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“Pressing” matters for Sporting Kansas City from “In the Box”

It really is the question: To press high or not to press high.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Sporting Kansas City Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

There was a disagreement after Sporting Kansas City’s 2-1 win over the visiting Colorado Rapids on Wednesday evening. Even after the contentious way things played out on the field.

But this disagreement was likely posturing.

When asked in the post-match press conference by the thebluetestament.com’s Thad Bell about Sporting “sitting back” much of the match (instead of pressuring Colorado higher up the field) and whether that stemmed from match conditions or if it was the game plan, Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes was direct, “It was the game plan.”

Yet, later in the locker room, I asked Team Captain Johnny Russell how dropping the line of confrontation helped, Russell responded, “It wasn’t really the game plan.”

Sporting’s 4-3-3 under Vermes is set, in many minds, as a push-the-wide-backs-high, possession-based, attack-mostly-from-the-wings offense that often uses a high-press to gain the ball back in the opponent’s defensive third for additional high percentage opportunities.

In 2022 (and somewhat before), though, there have been signals that things are a changin’… or at least becoming more diverse.

From Nate Gilman’s “The Most Pressing Questions in MLS” from American Soccer Analysis:

“’Peter Vermes, who blamed Sporting KC’s playoff exit last season on tired legs due to aggressive pressing, has implemented changes in 2022. Up until last week, SKC was still pressing high up the pitch but less frequently overall [compared to 2021]. Then Vermes’ side pressured NYCFC 261 times [by far SKC’s most in 2022], largely in the middle and defensive thirds of the field. As the season progresses, we’ll find out how serious Vermes is about dialing back the frequency of ball pressure or if the NYCFC game was a sign of a return to last year’s style.’”

The presses in that May 7 match helped garner a 0-0 draw in New York against the defending MLS Champions who had lit up their previous three opponents for 14 goals in total.

According to FBREF.com, Vermes’ squad is still a relatively frequent high pressing team, second in both number of pressures in the attacking and midfield third in MLS. Doing something often does not always correlate to doing it well, however, as Sporting currently are 20th in MLS in percentage of successful pressures.

Like any tactic, there is a correlating negative, the push and pull. Committing the numbers forward it takes to press high - and get subsequent attacking width from your wing backs – leaves a team susceptible to counterattacks.

Recent match history has been harsh on Sporting’s ability to press high and then defend resulting counterattacks. After allowing Portland’s second goal within 29 seconds of the second half last Saturday and subsequently pushing numbers forward to press (Kansas City’s 51 presses in the final third was their 4th highest on the season.) and support a possible comeback, Sporting committed five cringe-worthy (perhaps even hapless) fails in defending the counter in the eventual 7-2 loss at Portland Timbers.

Then the game plan (or not) in the following match against the Rapids. Was sitting back more from a lesson learned? Was a more conservative approach taken because Sporting was short-handed due to season-long injuries, card suspensions, and letting walking wounded rest? Or was the “low” or “non” press simply being aware of the opposition as the Rapids have recently found counterattacking to be their MO with the addition of forward Gyasi Zardes and the move of former Sporting KC forward Diego Rubio to attacking midfielder? Or a mix of the above?

Wednesday night’s 2-1 win saw Sporting press 93 times overall, the second lowest of the season, seven above a 1-0 loss at Vancouver Whitecaps April 2nd. Additionally, their 18 presses in the attacking 3rd were their lowest of the season.

Russell provided context: “They put a lot of guys forward. So me and Daniel [Salloi] get more of a defensive job than we would normally have. They push a lot of guys forward, so you can’t leave your fullback exposed. That’s why we were deeper than usual and started hitting them on the counter on the left. It just kind of worked out like that. We knew that they would have us pinned back a little. Our defensive shape was sound. We fought for each other. We moved across the field well. We got out and pressed. We defended everything that came into the box well, too.”

However, when I followed Bell’s original question to Vermes – asking if dropping the line of confrontation might be something we would see from Kansas City more often – Vermes’ response was cagey, “We’ll see. It’s game-to-game, depending on the game, depending on the team. It depends on the situation and who we have available.”

Newcomer attackers Nikola Vujnovic and Marinos Tzionis are less schooled in the intricacies of the high press. Sporting is dealing with injuries at the moment, perhaps due to legs needing a refresh. For Sunday’s match in San Jose, both Salloi and left center back Andreu Fontas are out due to red card suspension from the Colorado scuffle. For much of June, Salloi and Tzionis will be with their respective national teams. Flexibility will be key in all aspects, particulary with how Sporting presses and whether or not they want to possess or rely much on the counter to produce goals.

Salloi’s first goal Wednesday was basically a counterattack goal. And Kansas City has good counterattacking components – the speed of Shelton; the mix of skill and decent speed in Salloi, Tzionis, Vujnovic, left back Logan Ndenbe, and Russell; the driving forces of midfielder/back Cam Duke (wherever he may lineup) and midfielder Felipe Hernandez.

The counter as an offensive weapon is less complicated than a 12-20 pass buildup and probe. Is more direct attack more effective in Sporting’s 2022 context?

That answer remains to be seen. But Sporting in 2022 has proven to be versatile in how they press and in being effective in those various modes (as well as being cagey about revealing their tactics). This season looks like it will demand more of Sporting in many ways. It may be a miracle to make the playoffs. Or just a matter of being aware of their personnel and other contextual conditions and becoming fully adept at pressing and attacking in various ways, like many good teams are.