Smooth it has not been. The beginning of Sporting Kansas City’s 2022 season has suffered the same fate as well-traveled roads that have been salted time and time again dictated by the ravages of ice and snow and possibly overzealous public works administrators: potholes have appeared. Two goals scored. Four goals allowed. Losses in two of three.
All know that being forced to inject two new players into the frontline from the start while having to play Remi Walter at the 6 for the second straight match was not ideal. Yet, the way Saturday’s 2-0 loss at Colorado Rapids played out, it felt like a smack of reality.
A few observations from the match follow for your perusing pleasure, with an influx of levity along the way. (Ok. Cue the Jaws theme… and “Standby for the most extraordinary chain of events ever swept up into high adventure.”)
Under pressure (Or “Can you fly this plane and land it?” “Surely you can’t be serious.”)
Besides “Mr. Been here since Tuesday” striker Nikola Vujnovic and right winger Marinos Tzionis being thrown into the fire, there was an additional burden on attack. Vujnovic is not adept at pressuring how a striker should in Peter Vermes’ system. Thus, not as many opportunities were created from that front-foot pressure.
There were moments like Roger Espinoza’s pressure in the 20th minute that led to Felipe Hernandez combining with Vujnovic and Johnny Russell for an eventual Espinoza blocked shot. But constant and effective pressure up top was a missing ingredient.
The fickle sparkle of responsibility (Or “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit [being amazing].”)
The “new guy does well” sparkle on Tzionis (more on that later) is still on Logan Ndenbe. The new left back faced his biggest test at Colorado Rapids; consequently, the Belgian’s sparkle faded some. Ndenbe was culpable on the first Colorado goal for not taking responsibility. Perhaps his focus on trying to stay even with his backline (minus the co-culpable Graham Zusi) took priority in his mind, instead of dealing with Rapids’ striker Diego Rubio. Rubio was Ndenbe’s task, no matter his line. But another responsibility is nearly as concerning: The 22-year-old needs to shut down crosses.
It is also concerning when no one takes responsibility, like on Colorado’s 2nd goal. And when a veteran – Espinoza lets his man go on a near goal in the 61st minute – cracks. All are susceptible to shutdowns. Let’s hope the number of them decreases over time.
Some are throwing some blame at right center back Nicolas Isimat-Mirin for the goals. He wasn’t infallible on the night (He kept Rapid winger Michael Barrios onside for a dangerous chance two minutes after the opening goal). However, it is Isimat-Mirin who carries a hefty responsibility within Sporting’s 4-3-3 defense. Covering a middling defender at right back and a slow-footed center back partner and supporting a young and new left back is a lot. Then there is only a single holding midfielder in front of him.
The spotlight of responsibility shines on the other side of the ball too, maybe with even brighter lights after scoring only twice in three matches. (Or ‘Coach, maybe we ought to score some goals.’ ‘No, that’s what they’ll be expecting us to do.’)
In his halftime chat with Sporting sideline reporter Aly Trost, Manager Peter Vermes mentioned Sporting’s somewhat success with the up-back-and-through passing pattern and its accompanying movement in the first half, hoping that it would improve in the second half. That through ball needs a runner to hit the space between and behind opposing defenders.
The lack of that runner and generally someone showing into space for a teammate in much of Kansas City’s advances was a problem as these samples exhibit: Starting at one of the #8s, Felipe Hernandez failed to show for teammates on the ball in the 16th and 20th minute each. The 45th minute saw Tzionis get to the endline ready to drop a pass at the top of the box, but no one was near. In the 47th minute, center left back Andreu Fontas has an open avenue in front of him, yet no one makes a run until Vujnovic recognizes late.
Maybe the issue is system driven or driven by the lack of a quality playmaker in the side at the moment or both. In the latest Shades of Blue podcast, we discussed the lack of a creative force in the midfield for Sporting. That void is one reason much of the ball rotation is from wing to wing, width to width, instead of more penetrative, and thus forcing bunker defenses to answer attacking challenges besides over the top balls or crosses from the wing. The truthful saying goes: the run initiates the pass. Those who play with the Lucas Zelarayans and Carlos Gils of MLS make those runs into what space is available because they know there is a good chance their runs will be rewarded. Perhaps Sporting’s attackers don’t make those runs often because they are not confident the ball will be delivered, despite Fontas’ continuous efforts.
Adding the fact that Russell’s touch left him and his tricks were not coming off against Colorado to the lack of effective pressure up top and the lack of runs/responsibility taken, Sporting’s attack suffered. (Or ‘It’s your job to hit the target.’ ‘Hit the target? What is it?’ ‘It’s that large rectangular shape on the field with two posts, a crossbar, and a net, but that’s not important.’)
Speaking of responsibility… The man of the match for me was Marinos Tzionis (with a nod to Tim Melia). The reason? The man wants the ball. The man wants the responsibility. Russell, Salloi, Walter, and others have earned the respect and get the ball. Tzionis is demanding the ball. The 75th minute sees the Cypriot still tirelessly taking on the Rapids’ defense. Ten minutes later he is in Sporting’s own end, pointing to then left back Ben Sweat where he wants the ball in open space.
Projecting panic (Or ‘Striker, listen, and you listen close: flying a plane is no different than riding a bicycle, just a lot harder to put baseball cards in the spokes.’)
^Just in case you didn’t get the Airplane! references…
Sometimes, potholes jolt you awake while you drive. Often, they prompt swear words to fly. Sometimes they make us think damage was sure.
To be clear, it is not panic time for Sporting Kansas City. No permanent damage has been inflicted.
When will panic be appropriate? If troubling trends continue and goals (and wins) are scarce through April, it will be time to panic. After ten matches against some strong sides, some medium, and some likely minnows, the new and young players will have their feet under them. Responsibilities will be more clear and the coaching staff will have tweaked the system to some extent.
Surely, the boys in blue will take responsibility before that back-to-back road trip. And don’t call me Shirley…
(The Blue Testament wants to earn the designation of being your go-to when it comes to all things Sporting Kansas City (and more). And we have no shortage of takes on the Colorado loss with Chad Smith’s positive takeaways, the morning-after “Proper Pronunciations” Shades of Blue podcast, and even player evaluations via a fan post here. Of course, the comments section of each is always a good place to go for debates, fun, and analysis as well.)