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“In the Box”: The necessary urgency of now for Sporting Kansas City

A lack of urgency can kill a chance or necessitate change.

MLS: Austin FC at Sporting Kansas City Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In the 81st minute of Sporting Kansas City’s 1-1 draw with visiting Austin FC Saturday afternoon, left back Luis Martins understood. Just as Austin attacker Rodney Redes is about to put his side ahead off a back post cross from Manny Perez into an empty net, Martins nudges Redes, forcing him to alter his body position and push his shot just wide of Sporting’s goal.

Any later, Redes scores. Any sooner, Martins is whistled for a penalty. Martins understood the necessary urgency of now.

Too often in the first half Saturday, the necessary urgency of now was not recognized by the home side.

17th minute: left side midfielder Remi Walter turns with space and time centrally into Austin territory. Instead of playing up to an advanced Roger Espinoza or wide left to an open and forward Daniel Salloi, Walter carries into pressure and is dispossessed. Walter let the “now” go unrecognized.

Soccer players must make “now” decisions all over the pitch. The game moves pretty fast, so players must know the “now” moments instinctually or have learned to recognize them quickly through coaching and repetition. In the case of Khiry Shelton, perhaps the degree of unfamiliarity with playing the center striker position is enough to forgive his repeated instances of letting the “now” pass in Saturday’s match.

20th minute: left center back Andreu Fontas has the ball at his feet out wide left 27 yards out from Austin FC’s box:

First, take notice of Shelton’s position at the top of Austin’s penalty arc and the square swath of space at which he gazes. Secondly, notice that Fontas is spying the same swath.

Left winger Salloi has cleared the space and Walter (to Fontas’ right) has moved away as well. Still, Shelton is standing in the same spot as before. Shelton fails to make any move, let alone one, when he has two good options – either come to Fontas in the open lane or make a lateral run for the space open between the right center back and the right back. Either pass is one Fontas makes regularly. Yet Shelton fails to recognize the “now” and fails to recognize an opportunity to break Austin’s lines.

Nary a minute later, this happens:

The time from when Salloi receives out wide and eventually loses possession is only three seconds. However, the “now” for the central Shelton begins as the ball makes its way to Salloi. Instead of bolting for the space (maybe after a feint back post to further lose his defender) in between four Austin players to facilitate an effective combination with Salloi to free Salloi to penetrate the box, Shelton trots his way over, bringing a defender with him. Even if Salloi had won the dribble, there would have been Shelton’s marker to beat.

Both Fontas and Salloi are left waiting for Shelton to do something. Each instance supports Shelton’s lack of urgency and Kansas City manager Peter Vermes’ constant (and correct) theme that the run initiates the pass. Without the run, the ball carrier can become as isolated as an island castaway.

Or feel two is company, three is a crowd:

Russell cuts in to go at the defender aggressively and to give himself options in the 39th minute. However, Russell has no idea what Shelton is doing or is going to do. Shelton’s job, as soon as Russell cuts in, is to give his teammate options, and even more so, make way for a talented attacking teammate. A back post run to take at least one defender with him or overlapping Russell to force a defensive decision are two viable options in the “now”. Granted, Russell, bemused at Shelton’s inexplicable relative inaction, fails to deal effectively with the situation. But a teammate should do something.

In Shelton’s defense, he contributed the ball recovery near Austin’s box that led to Sporting’s goal in the 71st minute and had a goal of his own denied in the 85th minute, among a few other good, quick reactions in the 2nd half as Austin had gone full bunker. Shelton was in the “now” in those moments.

For Sporting Kansas City as a whole, the time is now. They have put themselves in a good position at 2nd in the West with 17 points won in 9 games. However, they have played one or two more games than the other six teams above the playoff line. With over a fourth of the season gone, a challenging four-match stretch against three current playoff teams – Portland Timbers, Colorado Rapids, and Los Angeles Galaxy - and one perennial danger team – Los Angeles Football Club – awaits in a Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday-Sunday rotation. Thus far, Kansas City has played only two current playoff teams: Houston Dynamo and San Jose Earthquakes. Now is the time for Sporting to put some distance between other contenders and keep the heat on West-leading Seattle Sounders.

Star striker Alan Pulido will be back from international duty with El Tri and midfielder Gadi Kinda will be ready after his stint with Israel. What Sporting most needs now is two-fold. Johnny Russell is rounding into form, but he needs to score a goal. Now. Once he does – he hasn’t since September 23 of last season – he will regain that necessary mojo and be a major force to be reckoned with. Secondly, it is abundantly clear that this side needs another front-line attacker of significant prowess. Not only will a center forward or left winger acquisition (the secondary transfer window opens July 7) push the others and provide needed depth, it will push Shelton to a bit role that more suits his skill set and impact on matches.

The other option is… give young Padawans Wilson Harris, Ozzie Cisneros, Tyler Freeman, or Grayson Barber significant minutes to prove they get the “now.” Consistent minutes have done wonders for Daniel Salloi, Luis Martins, Jaylin Lindsey, and Gianluca Busio. Spread the love. Let the talent shine.