

“Two steps to greatness” was a mantra throughout all my years of coaching club soccer. The phrase not only opened players’ eyes, but often inspired them to do exactly that… become “great”er.

A phrase never uttered would have been “Stay square to your teammate”, especially when coaching defense. Pressure, cover, depth, and balance were many of the defensive mantras.

Keeping in mind those principles – and your own intuition and thought – what is seen in this freeze frame from Sporting Kansas City’s match last Saturday versus Real Salt Lake?

(All pictures and footage come from the condensed match video at

The freeze frame from the 35th minute sees RSL’s #6 Pablo Ruiz with the ball past Sporting’s Alan Pulido and Remi Walter and in a square of space eyeing wide man Andrew Brody.

A few things jump out (maybe more or less to you… no wrong answers… this is not a test):

Ruiz gains that large square of space by simply taking what is given to him. Pulido and Walter are square – allowing RSL to pass between the lines – and Ilie is nowhere near Ruiz.

Furthermore, left winger Khiry Shelton is in no-man’s land. He can neither cut out a pass wide to Brody nor prevent the most dangerous ball: a splitting pass behind Shelton and in front of left back Luis Martins. Martins is doing his job by not getting too wide and by providing close enough support for left-center back Andreu Fontas who is marking an RSL attacker just out of the picture.

Shelton is two (or three) steps to his left and back from defensive greatness. But there is more…

What do you see here?

Fourteen steps. That is how many strides Shelton takes, straight back, to be a presence near Brody’s eventual precise cross that feeds goal scorer Damir Kreilach. Here two steps from greatness is appropriate. Two steps toward the direction of Brody (and an ounce or two more of hustle) may have been enough to deny the telling cross. Am I being harsh or generous here? (part of me insists on inserting “may.”)

Fast forward to the 52nd minute. What do you see?

Once again, Real Salt Lake, this time Kreilach, has too much room in midfield (just where the second defensive midfielder would likely be in a dual pivot midfield…). However, right back Jaylin Lindsey is doing well to cut out the split between him and right-center back Kaveh Rad.

Notice bottom middle and right of the frame are four Sporting KC backtracking defenders (Ilie, Fontas, Martins, and Shelton from far to near.) with two RSL attackers. Note that Shelton is approximately four yards behind (the variegated swaths of grass are about three yards each) Rubio Rubin, the nearest attacker. That is a good numbers situation for Kansas City.

What do you see here?

Watching Sporting defend Kreilach, we unfortunately see Rad overcommit and the attacker step by him (had to cut for mb room, but it happened...). The other major problem is exactly that… watching. All four Kansas City backtrackers are ball-watching instead of being concerned about the runners. Fontas is in two-minds and makes the wrong decision to provide cover (and realizes it at the last moment) and Ilie does look and makes last-second movements towards Rubio, the eventual goal scorer. Subsequently, Martins is left to cover two attackers.

Ample communication is the main culprit for the back post break down. As far as one can tell, no one is yelling to make sure that both runners are marked. Is that Ilie’s or Shelton’s job? Yes. But it is Shelton’s perspective that sees the big picture.

Back to steps and yards. Shelton begins the play four yards behind Rubio; he ends it 10 yards behind, actually slowing for a few steps. Defending has to be personal. Rubio has time to take a touch - even a poor one - and wind up for his shot only 11 yards and less from the Kansas City goal. No one should be allowed to come in your box and have his way without a fight.

Greatness is often a few steps (or a few thoughts) away in life. But one has to take personal responsibility for those steps, and for not being square.

May Sporting Kansas City take those steps all over the field as the season moves forward. Rome was not built in a day…