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Pitch Pit a problem for Sporting KC v Portland Timbers

But Sporting has a solution. Three of them.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Sporting Kansas City have a problem coming Sunday at Children’s Mercy Park (6:30pm; KO is 6:55pm) hosting Portland Timbers. It’s solvable. But it’s definitely a problem.

Portland Timbers, though currently in 8th place in MLS’s Western Conference, had been on a 10-match unbeaten streak before their 3-1 loss at resurgent Toronto FC last weekend. Yes, many of those matches were draws, but the Timbers have also scored the third most goals in the West. And you may remember that 7-2 Sporting loss in Portland on May 14th. However, sitting right next to that number on the stat table is goals allowed, wherein Portland sits dubiously at 5th most (Sporting is at 2nd most.).

Much of Portland’s force is in their engine room, their midfield: Twelfth-year #8 Diego Chara still covers a lot of ground with impact; talented and industrious #10 Sebastian Blanco is still a game-changer; impactful #6 Eryk Williamson has pundits talking a spot on the U.S. World Cup roster in Qatar for the 25-year-old.

Depending on the opponent, match conditions, and personnel available, Portland will has run out a 4-4-2 or a 3-4-2-1 formation. Yet, no matter where and how they are deployed, D. Chara, Blanco, and Williamson make one of the best midfields in the West. They are a problem with which Sporting must deal (Yes, such a problem that I must use proper, formal English.).

The solutions will fall to Sporting Manager Peter Vermes and his midfield choices. Will those choices be a three-man midfield of Roger Espinoza at the #8, Erik Thommy at the #8/10, and Remi Walter at the #6? Probably.

Midfields in Attack

Team Minutes G/A Key passes Pass % g+ ShotCrAct/90
Team Minutes G/A Key passes Pass % g+ ShotCrAct/90
SKC 3 3969 6 2 42 78.1 -1.26 2.79
PTFC 3 3889 5 13 61 79.53 1.92 3.14

At first look, the stats (fbref.com & americansocceranalysis.com) show that Sporting’s trio has outscored Portland’s… until one sees the assist numbers. Otherwise, Sporting’s unit is behind in every category. But a couple of other things stand out. Espinoza’s 2.07 shot creation actions per 90 top Chara’s 1.74 by a significant margin in similar minutes. Williamson’s 2.98 beats both and shows how effective he is from a deeper spot. That’s impressive and blends with his 14 key passes in only 724 minutes.

Midfields in Defense

Team Minutes Int Tackles W % Eff Press %
Team Minutes Int Tackles W % Eff Press %
SKC 3 3969 Eighty-one 70.5 26.2
PTFC 3 3889 60 68.6 26.8

Dang, Sporting dominates in interceptions, mostly due to Remi Walter’s 44 (who of last news was still leading MLS in miles covered). Sporting’s stat is probably boosted by the fact that they have been pulling back their line of confrontation, making the field smaller and play, at least theoretically, more predictable in front of Walter at the six.

Kansas City also holds a slight advantage in percentage of tackles won. Yet, Walter tops Sporting with 39 tackles attempted, whereas Chara has won more – 40 – than Walter (29) or Espinoza (24) in 56 attempts. Chara gets after it. Don’t hold onto the ball too long, Kansas City.

Overall, Sporting’s midfield trio is behind Portland’s in every category, but the ones mentioned above. It is the cumulative quality of the Timber’s trio that trumps and is revealed in the dramatic difference in goals added (g+).

Tactics

Williamson, Chara, Blanco have been operating without a consistently dangerous striker (though Sporting would benefit from Timbers’ striker Jaroslaw Niezgoda who has nine), that is why their goals are spread out: five players with five or more goals (Sporting has only two players with five goals or more.). Due to injuries and Portland Manager Giovanni Savarese managing his players’ minutes, Blanco has played up top occasionally and Williamson as a more advanced six.

Sporting’s solution on the attack may be to get the ball to Thommy (Thommy and right winger Johnny Russell or Thommy and left winger Daniel Salloi) in numbers up situations out wide or to Willy Agada in space or to his feet for the midfield trio to run off. The idea would be to negate the strengths of Portland’s trio. Walter and Espinoza and Thommy will have to see space quickly and play quickly.

On the defense, the problem for years… we all have admitted it at one time or another… has been Sporting’s midfield organization. If Sporting can make the field small and be spot on with a compact and coordinated midfield triangulation, they will have a fighting chance. But Espinoza, Thommy, and Walter will still have to tackle strongly and win second balls, not an easy feat against Chara, Blanco, and Williamson.

Otherwise, unless Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes deploys a dual pivot in the midfield or figures a way to effectively play a high line, too much will fall to Walter as the #6 and as the protector of the back line. “Allez les chercher, Remi.” (‘Go get them, Remi’).

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