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How steep the climb? Sporting KC’s playoff breakdown from “In the Box”

And some of the factors that got them here.

Photo by Fernando Leon/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The 2022 season has Sporting Kansas City and its fans staring at 2019 again.

After finishing 11th in the 12-team MLS Western Conference, Sporting Kansas City missed the playoffs in 2019, the first such occurrence since the 2010 season. A rebound in the 2020 COVID-19 shortened season saw them top the Western Conference. Then, 2021 saw Sporting at the top or near the top of the West all season and a third-place finish in the conference. A return to playoff normalcy after 2019 had been established.

Fifteen games into the 34-match season, things are anything but “normal”.

Why? Why is Kansas City sitting (sagging?) last in the West at 3-8-4 for only 13 points? What are their chances of a rise to nab 7th place and that last playoff position? Let’s look at some numbers – the blatant screaming ones and deeper ones mostly from 2019, 2021, and 2022. Grab your SCUBA gear (and maybe a trident… it could get dangerous) and let’s dive in.

Just five more points

In 2019, Sporting was 3-5-7 after 15 games for 16pts, three above this year’s pace. The record that stands out the most, however, is the road record. In 2022, Sporting is winless on the road at 0-6-2. Even with one less road match in 2019, Sporting had gained seven points at 1-2-4. Simple math says add those five more road points and Kansas City is in the thick of the playoff hunt now.

As most realize, establishing control of a match – especially on the road – is often critical in getting a result in the beautiful game. In their eight road matches in 2022, Sporting has scored first in only two. One was an own goal in an eventual 3-1 loss at Los Angeles Football Club. The other match, at San Jose Earthquakes, ended in a 1-1 draw.

Interestingly, in 2022, Sporting has scored first in 47% of their matches overall, the same exact clip of 2021. However, in 2022, Sporting has led at halftime in only 13% of games, as opposed to 35% in 2021. Additionally, in nearly half of their 2022 matches (47%), Sporting has been level with their opponents at the half. Kansas City’s feet have too often slipped from the opponent’s throat.

The Upside Down

Of course, a prerequisite for getting results on the road or at home and, to a lesser degree keeping pressure on an opponent, in any sport requires scoring. At 13 goals in 15 games, Sporting KC’s scoring clip has abated (2019 = 26 goals in first 15 games). That’s blatant. In this era of rich statistical data, soccer gurus like to look deeper and see if lower scoring fits other trends. Do Sporting’s important underlying numbers reveal just poor finishing or something more?

SKC Attacking Trends

SKC Prg Pass per 90 KP/90 % Shots 6yd % Shots 18yd NPxG/90
SKC Prg Pass per 90 KP/90 % Shots 6yd % Shots 18yd NPxG/90
2019 8.9 9.6 4 53 1.5
2021 8.6 9.2 7 52 1.39
2022 5.9 7.4 10 48 0.86
Stats from fbref.com, except Shots from whoscored.com

Here, progressive passes refer to number of passes completed into the 18-yard box per match, and Sporting has fallen off a cliff in 2022. The trend also drops in key passes (ones that lead to a shot or goal) per 90. Both reveal that Sporting has not been successful in attacking the most dangerous spaces in front of goal this season. There is good news, though, as Manager Peter Vermes’ charges have increased the percentage of shots taken inside the 6-yard box dramatically.

Here’s the rub: A higher percentage of shots taken in an advantageous zone matters little when the overall amount of those passes is significantly lower, and as the Non-penalty expected Goals per 90 reveals, the quality of chances overall has not been as good as in 2019 and 2021. Quality over quantity does not necessarily result in goals on the pitch. Both are needed.

Many have pointed to Sporting KC missing striker Alan Pulido and attacking midfielder Gadi Kinda for the whole of 2022 as critical factors in Sporting’s fall. Others see the fact as an excuse. Kinda was 2nd and 4th in the side in 2021 in progressive passes and key passes respectively. Pulido, even in his limited time (16.1 “90 minutes” in total out of a possible 34), was 6th in both categories for the season. More fuel for the fire… right back Graham Zusi, who played last on April 30 due to injury, and left back Luis Martins, let go in the offseason, were both in the top five in those vital passing stats in 2021.

However… there is another statistic from fbref.com – 1/3, which is the number of completed passes that enter the 1/3 of the pitch closest to goal. Call them “matriculating passes” if you must. They get a team closer to the goal… the goal. And they do not include passes from set pieces. The top five in 2021 were left center back Andreu Fontas, holding midfielder/center back Ilie Sanchez, Martins, Zusi and midfielder Roger Espinoza, followed by Kinda and midfielder Remi Walter. Naturally, this stat leans towards those who play in the back or in midfield. Thus, comparisons are most revealing.

While Fontas (whose playing time has been less) and Espinoza and Walter are at similar rates in 2022, Ilie’s “replacement” Uri Rosell averages 5.7 1/3s per match compared to Ilie’s 6.6 in 2021. Left back Logan Ndenbe is at a 2.8 clip, while Martins played at a 4.1 per match clip in 2021. Far below Fontas’ 7.3 per match in 2022 are midfielder Felipe Hernandez (2.3) and center backs Kortne Ford (3.7) and Robert Voloder (3.5).

In quick review (feel free to discuss other possible conclusions in the comments) for 2022 on the attack, Sporting is creating more cutbacks from wide spaces in the box as certain goals reveal, but they are relying more on individual effort – see goals this season from wingers Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell – to score. Furthermore (and perhaps more revealing), goals like this one against Houston Dynamo on October 3, 2021, are not happening:

Lastly, according to whoscored.com, Sporting has not scored a pure counterattack goal in 2022.

The PRI Indexes

No matter where and when Kansas City defensively pressures the opponent on the field, this is a Peter Vermes team and this is modern soccer. Defense and pressure that pays off matters.

Pressures, Recoveries & Interceptions

SKC SucPress% Rec/90 Int/90
SKC SucPress% Rec/90 Int/90
2019 24.5 82.5 6.68
2021 29.7 78.4 14.5
2022 28.6 81.7 15.9
from fbref.com

Ok. Hold on. Besides revealing that Kansas City has remained consistent in the amount of loose balls recovered in the three seasons framed, the stats also reveal that they have continually (and massively) improved in intercepting opponent’s passes and have improved the success of their press over 2019. The big numbers, though, belie those stats. In 2019, Sporting had allowed 27 goals through matchday fifteen. In 2021, only sixteen. In 2022, Sporting has allowed 26 goals in their first fifteen matches.

Turning to the “offense is the best defense” or more specifically the “possession kills” theory, Vermes’ 2019 and 2022 squads fell/have fallen below 2021’s numbers of 84.3 passing percentage and 55 possession percentage with 82.1 and 52.6 and 80.7 and 51.4 respectively according to fbref.com.

Pass the mustard, please?

Forced into playing a less MLS experienced (and less talented without Pulido and Kinda) squad due to injuries (like in 2019), Sporting has perhaps suffered in vital ways. A more mature side is more schooled in the nuances of effective possession and pacing, and more adept at precise passing. The progressive passes, key passes, and 1/3 stats above all support the contention, not to mention the passing percentage and possession digressions compared to the 2021 season. Could Sporting’s drop-offs in 2019 and even more so in 2022 all be down to passing ability? That is too simplistic, yet fertile ground for strong conjecture. After all, keeping your foot on an opponent’s throat after taking the initial lead requires wise use of the ball.

Playoff prospects

Yes, the point of all this…

To the good:

The rash of injuries has been helped by taking time off and the current international break per TBT friend Daniel Sperry of the Kansas City Star, “Vujnovic, Zusi, [and] Shelton” are all back in training:

The secondary transfer window is open from July 7 through August 4, 2022, to add a player or players currently playing outside the United States. Maybe a holding or attacking midfielder (yes, please) or a striker?

Obstacles:

In 2018, the last playoff spot required 49 points on the season, while in 2019 and 2021, 48 points got a team in. Thus, Sporting likely has to get at least 35 points in 19 games. It’s doable: records of 9-2-8 or 11-6-2 or 10-4-5, for some examples, will do it.

In those 19, Vermes’ side is looking at 10 home and nine away matches. Of those, 10 are versus current playoff teams, plus two against Seattle Sounders, who have played three less matches and, as we all know, will be in the playoff hunt despite their current position just three points above Sporting. Of the first 15 matches, only six were against current playoff teams. Ideally, all games remaining would be “six point games” against teams in the West; however, four of the remaining games are against East foes.

But, and it’s a big “but”, Sporting Kanas City is only six points short of a clear and free playoff spot.

BUT. There are currently seven teams that Sporting must leap over to make the playoffs.

Much of the above are facts. Draw your own conclusions.

If there is one thing Sporting Kansas City has shown in their history and on the field this season, especially in their recent U.S. Open Cup success, it is character. Never count odds over character. Even if it’s a steep climb.

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