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“In the Box”: Sporting Kansas City bucking traffic trends

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Kansas City is left with results.

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

It happens nearly every time. You are in traffic on a one-way, two-lane road, maybe in a hurry. But that does not matter either, because it forces you to react, even if you are out for a leisurely drive. There is someone turning left up ahead of you, slowing each lane to a crawl as cars line up or change lanes to clog the right lane. But your passenger does not mind, he is seat-dancing to his favorite tune and having the time of his life singing his lungs out. Your passenger actually prefers left-hand turns so he can keep partying.

That passenger is Sporting Kansas City. Four wins in the last five matches, the last three each featuring three goals scored. Eleven in total. Life is good, and Sporting is digging it. Let your passenger or Sporting grab the wheel (or the ball), odds are you will be turning left. That is just how things shape up.

As Sporting is in possession on the soccer field, the attack takes shape, literally. The center back on each side trails the wing back for support as the wing back pushes high and wide up the flank to form one leg of a triangle. The forward/winger on each flank pinches in to allow the wing back space to operate at width, making the winger the second leg of the triangle forming on each flank. The third leg of each triangle is the corresponding #8 in midfield. Overall, each side resembles a loose diamond when including the trailing wing back, though the advanced triangle is much more apparent to the eye.

The right side often lines up with Graham Zusi or Jaylin Lindsey at width, Khiry Shelton pinched in, and Roger Espinoza innermost at the #8, as Ilie offers a trailing option. The left usually features Luis Martins, Daniel Salloi, and Gadi Kinda, as Andreu Fontas trails.

In the last five matches there have been 11 goals scored and eight assists credited. Of those, those toiling on the right have contributed one goal and two assists. However, those on the left have taken the lion’s share – four goals and three assists. Both Salloi and Kinda have two goals, with one helper, while Martins has one assist. Furthermore, check out the percentage of passes for each section of the field for Sporting in those last five matches:

Sporting’s Left Trend

Opp./Field area Left Middle Right
Opp./Field area Left Middle Right
v Houston Dynamo 48% 28 23
at San Jose 24 30 46%
v Vancouver Whitecaps 42% 23 35
at Houston Dynamo 46% 22 32
v Austin FC 35% 32 33
data from whoscored.com

Clearly, Kansas City is trending left as they rise up the standings. Much of the reason the left side is getting the most action and the biggest results is revealed in one phrase – dynamic movement.

In the 4th minute of last Saturday’s 3-2 win over Houston Dynamo, Andreu Fontas carries the ball up the left channel, deep into Houston’s half. No space to penetrate is found. Fontas turns around and plays back for center back partner Ilie. Ilie starts carrying right, but knowing Houston’s defense has been drawn out, he reverses course to play back to Fontas. Fontas then plays a give-and-go with a wide Martins. The gif shows what follows.

The everchanging direction of the ball and the decisive movements of Fontas, Martins, Salloi and Kinda eliminate four Houston defenders and create a four-on-two advantage for Sporting as they roll toward Houston’s box.

There is an even bigger benefit at play here though. The type of movements the left side diamond and triangle execute nearly every time they explore the channel fits perfectly with how striker Alan Pulido (4 goals, 1 assist in the last five) likes to play… as a facilitator just as much as a finisher as the two following goals against Vancouver Whitecaps on May 16 show:

28th minute

58th minute

Martins, Salloi, Kinda, and Fontas are skillful players. That does not hurt. They are also wise, knowing that their movement and the defenders they attract can and should create space for Pulido. And it does not hurt that Fontas is often persistent in executing interior passes either. In the lead up to the following gif, Fontas plays into a pinched in Salloi in the 16th minute. Even with his back to the forward field, Salloi (who took a glance before receiving the ball) knows to play back and widen to make room for Kinda.

Kinda makes a similar move, touching toward Fontas to pull out defenders and to vacate the deeper space for Pulido. It is all brilliant in its simplicity. Then Fontas applies the killer pass into Pulido.

The exceptions only add to the significance of this left wing leaning. First, as the above table shows, the left was the least used channel at San Jose Earthquakes on May 22. This may be a result of San Jose’s man-marking system allowing space in the middle; however, this match was also the only one of the five in which Fontas did not play.

Secondly, observations reveal that when Khiry Shelton switches wings with Salloi mid-match (as they sometimes do, occasionally for extended spells), the left wing’s effectiveness is clipped. Shelton tends to stay higher than Salloi and tucked in more like a true #9 than a winger when he is on the left.

The bigger picture is this: the left wing diamond/triangle’s danger is a certain danger. But the danger is two, three, even fourfold in impact. Clearly, the left leaning feeds into Pulido’s skillset. However, no mention has been made of recent #6 Gianluca Busio. Busio is a beneficiary as well. A strong left trend and a similar but not as strong right wing makes the middle like a Red Sea parting for the holding midfielder who likes to be a #10. Lastly, things like this can happen too…

60th minute at San Jose

Sometimes moving to that right lane to avoid that left turning car is a good idea, eh, Daniel Salloi?