In the 31st minute of last Saturday’s match at Vancouver Whitecaps, Sporting Kansas City Captain Johnny Russell, playing on the left, turns playmaker:
Russell failed. The pass did not connect. But the pass forced the Whitecaps’ center back to clear quickly for a throw-in deep in their own end. Why? Because Ranko Veselinovic was 1v1 with Sporting’s Felipe Hernandez, in his own box. If Hernandez doesn’t find the space and Russell doesn’t play that pass, Veselinovic has little to worry about, little to do if Russell chooses a “safer” outlet for his pass. Veselinovic was forced to play the ball out because of the risk it presented.
Russell’s pass did not get noted as a “Key pass”, a statistic in which Sporting is 12th in MLS – somewhat surprising for a side that has only scored four goals. Such is the “partial reflection of truth” nature of many stats. Check out the full list of the MLS Leaders in Key Passes thus far in 2022. While players who make passes that lead to a shot or goal more often than others hold significant value, it is ironic that the teams of the top five KP leaders are currently in 10th, 5th, 12th, 12th, and 11th place in their respective 14-team conferences.
But the passes the KP stat tracks are in many cases not the “missed passes” or “missed penetrations” that this article is about. My hunch is that teams who win more often and score more goals, recognize the reward of passes that some may label “risky.”
A few seconds before Russell’s 31st minute penetration for Hernandez, Hernandez is streaking down the gut of Vancouver’s defense when Sporting’s left back Ben Sweat receives a switching ball in the inner left channel. Sweat sees Hernandez, who has forward momentum over the retreating Whitecaps backs, who has space between two of them in front of him, whose nearest defender has his back to Hernandez. Yet, Sweat makes the “safe” pass out wide to Russell away from the box, away from the goal. There is no 1v1 in the box created, no chance for Hernandez to beat his man for a shot. No chance for a penalty from a beleaguered defender. Not even a chance for a corner or a throw deep in Vancouver’s end. (Bonus non-effect: Russell was running for a perfect third-player-give-and-go that would have put him – had Hernandez had the option – in deep and all alone in Vancouver’s box.) Opportunity, no, opportunities, missed.
In the comments section of the Sporting Kansas City at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Match Thread on thebluetestament.com, a commentator states, “[Sporting KC’s] play is so incredibly flat; there is such a lack of any penetrating passes, [a lack of] good decision making with the final ball when they do make the penetrating pass, and even just [a lack of] connecting passes.”
By my count, Sporting players missed 10 penetrating passes in the 1-0 loss at Vancouver.
Compounding the issue are these facts from mlssoccer.com’s latest Power Rankings: Sporting get into the final third the 3rd most of all teams and they lead the league in total turnovers.
Of the 10 “missed passes” at Vancouver, four led to losses of possession either directly or indirectly - 40%. Example:
Two options – left winger Daniel Salloi and left midfielder Hernandez – here in the 42nd minute for Sweat. And so many possibilities: a ball into two possible different spaces for Hernandez, an up, back, and through combination with Salloi for Hernandez. A ball into Salloi’s feet for him to do his magic. Even after those missed passes, either can still be played. Sporting gets into the final third often (perhaps due to opponents sitting back), and they need to take advantage. But it ends this way:
Against Vancouver, Sporting played a number of passes, some near-spectacular, that found striker Khiry Shelton in space. That space, however, was in the wider channels, and with long balls. A side that is risky often times with generally low-percentage long balls is, counterintuitively, often hesitant to play short passes that may not come off, that carry risk.
The Passing Network from mlssoccer.com shows no lines connecting right winger Russell and striker Shelton, a thin line connecting the striker and “#10/8” Hernandez. Nothing connecting starting #6 Uri Rosell and any of the front three. The space is there, it just needs to be exploited.
What happens after then #10 Cam Duke misses then striker Nikola Vujnovic in the 84th minute? Duke plays to his right for coming midfielder Roger Espinoza, who then plays Vujnovic, who by then has no space and tight pressure and Sporting loses possession.
Six minutes later, a 30 yards out left center back Andreu Fontas plays Salloi running deep in Vancouver’s box in the inner left channel. The pass literally has no chance of getting through to Salloi because there is a Whitecaps’ defender between the ball and Salloi. However, because of the danger the ball presents and that the defender was forced to backtrack, the defender knocks the ball out for a corner. And Salloi gives Fontas the thumbs up. The reward is a last-minute chance to tie the match on a set piece when Fontas could have safely recycled the ball and kept live possession. That’s good risk management.
Sporting Kansas City need to miss fewer penetrating passes, need to risk more reward and force opponents to manage the risk they pose.
Although the sequence in the 42nd minute ends with a pass to right back Graham Zusi, whose subsequent shot is blocked, the 23-year-old Hernandez, in his fourth season with Sporting Kansas City, needs to be more aggressive there.
Recognizing the chance to touch – small or big – outside with his right foot, and thus put his body across the defender is evidence of a player developing and bigger things to come. Instead, the homegrown lets the ball roll too long before cutting back. That’s space, a chance for a high percentage shot, a chance for deeper penetration, a chance for a free kick at the top of the box lost.
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