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SOCCER: DEC 03 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinal - Minnesota United FC at Sporting KC Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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Part II, Trends in Time: Sporting Kansas City 2017-2022

2020-2022: A rebound or a hangover?

Highs. Then such lows.

You believe you are where you have always wanted to be; then, you crumble. The fall is difficult, in so many ways. And it often leads to further crumbling.

*Aggregate 5-0 and 4-2 home-and-home series wins. Subsequently, making it to the semifinals of the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League. Sporting Kansas City was riding high on the cusp of being regional champions.*

Then, a wind takes you, forcibly, where you hadn’t planned, hadn’t envisioned going. A fall, off a cliff. That gale force wind, for Sporting KC, was part tough, early, preseason training, part injuries, part being exposed at C.F. Monterrey.

If you want to relive the moments of the first leg, click here.

That was April 2, 2019, early in the MLS season. But what followed, as reviewed and analyzed to a degree in Part I of this three-part series called Trends in Time: Sporting Kansas City 2017-2022, in that season was radioactive fallout. Does the radiation from that day still linger?

Before exploring the 2020 MLS Regular Season, here is what the gurus at mlssoccer.com had to say after Sporting’s 5-0 loss at Monterrey.

Love them, loathe them, or want to left hook them, one must admit that those four likely know what they are talking about. After all, they are: former MLS player Calen Carr, hometown KC man Andrew Wiebe, then-SKC-color-commentator Matt Lawrence, and analyst Matt Doyle. That is balanced perspective.

Here is what they pointed to as issues for Kansas City in the loss:

v Monterrey Issues

Backs Midfield Overall
Backs Midfield Overall
Dealing w/ crosses Getting press to ball Lack of team speed
Isolated wide Allowing transition opps. Duels lost 50-33
No pressure wide Wingers tracking Gaps btw lines, even side to side
CMF press to ball Huge gap btw MF and backline
Allowing ball to get wide from MF

After 2019, the offseason leading to the 2020 season was a critical one. Although no one could have seen what havoc COVID-19 would inflict, Sporting’s brass had time to reflect on the eventual 10-2 aggregate loss to Monterrey and the more of the 2019 MLS season and pull their club back to prominence.

Sporting bounced back in 2020. Twelve wins and three draws in 21 matches in a shortened season was good for 1st in the West. The attack was bolstered by the additions of Mexican striker Alan Pulido and Israeli attacking midfielder Gadi Kinda, and thirty-eight goals were produced. Backline additions were left back Amadou Dia and center backs Winston Reid and Roberto Puncec. However, key midfielder Felipe Gutierrez missed the entire season, and Pulido only made 12 appearances. Inconsistent execution and rotating personnel at center back held back familiarity and thus performance as well.

Yet results are results. And many of the underlying numbers from fbref.com backed up the results. Even though Kansas City’s possession dropped to the lowest in four seasons at 49.7%, opponents had the least amount of key passes in the entire league, which helped lead to a +13 goal differential. Additionally, Sporting’s percent of successful pressures rose to its highest in three seasons at 29.9%. The most shocking stat came per Second Spectrum’s opponents’ expected goals (xG) in transition, where Kansas City had the 2nd best number in MLS. That number did not include, however, the five matches in the MLS is Back tournament where Kansas City went 2-2-1 (nearly 14 of the season) with seven goals for and seven against.

Persistent, despite the top conference finish in the regular season, were other signs. The eye test reveals what stats do not. But take what you will from my observations in these three articles in 2020 and the quotes provided:

“By the first half hydration break – during which Real Salt Lake Manager Freddy Juarez stated that they were targeting space either side of Sporting’s #6 (Ilie)... and after, RSL controlled the flow of the match” from Fernandes frees Sporting Kansas City into Round of 16 - The Blue Testament.

“Combined with the high line the back four played against Orlando City, it takes considerable pressure, cover, and balance between the three forwards and the three concentrated midfielders to make [the high line, high pressure] payoff. If those first lines of defense are broken, attacking teams often find space and time (wide or through the middle) to run right at the back four.” These lines are followed by two prime examples of those first lines of defense being broken. from Sporting Kansas City: Observations (and arguments) from Orlando loss - The Blue Testament

“Let’s admit it: something is not working for Sporting Kansas City on defense, or in the overall defensive scheme… any observer can see that the opposition is often given too much space and time on the ball in midfield, still. Sporting’s failure to properly pressure the ball and track runners from box-to-box was evident during the season.” from Sporting Kansas City offseason ponderings, plausibilities, and propositions - The Blue Testament

Against playoff-bound sides in the regular season, Vermes’ charges dropped 17 points in 12 matches, winning only five encounters.

Then, six goals allowed... In each of their two home playoff matches, Sporting surrendered three goals. The first, they prevailed in a shootout. The latter was near total capitulation in a 3-0 loss to 4th seeded Minnesota United FC. Some blamed the early playoff exit on the absence of Pulido and Kinda (only a sub in the 2nd match).

Another observation on 2020 from stats and the eye test came from mlssoccer.com’s Matt Doyle in Tom Bogert’s 2021 SKC Season Preview:

“The backline and defensive midfield remain a massive question mark, this time after an offseason retooling. Sporting weren’t as bad back there in 2020 as they were in 2019, but then they got absolutely drilled at home in the playoffs by Minnesota United and it felt pretty much like back to square one.”

In truth, the bounce back of the 2020 season was much a smoke screen of continued issues, even with one of the weakest schedules in the West.

In four seasons, Sporting Kansas City had alternated average-to-poor seasons with seasons at the top of MLS’s Western Conference. Where do the minutiae and the big results of 2021 and 2022 fit the trends? Or did they create new trends?

————————————————————————————————————————————————-

General Stats ‘20-’22

Season Poss % SucPrs% Int Recov OppPPA Opp 1/3
Season Poss % SucPrs% Int Recov OppPPA Opp 1/3
*2020 49.7 29.9 17th 17th 26th 24th
2021 55 29.7 18th 9th 23rd 24th
2022 50 28.4 17th 21st 18th 16th
* Stats missing for MLS is Back Tournament - 5 matches
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

Kansas City won 17 matches in 2021, only one short of their total in 2018. The 17-10-7 record was good for 3rd place in the West and good for two strong seasons in a row in concert with 2020. It is clear from the stats above from fbref.com that an increase in possession rate (the club had the 3rd best in the six-year span in 2021) and successful pressure rate (best in 2020, followed by 2021) paid off for Sporting. However, those numbers stayed in the ballpark in 2022, wherein the team dropped back to near the bottom again with a 12th place finish.

Sporting KC’s acquisitions in front of the 2021 season revealed that they were aware of some defensive issues. Center back Nicolas Isimat-Mirin and sometimes #8 and sometimes #6 (defensive midfielder) midfielder Remi Walter were two signees, among others. In the adjustments, longtime staple center back Matt Besler, midfielder Felipe Gutierrez, and winger Gerso were out, and young Gianluca Busio was given the #10 playmaker shirt.

The summer transfer window brought Sporting defensive midfielder Jose Mauri to hopefully solidify the position as Ilie, Walter, and Busio (who had just been bought by Venezia, then in Italy’s Serie A) had rotated through the vital spot in Manager Peter Vermes’ 4-3-3 due to injuries to center backs, including the newly acquired Isimat-Mirin. The lack of continuity at the #6 and at center back was not a plus as Ilie dropped to center back to help fill the void.

The eye saw what it saw - here, here, here, and here. And Sporting, though they beat Vancouver Whitecaps 3-1 in a dominating performance in the first round of the playoffs, dropped the next home playoff match 2-1 to Real Salt Lake, which came after losing three matches (2GF, 6GA) in a row at the end of regular season where one win would have made them the #1 seed in the West.

By the start of the 2022 season, Ilie was gone. The design was for Mauri and his new (yet retread) backup, former Sporting player Uri Rosell, to fill the demanding role. Other additions focused on getting more youthful with U-22 Initiative signings: left back Logan Ndenbe, attacker Marinos Tzionis, and center back Robert Voloder.

Less than a week into the 2022 season, Mauri was unceremoniously released. Walter would now take the heavy load of matches at defensive midfielder. And previous news had stripped away Designated Players and vital attackers Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda for the entire season due to injury.

While the stats above of oppositions’ passes into Sporting’s end and into the penalty area reflected the fall in 2022, they were still respectable. However, Sporting’s goal production dropped to just above 2017 levels, the worst in six seasons. Perhaps that production drop accounts for the defensive stats that were not so complimentary: the club finished 21st out of 28 teams in recoveries in 2022 with their lowest number per 90 for the five years the statistic is available, opponents’ NPG -xNPG jumped to +6.2 (7th worst in MLS), and opponents’ progressive passes (those that move the ball 10 yards closer to goal than the last six passes or any pass into the penalty area) to 12th worst in the league from a previous high of 21st in 2019.

The dramatic increase in opponents’ progressive passes fits with Kansas City’s relapse in Second Spectrum’s expected goals in transition, a stat that actually reveals much about both the 2021 and 2022 seasons. In 2021, Sporting had the 6th worst transition defense in MLS and in 2022, the 4th worst.

The statistics for the number of opponents’ touches and carries in the middle-third of the field and the final-third from the five seasons of 2018-2022 they are available tell more of the story.

Opponents’ Touches & Carries

Season Opp Touches Mid 3rd Att 3rd Opp Prog Carries Att 3rd
Season Opp Touches Mid 3rd Att 3rd Opp Prog Carries Att 3rd
2017 NA NA NA NA
2018 23rd 23rd 19th 22nd
2019 21st 19th 17th 20th
2020 23rd 26th 25th 25th
2021 21st 27th 25th 26th
2022 8th 26th 19th 24th
Prog carries = carry ball 5 yds closer to goal or into PBox

The number that leaps off the chart is that Kansas City allowed the 8th most touches in the middle-third of the field in the 2022 season, a dramatic (to say the least) change from every other season. Notice, also, that in every season, save for 2019, Sporting’s ranking of touches in the middle 3rd is always worse than touches in the final-third. The same is true across the seasons for opponents’ progressive carries, which excludes carries from the opponents’ defending 40% of the pitch. Overall, though, the numbers and rankings are respectable and often strong.

It is the inconsistency amidst the consistency that is not really perplexing, but definitely frustrating about Sporting Kansas City. The Monterrey radiation still registers.

Take this from J. Sam Jones at mlssoccer.com from 2022’s Week 5 Power Rankings where Kansas City was at #25:

“Per Second Spectrum, they’re third in the league in entries into the final third. That’s normally a good SKC thing. In this case, I think it just means that teams are more than happy to sit back a torch Sporting in transition. They lead the league in total turnovers so far and are sixth in turnovers per 90. Leading the league in turnovers, having the team be regularly in the final third and being bad at transition defense seems like a bad combo.”

Part III of Trends in Time: Sporting Kansas City 2017-2022 will pull Parts I and II together and find constants and further meaning within the inconsistencies and the consistencies of Sporting Kansas City from 2017-2022 and into 2023.

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