With the 2021 MLS season at the halfway point (technically after the LAFC game), a series of mid-season awards for Sporting Kansas City is appropriate. Starting with the defense which has featured some new faces, some familiar faces, and a whole lot of passing.
[This story was written by Tyler Kinshella, unless otherwise noted. The stats are from before the FC Dallas game.]
Most Valuable Player: Andreu Fontas
This selection may come as a bit of a surprise, but Fontas has been a steady performer for SKC all season while leading the league in a number of offensive categories. Fontas has completed the most passes in the league of any position (1059/1181 passing attempts) with a passing completion percentage of 89.7%. He is lower on the list of completion percentage, but has so many more attempted passes compared to those players around him that his rate is beyond impressive for a center back. The entire league has seven players who have attempted over 900 passes and SKC has two of them - Fontas and Ilie Sanchez (818/925 pass attempts, 88.4% completion). Interestingly, our old friend Matt Besler is at 746/823 pass attempts, for a completion percentage of 90.6% - you can make of that what you will.
But we can go further using some data and analytics. Goals+ is a metric from American Soccer Analysis that quantifies every action a player makes on the field and its contribution to a team scoring a goal. Here is the primer, but it’s fairly intuitive. Basically, every time a player does a soccer action it either adds value or takes away value, and some actions are far more valuable than others (say, a line-breaking pass from a CB vs. a back pass to the goalie). And guess who just so happens to lead the league in G+? Our very own Andreu Fontas! Right now his passing metric according to G+ places him squarely between Maxi Moralez and Emanuel Reynoso, meaning Fontas’ passing acumen rivals that of the two best attacking mids in the game.
All of these stats and the eye test showing at least a passable MLS athleticism make his monstrous salary ($1.125m) far more palatable, and dare I say it, worth the cost?
Chad Smith (CS): I can’t even begin to disagree on this selection of Fontas being the midpoint defensive MVP. He’s mostly stayed healthy, after seasons of being injured. It’s often said, the best ability is availability. The only defender with more minutes than him is Luis Martins.
While Tyler used stats, I’m going to use my gut and the old eye test. It feels like Fontas is constantly intervening with a well timed tackle or step up. Plus, on the offensive side of the ball, despite me sometimes screaming “Get back,” Fontas will carry the ball forward unmarked and really open up the opposing defense. Once or twice he’s turned it over but it’s led to more positives than negatives.
Least Valuable Player: Luis Martins
Oof the other end of the spectrum is way less fun. I have nothing against the guy personally, but fullback is such a key position with the way SKC play (they provide the width up the pitch, the outlets for midfield, and the recovery/backside marking on defense).
Martins now seems like the most obvious place for an upgrade. Using the same metrics as above, his G+ is -0.24 which means he’s a net negative to SKC when it comes to adding value to the team. He has the most minutes of any SKC defender but is winning less than half of his duels (42.5% of 80 duels — a one-on-one challenge for the ball). For comparison’s sake, Jaylin Lindsey has played 500 fewer minutes but has almost as many duels (73) and is winning about 15% more of them. Martins has one assist and zero goals on seven shots (Fontas has 9!), and he is second on the team in take ons, which are dribbling attempts against an opponent, with 28 (Khiry Shelton is first, with 45. Again, make of that what you will).
In sum, I am just not sure what all he brings to the team other than a decidedly average MLS defender whose lows dip further than his positives raise the team. His salary is palatable I guess at $340k. For the current season though what is the answer? The options are really two-fold, more Amadou Dia, who apparently can’t beat out average this year, or my personal preference - starting Jaylin Lindsey on the left. Really what does SKC have to lose here? The potential gain is massive and if it blows up in Peter Vermes’ face, he always has his comfort blanket full of holes in Luis Martins.
CS: I want to disagree, because that’s more fun, but I have to agree it’s Martins. I thought about picking on one of the defenders who has missed time because of injury (Zusi, Isimat-Mirin, Lindsey) but when they were on the pitch their contributions have been great. Plus, how do you otherwise differentiate them?
Martins is a curious case. At the beginning of the year, it felt consistently like he was the worst defender and offensively he was just lumping crosses into the box. Then as the season progressed he was making strides, combing well with Daniel Salloi and the midfielders. However, since the return from the international break it feels like he’s regressed. The sad part is, Amadou Dia has gone on loan to USL and not looked like he could steal the job, so I guess we know why Martins is still starting.
As for the suggestion by Tyler to play Lindsey on the left, I’m open to it. However, in the past, Lindsey looked uncomfortable to me and isn’t comfortable heading to his off foot on the sideline. It’ll be interesting to see what happens but I’d guess Dia would get a shot first.
Honorable Mention: Ilie Sanchez
I couldn’t get out of here without mentioning Ilie for a quick minute. His transition to CB has ballooned the SKC payroll spent on defense, but it’s another case of it may actually be worth it. For the record, SKC have three millionaire CBs - Fontas, Ilie, and Nicolas Isimat-Mirin; no other MLS teams even come close to that outlay on defense.
I know dropping Ilie to center back has been kicked around the comments section for a while, but I never thought Vermes would actually pull the plug and play the longtime #6 in defense. His calm on the ball and partnership with Fontas is one of the main reasons why Sporting lead the league in so many team passing statistics (85.5% completion team wide, e.g.) and this topic deserves its own deep dive in a later article.
CS: I don’t disagree on anything said about Ilie, but I have to give some love to Graham Zusi. He looks like a man with a new lease on life. People were talk (myself included) about this needs to be the year Lindsey replaces him as the regular starter. And I don’t disagree that should still happen, but Zusi has been lights out when he’s been on the field. And as a long-time “Zusi hater” (I don’t hate him, he’s so freaking likable) I have to come to his defense when it’s earned.
All in all, SKC has a solid, if unspectacular, defense. The first-half preferred lineup lacked athleticism but it hardly seemed to matter as the contributions in possession far outweighed the deficits (methinks moving the more athletic Gianluca Busio to DM helped as well...). Moving forward, it will be fun to see how the returning players like Isimat-Mirin or youngsters like Lindsey and Kaveh Rad shake up the depth chart in the second half of the year!