Groans. Nothing like inspiring the fan base with your lineup selection…
Six players aged 30 or more dotted the lineup: Backs Ben Sweat and Nicolas Isimat-Mirin at 30-years-old; back Andreu Fontas and right winger Johnny Russell at 32 years-old; Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza at 35 years-old. In this 2022 season where the playoffs are a flickering light in the distance, fans want a youthful lineup nearly every night to build for the future. That is an understandable desire.
‘Why… why… just why…’ (An admirable answer… perhaps the most)
FBref.com says 49.2% percent is Sporting Kansas City’s average possession rate in 2022.
Saturday night at Children’s Mercy Park v LA Galaxy, Sporting’s possession rate was 37%, tied for the third lowest of the season. Their 83 total presses were the second lowest of the season, and their 18 presses in the attacking third tied for second lowest on the season.
The game plan per the stats and per the eye test was clearly to concede possession to the Galaxy, begin pressing just inside the Galaxy’s half, and hit them on the counter (especially on the Galaxy’s left side). To stay compact in a low press and know when to attack, and, more importantly, how, takes discretion and calm (e.g. experience). Having players who can hit precise passes, long ones when needed, is critical to executing the game plan as well. This main recipe – with some important accents – whipped up a 4-2 win. And it was no anomaly.
Lo and behold... Looky what we found here
SKC Possession & Press Trends
|In Att 3rd
|In Att 3rd
The possession percentage for the above matches were all significantly below the season average. In addition, the number of presses in the attacking third were significantly below or slightly above the season average of 36.88 per match, with one exception. Those two stats in concert resulted in four of the season’s six wins and three of the season’s five draws, yet only one of the 14 losses (a 2-1 defeat to New England Revolution) with the matches being against teams currently in an average of 7th place in the standings. Honestly, the find was a revelation.
To compare, in matches where possession crept up to 42-48% and pressures in the attacking 3rd stayed around the same, the results tanked to 0-4 with only two goals scored.
The other trend in the eight matches with low possession and low number of presses in the attacking third is who started in the midfield. Of course, stalwart Remi Walter started all eight, yet only two at the #6. Uri Rosell was at the #6 for six of the matches. Roger Espinoza started five of the eight at one of the #8s, while Felipe Hernandez took his spot in three others. Cam Duke started only one, as did newcomer Erik Thommy. At right back, Kayden Pierre started two and Cam Duke one. The lion’s share of five starts went to veterans Ben Sweat (2) and Graham Zusi (3).
It is not a far leap of logic to claim that the execution of the wily old veterans in a low possession, lower line of confrontation game plan gets results.
‘Why?’ the lineup choices? It’s about winning. And the game plan. And who can execute the game plan.
Don’t take this to mean I am a proponent of Uri Rosell starting in the midfield (No. Not. Nope…) or even a proponent of giving Espinoza the nod over others or Zusi over Pierre. Espinoza and Zusi, though, did earn the fourth and fifth highest ratings from whoscored.com for Sporting behind Salloi, Agada, and Thommy against LA.
However, the most interesting observation is Sporting KC’s move from a successful high-possession, relatively high-pressing team to a successful low-possession, lower-line-of-confrontation team. The press still exists, it just now comes in different areas.
Out with the “old”, in with the “new”
When a team is able to attack in various ways, including effectively on the counter, they can afford to sit and wait for the creases and the opportunities.
The results above and the nine goals (sans the four put on the Galaxy) were produced by the “old” attacking guard, a guard that had produced 19 goals in 22 MLS games. The 4-2 win over the Galaxy was the first time summer signees Erik Thommy and Willy Agada started a match together. The “new” guard is here, and it fits well with the “old”. What do the German and the Nigerian do differently?
Of the Agada train and runners running
Instead of strictly focusing on settling the ball, then trying to do something with it, what Agada does really well is taking a ball down for either a teammate’s feet or quickly to his feet. But it is even more than that. Agada fights to gain and then to keep position once the ball is at his feet. Or he plays it quickly and smartly.
See here in the 54th minute as he plays for Roger Espinoza off a goal kick from John Pulskamp:
Here Agada takes down a header from Espinoza off another goal kick, then feeds winger Daniel Salloi running centrally.
Did you see the hesitation? Agada thinks of playing Salloi earlier but realizes he should wait for Salloi’s diagonal run to find the space. It is Agada’s getting the ball to feet with his thigh and his protecting of the ball that gives him time to wait that split second.
The Agada train surely runs on energy and joy. But it has staying power because of his technique and his ability to intertwine with his teammates. Not only will long balls to him be sustained (He is not great with his head against defenders in the open field, and I think his teammates realize it.), but runs off him will be made much more often because those efforting will often get the ball.
There are five other instances from Saturday night of Willy doing similar Willy things. The cumulative effect is that Sporting can go forward much quicker, even if Agada’s initial play is backward.
“He stands like a statue, becomes part of the machine
Feelin’ all the bumpers, always playin’ clean”, Pete Townshend
Thoughts on Erik Thommy’s play in a moment. What the Bundesliga veteran has brought to Sporting’s midfield is direction. Direction has come from his all-business attitude and his leadership. Numerous times one can see Thommy directing traffic with his motions and guiding his teammates, and his desire to be successful is contagious. That leadership (One could label it stability.) is contrary to the vocal leadership Espinoza provides and the leadership by example that is Remi Walter.
His play has taken on a leading role as well. I don’t have access to the tracking data provided to privileged others, but if I had to guess, the number of runs and attacks with the ball on the diagonal from Thommy match-to-match are likely significant. Combined with Agada’s play and the consequential inspired play by others, Sporting’s attacking patterns are changing.
Against LAFC July 23 (typical of passing networks all season):
Against LA Galaxy Saturday:
Not only did all three first-half goals involve diagonal runs – by Thommy, Espinoza, then Salloi – but all goals involved runs from Zone 14, that zone in front of the 18 and extending nearly as wide.
Furthermore, each goal involved the most dangerous zone: Zone 17. The first: Zone 15 to 17. The second: 18 to 17. The third: 17 to 17. Why is all of this important? Before now, Sporting Kansas City did not venture successfully, or much at all, into Zone 14. And, according to whoscored.com, Sporting is last in all of MLS in percentage of shots taken inside the penalty area on the season. That trend just may be coming to an end.
Let’s take another look at that Thommy goal and its buildup again. A pinball wizard?
Diagonal ball. Diagonal ball. Diagonal run. Diagonal ball.
Are you inspired now? It is a valid question.
Side thoughts and ponderings
- Agada does not have Gerso Fernandes-type speed. Yet, his burst to separate from his defender in the 68th and 79th minutes was encouraging.
- It’s just one match. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves… but I’m ready for more. And so is the Shades of Blue Soccer show cast. Listen for more takes on this match not included in this article.
- Agada (had to…) give another Willy moment: at 49:15 of the 2nd Half (see the full match on Twitter here MLS on TUDN: Sporting Kansas City vs. LA Galaxy / Twitter), Salloi receives out wide left of LA’s box with Agada at the top of the penalty arc. Agada changes pace and runs for the open space between a rectangle of defenders. Salloi plays for the give-and-go before losing his touch on Agada’s pass back. Agada’s recognition of space, of possibility, and the intention and urgency are things that have not regularly happened in 2022 for Kansas City.
- We all know Salloi’s contract expires at the end of the year. But we literally have no idea what Salloi’s status for next season is. He has not signed. There are crickets from Sporting on the matter. Salloi himself gives no answer that leans one way or the other. No Salloi next season could mean less celebrations. That Russell/Salloi connection is still strong, despite the numbers. And the Hungarian can play. It’s not like he is having a 2019 or 2020 like season. He is past that. And he is just coming into his prime. Primed for a struggle to fit into a mid-table European side? Or primed to be part of a possible Sporting rejuvenation?
- Is rebuilding a winning vibe by choosing tactics and a lineup that does not gain the most youthful players like Pierre, left back Logan Ndenbe (out because of injury), center back Robert Voloder, attacker Marinos Tzionis, and midfielders Duke and Hernandez valuable playing time the way to close out the last nine matches of the season? Let’s admit it, Thommy may essentially end Duke’s significant playing time. Khiry Shelton may move wide and take away sub minutes and an occasional start from Tzionis. Manager Peter Vermes seems to think Voloder is not ready. Will you be happy with only Ndenbe, Pierre (assumedly per his latest performances), and Hernandez getting significant minutes out of that group?
Thank you for reading, and please give us your comments below.