Yah, me too.
The fitness centers goading people into memberships… people inevitably trashing the previous year while claiming the new year will be better… the tiresome resolution jokes.
The conflagration of talk around January 1st and the days that follow can drag, not inspire.
But the New Year is here! And that means Sporting Kansas City is headed to preseason camp (Preseason camp begins today.). That does inspire!!
Sporting is set to build on the late season momentum from 2022 as an explosive attack will be bolstered by the (eventual) return of the wild card skills of Gadi Kinda and the fox-in-the-box and beyond abilities of Alan Pulido. The midfield has a bright, new signee in defensive midfielder Nemanja Radoja. I’m calling it now, our club isn’t starting the season 2-7-3 with a -13 goal differential again. Guaranteed. There is nothing wrong with a renewed spirit.. such daring predictions… high hopes.. and all that crap.
Once again, we pundits and fans get to wax anew on all topics related to the team we love to love and love to think we know better about. The topics and outcomes are not life and death, yet they are important to us. And for us older fans, if the pontificating, sometime critical thinking, and sideline problem-solving delay early-onset dementia, all the better.
Side question… why aren’t there any good New Year’s movies? Or did I already answer that question?
Anyway, there is one New Year’s quote circulating on social media that I do like. It’s real. It’s honest. “Don’t expect any New Year’s Resolution from me. I intend on staying the same awkward, out-spoken delight you have all come to know and love.”
Before I figure out if that quote reflects on me or the things about Sporting Kansas City that we all like to complain about, let’s get started on what changes we hope to see from Sporting this season. In other words, what we hope their resolutions are.
Many of these are taken from articles written last season by various TBT scribes (references included).
Wisdom in the defensive third
Passing a ball under the pressures of space and time is difficult, just go play indoor soccer for a bit to verify. Pressing and counter-pressing are constant threats to Sporting’s possession, and more “energy- drink soccer” is coming from St. Louis City this season. Let’s hope Vermes’ charges, especially the younger ones, execute well out of the back from day one. The occasional error, sure. But being consistently clean with the ball in their own end or just dumping it down the field when in doubt should be on SKC’s resolutions list.
Keep a foot (or both) on the opponent’s throat
Interesting related stat: According to the article titled World Cup tactical trends: Lots of width, set-piece goals down, and who needs possession? - The Athletic from Mark Carey (an interesting read btw), during the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup, teams with less possession earned more “points per game” than those who had more of the ball. The stat is not striking, however, since the trend has been seen before in leagues as well. Nonetheless, tactics may be moving away from high possession… (I doubt it, though.)
In 2022, Sporting Kansas City was 14th in MLS in possession with a 49.8% rate according to whoscored.com. Of course, possession is only one way to keep a foot on the opponent’s jugular. Scoring the first goal is a massive step towards that, but even when they did that, Sporting too often failed to stifle opponent’s last season once they gained the lead or once they had tackled momentum away by drawing level. Research reveals Kansas City dropped 19 pts. in eight matches last season in such a fashion.
Exhausting and frustrating opponents with quick, purposeful ball movement is still the best way to dictate a match and to find that second or third goal that leads to execution. (Got to finish when the opportunities are there!) Put ruthlessness on the resolutions list, Sporting.
Shut down crosses and Mark effectively in the box
Some of these resolutions could apply to every soccer team in the world. What makes these two especially applicable to Sporting is the youth on the backline, mainly the wide backs. Not that the two veteran wide backs were infallible in preventing crosses, nor were they and the center backs supreme in erasing their impact when they did enter the box.
To wit, Kansas City was smack dab in the middle of the MLS in aerials lost and 23rd out of 28 in aerials won per whoscored.com. Remember that capitulation at Austin FC mid-August: Sporting KC takes first half lead but surrenders late goals to fall 4-3 in Austin - The Blue Testament?
Yet, as the loss in Austin showed, the struggles for Kansas City were not limited to aerials. The Blue Testament community member MrPiThetahead commented after an April loss to Nashville at home, “Defensively, organization for SKC continues to be lacking. It’s not just on set pieces. There were numerous times in the first half (and in previous games I’ve watched), where it feels like SKC is scrambling to defend instead of organizing and establishing their lines.” from Breaking Down the Key Plays by Sporting KC vs. Nashville - The Blue Testament
And that leads us to the next resolution…
Be as one in the midfield
[from @dan_mccown, Three Observations from Sporting Kansas City vs. Atlanta United - The Blue Testament and @SpKCLife, “Pressing” matters for Sporting Kansas City from “In the Box” - The Blue Testament]
“I was really bummed to see our midfield look utterly disjointed for most of the first half and the first 20 minutes of the second half,” was Dan’s reflection after an opening match 3-1 loss at Atlanta United last season. The thing is, not a whole lot changed in the other 33 matches as Sporting, according to whoscored.com, allowed the 2nd most counterattack goals in MLS in 2022.
The ‘…Part III, Trends in Time…” article builds a 6-year-long case for Sporting being defense first in 2023 to gain not only more consistent results, but to make them serious contenders for hardware. Will last year’s experiences for the youthful backs; whatever is happening at center back after the jettison of Nicolas Isimat-Mirin; and the addition of Nemanja Radoja, the soon to be 30-year-old Serbian veteran of the La Liga, at defensive midfield raise the ceiling? Whatever that answer is, the will to shut down crosses, mark in the box, and defend out of organization in the midfield must be resolute in 2023.
Be more daring
Quick quiz: In the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup, which player had the highest rate of line-breaking passes? At a rate of 0.95/10 passes, the leader was American left winger Christian Pulisic according to Carey’s article.
There are statistics that track those passes, that track “key passes”, that track passes that move the ball forward, but there are no stats that track “risk-reward” passes. These passes create 1v1s in the box or force defenders to make decisions and result in a throw-in deep in the opponent’s end, a corner, or a penalty because the defender(s) was put in a compromising position.
Both articles listed at the head of this section lament Sporting’s lack of penetrating, “risk-reward” passes. A player has to quickly decide what the next play is when he receives the ball – hopefully significantly before (got to see the field, always) - and manage risk. It can make a player uncomfortable. A Kansas City resolution should be to heed the truthful saying that states growth begins when one gets out of his comfort level.
Yes, Tyler Adams and others had strong World Cups for the U.S. But it was Pulisic who consistently and most effectively created problems for the opposition.
Supremacy in Attacking set pieces
The accepted stat in the soccer world seems to be that 30% of goals come from set pieces. However, during the 2022 World Cup, only 15% was the mark according to Carey’s article listed above.
Whether the stats consider goals scored directly and indirectly from set pieces or only directly is unclear. The stat gurus at whoscored.com say Sporting ended at #21 in MLS in goals scored off set pieces with eight. Eight was 19% of KC’s goal production. Supreme in MLS circa 2022 were Nashville SC. The Music City denizens hit a set piece goal 35% of the time. Between 19% and either 30% or 35%, there is plenty of room for improvement for Sporting. Put this resolution on the dry erase board in the war room and in the locker room, Kansas City.
Increased success v the top sides
One may argue that many problems, even some of those above, abated for Sporting Kansas City when forward Willy Agada and midfielder Erik Thommy began playing together regularly on the pitch. Yet that perspective is from if not rose-colored glasses, rose-tinted glasses.
As revealed in “Part III, Trends in Time”, Sporting’s impressive 10-match sprint to the finish line in 2022 covered season-long warts. “Against sides who were in the hunt for MLS Cup 2022, Sporting was 2-2-1 with a +3 goal differential at 14-11 (Yes, three of those matches were away from home). [In matches v non-playoff sides, Kansas City went 4-0-1 with a +8 goal differential at 9-1, as all four shutouts came against non-playoff sides]. The difference in the two sets of matches is stark. The 14 goals scored is actually one goal per game better. Yet, we can all agree that clip of 2.8 goals per game is not sustainable. The more concerning stat is the goals against; an average of 2.2 goals allowed per game points to substantial defensive issues, even with a productive attack. Clearly, the more adept sides in MLS are able to find and exploit Sporting’s soft underbelly.”
To rise back up to the elite sides in the MLS regular season AND the playoffs, Sporting must stand up to and then surpass the stronger teams. That is an undeniable truth.
Part of what makes good resolutions is keeping in mind what you already do well and choosing things that will build on those plusses and raise your quality of life and the quality of those around you. Sporting does a number of things well on the training pitch, off the field, and on the field.
Recently, Manager Peter Vermes stated, “Our objective is to continue to raise the profile of Sporting Kansas City, and also Kansas City as a soccer city,” Vermes said. “For us to keep doing that, we can’t stay within the bookends. We have to expand out of that, and there’s going to be different ways we do that.”
There are very few ways to achieve that objective that are better than being an elite side in Major League Soccer. The resolutions above will undeniably help Sporting get there.
Resolutions take time and patience and hard work before they become habit, a part of who we are. Here’s to Sporting’s evolution meaning less awkward, and more outspoken and even more lovable on the field in 2023.