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In 2023... Part III, Trends in Time: Sporting Kansas City 2017-2022

...Sporting KC must be defense first.

Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

Welcome to Part III of Trends in Time: Sporting Kansas City 2017-2022. In Part I (subtitled “A trophy and a transition”), the 2017-2019 seasons were covered in summary and statistical analysis. Part II (subtitled “A rebound or a hangover?) covered the 2020-2022 seasons. Check them out for context and background for the Part III plunge...

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Sporting Kansas City’s run to finish the 2022 season was magical. Magical? Yah, magical… First because it was unexpected, second because it produced some scintillating offensive displays and restored joy in the side and in the fans. And, lastly, it produced results.

Take a look at the heat maps from whoscored.com below. First is the heatmap from Sporting’s 7-2 loss at Portland Timbers on May 14, 2022, at Providence Park with Sporting going right to left. Second is the heatmap from Sporting’s 4-1 win over the Timbers on August 21, 2022, at home with Sporting going left to right.

from May 14, 2022, 7-2 loss at Portland Timbers
whoscored.com
from August 21, 2022, 4-1 win home to Portland Timbers
whoscored.com

The visual differences are somewhat subtle. The clearest portion, though, brings out the point. At Portland in May, Sporting is red hot in a large area on the attacking left side. At home in August, the red-hot splotch is significantly smaller on the left, as it is comparatively on the right as well. The result, though subtle on the heatmap, is that Sporting was able to penetrate more often into Zone 14 just above the opponent’s penalty area, where most assists and key passes come from. This ability balanced out Sporting’s ability to find joy on the wings in the other two primary assist zones. It was a much more balanced attack, a much more effective attack, than what they produced before the arrival of striker Willy Agada and attacking midfielder Erik Thommy late in the summer transfer window.

Statistically at Portland, Kansas City’s action was only 17% in the middle of the field, compared to 21% in August. Subtle, yet important. By the end of the 2022 season, Sporting was last in MLS in percent of entrances into the middle action zone per 90 at 23% according to fbref.com. From August on, however, Sporting’s action in the middle of the field averaged 25.6%.

What impact does a more balanced attack have defensively? It is a fact: an offense that consistently keeps the ball and reliably finds the back of the net contributes to a strong defense. It is a theory that if a team loses the ball out wide, especially one like Sporting that throws both wide backs forward and plays with a midfield triangle with one at the base, it is more susceptible to counter attacks. With the ball out wide, Sporting’s winger and #8 on that side are both committed there, along with the holding midfielder and that side’s back. Thus, there are acres of space behind the back and through the middle of the field, a gateway to space behind either back or up Sporting’s gut. Once the ball is lost, it is imperative that Sporting’s counter pressure wins the ball back or the influx of runners coming will bend, if not break, Sporting’s high center backs while they wait for help to stop counterattacks. Consequently, a side that can attack up the opposition’s gut more often has a more layers of defense and less space quickly available for a team to counter through when that side loses possession.

According to whoscored.com, Sporting allowed the 2nd most counterattack goals in MLS in 2022. From August on, Sporting allowed only two shot attempts that came directly from counterattacks. Back to the Portland May v August comparison, in May, Sporting allowed four Timbers’ shot from counters, none in the August clash.

Six wins and two draws - 20 points in 10 games – from August on were the results. Within that stretch, the much-maligned defense garnered four shutouts in the last seven matches.

Looking deeper, the results were not all magical. Five of those last 10 matches were against teams that made the playoffs. That means five were not. In matches v non-playoff sides, Kansas City went 4-0-1 with a +8 goal differential at 9-1, as all four shutouts came against non-playoff sides.

Against sides who were in the hunt for MLS Cup 2022, Sporting were 2-2-1 with a +3 goal differential at 14-11 (Yes, three of those matches were away from home.). The difference in the two sets of matches is stark. The 14 goals scored is actually one goal per game better. Yet, we can all agree that clip of 2.8 goals per game is not sustainable. The more concerning stat is the goals against: an average of 2.2 goals allowed per game points to substantial defensive issues, even with a productive attack. Clearly, the more adept sides in MLS are able to find and exploit Sporting’s soft underbelly.

And those defensive issues were not new. Parts I and II of Trends in Time: Sporting Kansas City 2017-2022 relay many of those specific defensive issues via detailing results and specific statistics, pundits’ observations, and the eye test. Those details reveal some compelling trends for Sporting Kansas City from 2017 thru 2022:

  • A high rate of possession and a high rate of successful defensive pressure increase goal production and are, together, a sure balm, but not a remedy for defensive ails.

Review: According to fbref.com, Sporting’s highest possession rate was in 2017, good for a 5th place finish. Their highest rate of successful pressures was in 2020, a deceivingly successful regular season that included their 3rd worst goals against average in the six seasons and ended with six goals allowed in two playoff matches. Though 2018 and 2021 saw the biggest combined numbers for the two stats and included the most wins and goals scored, Sporting was a middling 6-6-5 vs playoff teams in 2018 and had the 6th worst transition defense in MLS in 2021.

  • Although consistently good to very good (with a few outliers) in significant defensive statistical categories, performances can vary widely.

Review: The number of opponents’ key passes, passes into the final third, completed passes into the penalty area, and progressive passes throughout the seasons are mostly in the least third of MLS, yet results do not always follow.

  • The struggle against strong opposition is real.

Review: From 2017 through 2022, including results in the playoffs, Sporting went 39-47-29 with a -12 goal differential versus teams who made the MLS playoffs. Zooming into the last three seasons to negate the dismal 2019 season and to be more currrent, Sporting went 18-21-11 with a +3 goal differential against sides that made the playoffs.

Furthermore, in 2021 and 2022 Kansas City dropped points from an initial winning position in a total of nine matches during the regular season; eight of those were to playoff-bound sides. As far as gaining points from a losing position across the 2021 and 2022 seasons, Sporting gained 10 points from an initial losing position in six matches total against playoff-bound teams. Against non-playoff-bound teams, Sporting gained 14 points from initial losing positions in six matches, all in 2021.

In a league of such parity, it is expected that even a good team will struggle against other strong competition. However, if Sporting wants to achieve its stated ambition – to win trophies – they must consistently conquer stronger opposition, especially in the playoffs. The last three seasons (ignoring even 2019) show that Sporting has not been the stronger opposition in head-to-head battles with strong clubs. What Sporting gives, strong clubs take.

  • Defense in the middle-third of the pitch and its pass-on effect on the backline/center backs is consistently the Achilles’ heel.

Review: The amount of ink and examples analyzing and exhibiting the above is plentiful.

Trends are consistent, some continually, some continuously so. It is as if everything is going well for Sporting Kansas City - ball possession is high with limited turnovers, counter-pressing traps are working well when the ball is lost, injuries do not limit key attacking players, and shots are going in at a good clip - they are one of the top teams in MLS (except in the playoffs). And “top team” has been the case in two (I am not counting 2020.) of the last six seasons. In four of the six, Sporting made the playoffs. (In case you are thinking, “Any team is good if all things listed are going well.” That is not true. Some teams are just not good enough due to other reasons.)

Yet, all teams face issues. The best teams are able to mitigate trends and navigate rocky times and still get the job done.

Seattle v SKC

Season Seattle finish GA Sporting finish GA
Season Seattle finish GA Sporting finish GA
2017 2nd* 39 5th 29
2018 2nd 37 1st 40
2019 2nd+ 49 11th 67
2020 2nd* 23 in 22 1st 25 in 21
2021 2nd 33 3rd 40
2022+ 11th 46 12th 54
* MLS Cup runners-up
+ MLS Cup Champion
2022+ CONCACAF Champions League Winner
mlssoccer.com

I realize some of you hate that table; it’s just for comparison. Consistency in MLS, thy name is Seattle Sounders.

Thus, the question becomes “What have been the important constants for Sporting Kansas City throughout 2017-2022?”

  1. Peter Vermes and his same top-two assistants have been at the helm.
  2. The lack of a consistent pairing of center backs, and, to a lesser extent, a lack of continuity at defensive midfield.
  3. The employment of the 4-3-3 as the base formation on the field featuring high possession and mostly high pressing.

Number one is just a plain and simple fact.

Number two: From 2011 through 2014, Sporting was blessed with club legend Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin at center back. From 2015 through 2018. it was Besler and Ike Opara. The list of center backs since 2018 is long, and not very distinguished. Ilie was the constant at defensive midfielder 2017 - 2019; since, the position has been unsettled with no true defensive midfielder consistently manning the spot.

Number three: from mlssoccer.com’s Matt Doyle in March of 2021, “Peter Vermes has been much more flexible in his tactical approach than he’s generally gotten credit for, but he’s never [Author’s note: very, very rarely] wavered from the single pivot during an era in which even Pep Guardiola is wavering from the single pivot. It is possible that the game simply moves too fast now and too many decisions are forced upon too many players in too rapid a sequence to risk having just one guy cleaning up in front of the backline.”

It is a constant truth: to be a strong defensive side, a team must be strong through its spine. If the base formation is a 4-3-3, that spine has to be better than strong; the defensive spine must often be elite because of the need for recurring problem solving inherent in the formation.

The spine has not been elite for Sporting Kansas City in recent seasons.

2011-2016 v 2017-2022

Season GA GAA Finish Season GA GAA Finish
Season GA GAA Finish Season GA GAA Finish
2011 40 1.18 1st 2017 29 0.85 5th
2012 27 0.79 1st 2018 40 1.18 1st
2013 30 0.88 2nd 2019 67 1.97 11th
2014 41 1.21 5th 2020 25 in 21 1.19 1st
2015 45 1.32 6th 2021 40 1.18 3rd
2016 41 1.21 5th 2022 54 1.59 12th
mlssoccer.com

It is true, Sporting’s defense has put up some good general numbers in recent years, though the inconsistency shows. In a broader context, Sporting’s GAA from 2017-2022 is the third best in the Western Conference (excluding Nashville SC’s one season in the West). In the context of this series and what has been brought to light, the table above tells only part of the story though.

The lack of a prime-time spine comes crystal clear here: In the playoffs amongst teams in the West with at least four playoff matches played through 2017-2021, Sporting holds the sixth-highest GAA out of the eight teams. To Kansas City’s credit, they have had nine playoff games during that span. However, of the sides with more than four playoff matches, Sporting is last among those five clubs, by far. The closest club is Real Salt Lake at a GAA of 1.60 to Sporting’s 1.78.

In the six seasons from 2017-2022, consistency has not been present for Sporting Kansas City, despite the constant presence of a system that they operate out of year-in and year-out, and train for day-in and day-out. Yes, the formation is not strict, like any formation. But it is the foundation that Sporting predominantly operates out of, that helps make play predictable and helps make players comfortable so they can express their best selves.

Have the wide backs consistently shut down the wings per the Monterrey issues so the spine has that security? No. But left back Logan Ndenbe and right back Kayden Pierre are developing talents who bring needed athleticism (still an overall need). In combination with the wingers who have done better at tracking back, long term flank solidity appears on the horizon.

The additions of Thommy and Agada bring a more balanced, more consistent attack, one that aids team defense. But as has been illustrated, there are issues with that construct.

Additionally, trying to control a match with possession and attack is more susceptible to game conditions. If your team does not score first, if your team does not capitalize on multiple chances (and in other permutations), your team can find itself down on the scoreboard and trailing in momentum. Time and the confidence of your opponent then become your biggest enemies. A sound defensive structure and consistent execution of defensive principles is independent of the game state.

Going further, a solid overall defense not only provides team-wide assuredness, it also aides the attack. That is why – on a basic level – many teams that use possession as a weapon employ the high press. The high press can be a fix for defensive issues elsewhere on the field. However, when your team cannot consistently stop the opponent from moving the ball forward, especially through the midfield, being on the wrong end of the ball is more likely. For Sporting, the high press has been duct tape. Weaknesses are exposed more readily when other conditions around them worsen. And what sport requires playing and planning for the odds and possible outcomes more than soccer?

Like water, a solid, consistent team defense is the universal solvent. And no matter what DP attacking talent is unavailable due to injury, a solid defensive unit and structure does not go “cold” in the playoffs as Sporting’s team defense has.

Does the solution to Sporting’s Achilles’ heel lie in personnel or in the base formation? Yes. Is the best decision as a manager and as a tactician to put the best players on the field into a set framework or to put players into positions that best suit their playing tendencies and strengths? The answer, again, is yes to both. One cannot have one without the other.

The job of all managers is to choose a particular playing style and then choose a formation to best achieve that style of play. One’s team must have that identity; they must know who they are. The task then shifts to part two: if the strengths of the roster do not fit that style and formation, it is the manager’s job to find players who do. The denizens of the upper ranks of teams in every sport across the globe have the assets to make that happen. Those who don’t must also be skilled at putting players in spots within that framework that best suit their tendencies and strengths.

Sporting’s current system requires an elite or a very good defensive midfielder capable of achieving all that is asked of him. For all the good to strong qualities that Remi Walter possesses, they do not make him a consummate defensive midfielder. We can’t know at this point if new signee Nemanja Radoja, the soon to be 30-year-old Serbian veteran of the La Liga, is that player or not. It is a formidable combination of athleticism and technical and tactical acumen that is required. If Radoja is the answer, he will buck the trends of the past six seasons. It has been a too-tall task for many.

However, could he and Remi Walter form a dynamic duo as dual defensive midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation? Could another combination work there or maybe a narrow midfield in a 4-4-2 featuring Agada and Alan Pulido up front? What about other formations? How crazy would a 3-5-2 (I’ve worked through it; this roster doesn’t fit it.) be? The midfields within a 4-3-3 that work well in MLS have hit on the right combination of players, each near the top of the league in some or multiple aspects, yet complementary to one another. Does Sporting have that combination with those traits?

If 4-3-3 is the way it must be, can Sporting’s 4-3-3 develop into a more nuanced, flowing formation that protects against having little to no pressure on the ball, a lack of cutting out penetrating passes or passes to width, a lack of slowing counterattacks allowing the back four to recover and organize, a lack of tracking runners hitting the ever dangerous Zones 14 & 17, and a lack of midfield unity that forces center backs to support the midfield, instead of the midfield supporting/shielding the back four?

If not, Sporting will then need a very strong-to-elite center back pairing. These things are intertwined. However, I feel that Sporting’s current roster of center backs could very well be enough for 2023 (Although an upgrade can’t hurt. See Bobby Warshaw’s “Chad Marshall Theorem” within the Seattle link.), assuming an appropriate solution at defensive midfield.

The statement is a definite one: Sporting Kansas City must be defense first in 2023 if they want to get where they want to go, if they want to be able to claim themselves that “it was good enough” to satisfy themselves, and by correlation, the deserving fanbase.

According to the trends of the past six seasons, the way to get there is change in the midfield dynamic.

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