Indeed, it was a glorious night at Children’s Mercy Park. At kickoff, the skies were bright with the near-setting sun highlighted by the type of scattered clouds that grant the scene more depth and more beauty. The 78° air encouraged shorts if one so chose, and the ESPN2 national television broadcast elevated the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final to true event status.
When Sporting Kansas City’s Latif Blessing rose to meet a heavenly Graham Zusi cross from the right wing in the 25th minute, the crowd was driven from rowdiness to out-of-body elation, the gift that only a goal for the home side in a final can give in this beautiful game we call ours.
A brash, yet assured, no-look goal off a steal in the New York Red Bulls’ end from Daniel Salloi in the 66th minute made the last 34+ minutes an extended celebration for the overflow crowd of 21,523. Even now, the memories of the night light the body and the mind with that dopamine rush. It is a feeling that all fans want to experience, to feel, to capture forever.
In the six years from 2017 through 2022, there have been many a memorable moment for Sporting fans in Kansas City and across its broad footprint. Yet, none have added to the trophy case or reached the crescendo of that September 20th night in 2017. There have been two MLS Western Conference regular season first place finishes since, a 2018 Western Conference final series, a 2019 CONCACAF Champions League Semifinal series, and a 2022 U.S. Open Cup Semifinal appearance since.
Some claim that we Wizards’ fans are spoiled. Maybe they are right. But Sporting ownership, Sporting technical staff, and Sporting players will say and feel, even more personally, that what has transpired in those six seasons has not been good enough.
Let’s look at the facts and the stats of the past seasons and sprinkle in some opinions and conclusions (all through my filter, of course) to find the whats and the whys. After all, reporting and punditry is what thebluetestament.com is about as we cover the sport and the team we love.
In 2017’s MLS regular season, Kansas City’s defense was stellar, allowing only 29 goals in 34 matches for a sterling 0.85 goals against average. That season was defensive midfielder Ilie’s first season with Sporting. A 5th place finish in the West was much due to Sporting scoring only 40 goals that season, yet the season was highlighted by winning the U.S. Open Cup, the last time Sporting has won a trophy. The transition to a ball-controlling, using-possession-as-a-vital-defensive-weapon side was gaining steam.
The 2018 season saw the transition reach its pinnacle and a regular season finish atop the Western Conference. The second season of midfield general Ilie and his possession and passing wizardry and the massive additions of winger Johnny Russell and “attacking” midfielder Felipe Gutierrez (after the jettison of Benny Feilhaber) along with the rise of winger Daniel Salloi saw that possession focus payoff in 65 goals scored. Goals allowed jumped to 40. Although 40 goals allowed was only 11 more than the year before, defensive cracks in Sporting’s armor were popping up. And it was center back Ike Opara’s last season in Kansas City after winning MLS Defender of the Year and garnering a Best XI selection in 2017.
Much was expected of the top seed in the West come playoff time with the earned bonus of home-field advantage. Sporting dispatched Real Salt Lake in the home-and-home conference semifinal 5-3. After a scoreless draw in Portland in the first leg of the conference final series, Kansas City surrendered three goals in a 3-2 loss to the Timbers at Children’s Mercy Park in leg two.
MLSsoccer.com’s Greg Seltzer made the following observations in his “Player Ratings” article after the match:
“Ilie Sanchez (5.5): For about an hour, the defensive midfielder was shutting down Zone 14 and feeding the Sporting KC playmakers early. The final half hour saw [Diego] Valeri and the rest of the Timbers attack finding space to operate in that crucial area of the field.
Roger Espinoza (5): Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Espinoza was competent for an hour, and then considerably less so the rest of the way.”
Sporting’s defense would allow multiple goals in home playoff matches multiple times in the next few seasons.
In preparation for CONCACAF Champions’ League play that began February 21, 2019, and the MLS Regular Season, Sporting added, among others, striker Khiry Shelton, left back Luis Martins, and midfielder Kelyn Rowe and parted ways with lynchpin defender Ike Opara and mini-star substitute striker Diego Rubio. The Champions’ League campaign (earned by the 2017 U.S. Open Cup title) started with a 5-0 dismantling of a Liga MX side in turmoil, Toluca FC, and continued with a 4-2 cumulative goals win over Panamanian club Club Atletico Independiente de la Chorrera.
But the buck stopped there. Liga MX side C.F. Monterrey swamped Sporting 5-0 in the first leg, a score line that was complimentary of Kansas City. More significantly, the tactics Monterrey employed became the template for exposing Sporting’s weaknesses indefinitely. A 5-2 loss back at Children’s Mercy Park in Leg 2 was a formality.
A dismal MLS Regular Season followed. The 16 losses and eight draws were exacerbated by injuries – some nagging, some long-term – to multiple players and resulted in the Wizards falling to 11th place in the Western Conference, missing the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons. Along the way, Kansas City shipped an appalling 67 goals. That total was a 231% increase from the 29 goals allowed in 2017.
The metrics (from fbref.com) that have evolved after 2017 reveal other dramatic shifts and some significant consistencies.
General Stats ‘17-’19
|Season||Poss %||SucPrs%||Int||Recov||OppPPA||Opp 1/3|
|Season||Poss %||SucPrs%||Int||Recov||OppPPA||Opp 1/3|
|SucPrs% = % of successful defensive pressures|
|PPA = completed passes into the 18 yard box|
|1/3 = completed passes that enter the 1/3 of pitch closest to goal|
The most consistent numbers are in the important category of interceptions, each near rock bottom in MLS. Yet, it could be that Sporting is low in interceptions because their possession rate is relatively high. The other relative consistencies are more friendly. From 2017 to 2019, Sporting’s possession rate fell 5.1%, and from 2018 to 2019, Sporting’s rate of successful pressures fell 2.1%. Though a drop for both, neither drop is alarming, perhaps only indicative of the rash of injuries in 2019 or tactical adjustments.
The other stats are more alarming. The jump in opponents’ passes into the 18 and passes that enter Sporting’s defensive third was large, as was the drop in Sporting’s recoveries. However, the stats that are most revealing are not on the chart. According to fbref.com, Sporting was 22nd (2nd best) in MLS in number of opponent’s key passes in 2018. They leaped to 8th in MLS in 2019. Lastly, Sporting went from 20th out of 23 teams (4th best) in MLS in 2018 in opponents’ Non-penalty goals minus expected Non-penalty goals (NPG-xNPG) to dead last in MLS in 2019: -3.8 to +17.8.
The gates to the funnel of key assist and the key goal zones (as illustrated below), including Zone 14 just above the “golden zone”, were often wide open for Kansas City’s opponents in 2019.
Especially for those teams who were, perhaps, more talented, definitely more effective in defense and attack and, thus, playoff bound in 2019.
v Playoff teams ‘17-’19
The difference between success against playoff teams in 2017 & 2018 v 2019 is eye-popping. In the next three seasons, the struggle for Sporting Kansas City against playoff teams would continue.
Your reactions and comments to Part I? Please detail below, and stay-tuned for Part II, coming soon. Thank you for reading and/or commenting.