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Sporting KC Offseason & Preseason 2022: Moving forward with “In the Box”

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Suppositions and supplications as preseason launches.

Robert Rusert

Happy first day of Sporting Kansas City preseason everyone! It has been an eventful offseason. But it is time to move forward undaunted and full of hope (with a healthy dose of misgivings…).

Putting Pulido behind

Luis Suarez. That is who Peter Vermes once told me was his ideal #9 striker for Sporting Kansas City, the Uruguayan of Ajax, Liverpool, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, and international fame. Arguably, Mexican Alan Pulido, Sporting’s record signing to fill the long empty #9 gap in 2020, has much filled the bill when he has been on the field.

With the regular season on-field successes of 2020 & 2021, Sporting seemed to be a healthy Pulido and one-to-two player upgrades away from graduating from perennial regular season contender to serious MLS Cup contender. Thus, last week’s announcement of Sporting’s ace #9 likely being out the whole of 2022 due to a lingering knee injury was near decimating for club and fans alike.

So where do things go from here? With Vermes at the helm at One Sporting Way, past is definitely prologue. Sure, there has been evolution from 2009 thru 2021, but many patterns have stayed true. The speculation is that is a good thing.

By developing a more possession oriented 4-3-3 system and signing backs and midfielders with strong-thru-exceptional passing skill, vision, and soccer brains, stirred by an attacking wild card at one of the #8s, Vermes has created a consistent chance-creating style of play. Add dynamic and talented wingers, and Sporting’s attack is going to be dangerous.

Pulido was to be the final piece, a #9 who can facilitate the midfield, but also be a “fox in the box” who can consistently finish chances and half-chances and create some of his own.

But here is the rub: Thanks to the talents installed and the training Vermes and Co. have instilled, even with Pulido in and out of the lineup and an average attacking MLS striker in his place in Khiry Shelton, goals come. In 2018, right winger Johnny Russell’s first season, Kansas City produced 1.91 goals per game with Shelton, Diego Rubio, and Kristian Nemeth taking turns at the #9. 2019 brought 1.44. 2020 and 2021 garnered 1.81 and 1.71 respectively.

(2017… btw… 1.18. In the MLS Cup winning season of 2013, Sporting manufactured 1.38 goals per game.)

However (there is always a “however”), players must produce. And in the scoring by committee system that Vermes has built, all attackers are important. In 2021 during each month of the season, at least one of Sporting’s critical attacking players carried the scoring load. Theory speculates the pattern will remain full.

Sporting KC month-by-month 2021

Month (GP) Kinda Pulido Russell Salloi Shelton
Month (GP) Kinda Pulido Russell Salloi Shelton
Goals/Ass G A G A G A G A G A
Apr (2) 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0
May (6) 2 1 5 1 0 1 2 1 0 3
June (4) NA 1 0 0 2 4 1 0 0
July (4) 0 1 NA 3 1 2 1 1 1
Aug (6) 1 1 2 2 1 1 3 2 0 1
Sept (5) 0 0 0 0 4 2 3 0 1 1
Oct (5) 1 4 0 0 6 1 1 2 1 0
Nov (2) 0 1 NA 1 0 0 0 0 0
Total G/A 5 8 8 3 15 8 16 8 3 6
GWG 3 2 4 5 1
GTG 0 0 1 3 0

Worry warts

Damn! Left winger Daniel Salloi was remarkably consistent thru October 3rd. Deservedly so, the Hungarian was named a league MVP finalist. But why October 3rd? Salloi got an ankle “knock” (had to…) in October that forced him to sit out the October 23 & 27 matches and come on only as a substitute for the Halloween match (luckily Russell was on a tear at this time).

But DS20 scored no goals after October 3rd. He did have one assist in the October 17 loss to Vancouver and two against them in the first playoff match. More worrisome, though, is the fact from October 3rd on, he did not look like the confident goal scorer – nay, strutting, vibrant-tailed rooster – he had been all season.

This writer feels that Salloi thrives best when he is a part of the attacking diamond of left back Andreu Fontas, himself, Gadi Kinda, and Alan Pulido. With Kinda out for the start of the season and Shelton not providing the interplay (or being as capable of) that Pulido does, it will be more on Salloi to create opportunities for himself when the season kicks off February 27 at Atlanta United. The prayer: A strong start for Salloi (doesn’t that always seem the key for him?).

Speaking of Shelton…

Pulido-Shelton Comparison

Player Min. played Key passes Pass Comp. % Turnovers
Player Min. played Key passes Pass Comp. % Turnovers
Alan Pulido 1452 27 86.1 59
Khiry Shelton 2229 18 78.6 102

Here is the point: Even within the necessary salary restrictions of MLS (we should appreciate how far they have come btw), the drop off from starter to backup striker should not be so large in talent or production or nuance.

Yes. I appreciate what benefits Shelton brings… Yet, with nearly 800 less minutes and not being fully fit even when he has played, Pulido not only outscored Shelton by five goals, but destroyed Shelton in key passes per 90 at 1.67 to .73 and in pass completion rate. Clearly, Pulido would have eclipsed Shelton’s superior six assists in those 800 minutes and been less of a turnover machine. Simply put, Khiry Shelton does not raise Sporting from a competitive side to a legitimate MLS Cup contender. But at least he has been on the field.

Help is on the way

Compelling in its mystery and potential for sure: Rumor: Sporting Kansas City interested in attacker from Cyprus - The Blue Testament

Vermes recently stated that Sporting has been working on obtaining a player to fill the Pulido gap for some time. I am confident that someone will be brought in. If it is Marinos Tzionis, I like this choice. The 20-year-old seems hungry, talented, and a fox in the box type. Most importantly, he seems the type that could go far in helping Kansas City break down bunker-type defenses that many MLS sides employ at Children’s Mercy Park and even when hosting Sporting KC. Though that is much to ask of a young gun changing cultures and adapting to MLS. But mappa is mappa on the playgrounds and pitches all around the world. If it is Tzionis, may MLS be his playground.

Ready to play is new 21-year-old Belgian left back Logan Ndembe. I love his apparent athleticism and his young age. Defensively, let’s hope he is a step or two or three above Luis Martins in 1 v 1 ability and in his tactical knowledge and positional instincts. Offensively, one key for me is that he is at least as strong as Martins was in combining on the left wing with Salloi and company. The X Factor is: Is Ndenbe adept at cutting interiorly to combine and consequently attract attention from opposing center midfielders and center backs? Lastly, Luis Martins was rarely, if ever, a threat to score. Thus far in his career, Nbenbe has not scored. But, as Liverpool Manager Jurgen Klopp said yesterday after a win at Anfield, “Everyone is invited to score.” Come on in, Logan! Mature, and go crazy.

“The system” negative

For all the chance creation and goal production of Vermes’ 4-3-3, the Achilles’ heel of the system has often been the lack of a coordinated midfield in its single pivot structure and the immense responsibilities of the #6 within it. Much has been said about those components by myself (see here), others, and the pundits at mlssoccer.com.

I am not convinced that the free agent signing of former Sporting midfielder and 2013 MLS Cup winner Uri Rosell is the answer here. Rosell has been up and down since he left Kansas City, playing no more than 22 matches in Orlando in any one season from 2018 to 2021, and that was in 2018. In the interim with Sporting CP of Portugal, Rosell bounced around two other sides during his time there before seeking a return to glory in MLS that never materialized. The Barcelona youth product seems more like a stop-gap measure due to his familiarity with the system. But I could be wrong.

The prayer from me is that August 2021 signing Jose Mauri steps into the #6 role and grows into the demanding role as a soon to be 26-year-old with his pedigree can do. Like the #9, a greater than adequate #6 is needed to raise Sporting’s ceiling (with an accompanying increase in midfield balance).

Think Sporting Kansas City’s offseason was interesting? The 2022 preseason will be much more so.

Offer your suppositions and supplications or react to mine below.

And… the United Soccer Coaches Convention is in KC beginning Thursday. The Shades of Blue Soccer Show podcast crew will be there. Look and Listen for pods and stories during and after the convention.