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Breaking Down the Key Plays by Sporting KC vs. Nashville

We look at each goal Sporting Kansas City allowed and where the blame should go, plus a few other observations from Saturday night.

MLS: Nashville SC at Sporting Kansas City
To be clear, not a foul. Never a foul. Shelton is strong.
Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

A game is made up of moments. For Sporting Kansas City in 2022, there have been far too many bad moments. Against Nashville SC, just a few key plays led to the outcome not going their way (though there were lots of other chances that they got a bit lucky or big plays were made by guys like Melia and most of the defenders with some emergency defending). Let’s have a look at both goals and see what stood out.

The First Goal by Nashville - The Foul

A lot of attention is being put on the set piece itself and I’ll definitely get to that. But first I think it’s relevant to look at the foul that led to the goal and the turnover that leads to the foul.

(Sorry for the gif quality, if anyone has some suggestions on some better software, let me know in the comments.)

Sporting KC were playing out of the back, as they do. The ball had been worked to Ben Sweat in the corner. He has a shorter pass to Felipe Hernandez right in front of him and isn’t under any great deal of pressure himself (though Hernandez may have been if he plays that). Instead he plays a tougher pass over the top (but not too far over the top) to either Daniel Salloi or Khiry Shelton, it’s unclear. Sweat misses.

The ball is poked back to Sean Davis of Nashville who takes a loose touch off his chest, feels what appears to be slight contact from Roger Espinoza and goes down drawing the foul. There is no replay and the contact looks negligible. Espinoza does appear to extend his arms, and as bad as Ismail Elfath was in the game, this was consistent with how he’d called the game. He called a combined 28 fouls in the game (12 to SKC, 16 to NSH). Everyone but Khiry, who took a few shoves in the back, were getting calls. Lots and lots of soft fouls and a fair amount of yellow cards that looked like an average foul in other games.

So while I don’t think this is a foul, Sweat makes a mistake here leading to this set piece.

The First Goal by Nashville - The Set Piece

As for the set piece itself, there seems to be one main culprit, but let’s look through it. First, Nashville faked taking this kick several times before going short to Randall Leal.

Hernandez hustles out to pressure the cross, but he seems responsible for Leal, Hany Mukhtar and the third player in the setup. In the box, everyone but Johnny Russell takes off on the pass.

As the play continues in the second video (a simple continuation of the above clip), Shelton noticeable stops running with his man. It looks to me that Graham Zusi and Shelton are bracketing Walker Zimmerman (Zusi was oddly on him on nearly every set piece, with zonal players expected to step in otherwise). Then it’s Dave Romney, the goal scorer behind Shelton and perhaps supposed to be bracketed by Russell. Then Alex Muyl at the far post.

Zimmerman and Romney simply twist around each other and it’s likely either could have scored because Shelton is frozen just inside the penalty spot.

Another angle does nothing to help Khiry but does show Russell trying to cut inside Zimmerman (admittedly late). No matter how soft the foul is or bad the turnover is that gives it up, the defending here must be better. Sporting don’t have a lot of tall players, and Shelton had cleared several set pieces early, I’m not sure what the excuse is here.

(For a cleaner, higher quality video, that you can watch in full, check out this Tweet from the league.)

The Second Goal

The game winning goal ends up coming off of a long throw. No real blame to be had on the throw itself as it comes after a long sequence of passes and Sweat heads the ball out so the defender doesn’t receive the ball in behind him.

On the throw itself, Roger wins the header, but his clearance is weak and is immediately played in where it pinballs around and CJ Sapong pokes it home. The clearance should be better. Hernandez takes a couple steps the wrong way expecting it to be harder presumably and Sweat doesn’t quite close down the second ball.

However, what stood out to me live was that Jack Mayer, who doesn’t play the ball, interferes with Tim Melia’s ability to see the ball being played in and touched by Muyl to Sapong. You can clearly see Melia is lost in this photo, as he’s behind Mayer, who below is offside and interfering with the play.

On replay, it’s much closer that Zusi may be holding him on, but it still looks off to me. Here are two more angles of when Muyl takes his touch.

He looks noticeably closer to the six-yard-box above than below.

It’s less clear here, but Mayer looks off, and there is no angle straight down the line. Also, you can see the ball hasn’t quite touched Muyl’s foot here, but my video software’s next frame it’s off his foot. Zusi is stepping forward (admittedly slower than I’d like when you watch the full video).

All of this said, was the VAR even working?

VAR or No VAR?

In the second minute, sideline reported and former The Blue Testament contributor, Aly Trost, reported the multi-minute delay in starting the game was because the VAR was out and both staffs were being told.

However, later on in the game, by the time this happened, we had confirmed in the press box that the VAR was in fact working. Reports I have read indicate they moved the review monitor to another location on the field.

The VAR for the game was Jair Marrufo, a name most Sporting fans will know. They literally call it getting Marrufo’d. That said, I don’t believe this call is nearly as egregious as calls suffered by Sporting KC in the past. It didn’t help, but as you can see above, there is plenty of blame to go around. Particularly on the first goal. The second one feels a little more unlucky.

Even if they were unlucky on the goal that cost them the game, this is the first game where it felt obvious SKC were getting run over for a huge chunk of the match. They got it going later on, but Nashville was packing it in at that point. Game state is everything and accounted for a lot of Sporting’s late success, though there is no doubting those subs injected life into the game.

Also, let’s give some credit to Nashville SC. I think they are a good team. They’ve been on the road all year and have picked up wins at places it’s often tough to play (Seattle, KC, etc.).


There is still a long way to go with 27 games to play, but there are some really bad numbers worth thinking about:

  • SKC have just six points through seven games (2-5-0).
  • It took until September 3rd to lose five times in 2021!
  • The team hasn’t scored more than a goal in a single game all year.
  • Just five goals in seven games scored in total.

All the numbers aren’t terrible though:

  • Sporting KC are just four points out of the final playoff spot (though they have a game in hand on most)
  • The Colorado Rapids and Seattle Sounders (1st and 2nd in the West last year) are both below the line as well (conversely this means it may be that much tougher to climb).
  • There are 27 games left and 81 possible points on the table. The season is so long.

Changes are Coming

If it feels like things aren’t going well but Peter Vermes just doubles down on what isn’t working, I understand that sentiment. However, in the post-game presser (which you can watch on the Sporting One app on your phone, Roku, Apple TV, etc.) and talking to Aly after the game, he was pretty adamant some of the guys that changed the game are going to play more.

I’ll debate this with myself when I breakdown who should start, but I think it’s pretty obvious a couple guys I’d send to the bench.