Complain about the lineup. Complain about the new jersey that drapes Sporting Kansas City players in a clear identity of hoops. Complain, too, about the 4-3-3 flank-centric attacking ethos that even more identifies Sporting Kansas City as Sporting Kansas City. Complain all you want, even to the point that you feel Sporting is already surrounded by clouds of stagnation and mediocrity through only their first match in the 2023 MLS season.
All cynicism needs is a moment of credence. The milli-second Ben Sweat decided to keep the ball alive instead of surrendering a corner – even though he was just outside his own box on the cusp of the endline – by turning inside and surrendering possession to the Timbers’ Juan Mosquera, fate clamped down on Kansas City. Mosquera’s subsequent 6th minute goal made gaining a result exponentially more difficult for Kansas City, gave credibility to the cynicism, and incited further negativity from fans and pundits alike in social media realms. (One can even picture Sporting Manager Peter Vermes, who surely preaches keeping the ball alive in most situations, in that moment hand to head bemoaning, “That’s not what I meant.”)
Come to Papa
Timbers’ Head Coach Giovanni Savarese and his players were surely rubbing their hands together maniacally after their early goal. They had Sporting in the ringer. Not only were Sporting on the road playing on turf in cold, wet conditions that the Timbers experience daily (or at least had done more so in the build up to the match), but now the Timbers organized defense and its targeted tactics and their physicality could more easily mute an opponent reeling from a trailing game state.
Nudging, to pulling a Brutus… whatever works
Portland’s Juan Mosquera ain’t dumb, he and the Timbers are cunning. Mosquera’s shoulder nudge of Sweat just before he reached the ball in the 6th minute threw Sporting’s left back off balance and helped turn Sweat inside and play the ball in front of his own goal. Yet, the Timbers’ physicality had only just begun.
Dario Zuparic’s standing up of Sweat in the 14th minute and Diego Chara’s light blow into the back of Sporting right winger Daniel Salloi a minute later revealed a trend. Both physical interventions – actually all three going back to Mosquera – came just on the edge of the most dangerous space, the penalty box. The tactic was prevalent all match.
However, the main target was, of course, Sporting’s dynamic striker Willy Agada. Six-foot-four, 205-pound center back Zac McGraw and his partner, the 6’1”, 185-pound Zuparic, nudged, elbowed, knocked, and towered over the 5’9”, 165-pound Agada throughout.
McGraw’s 33rd minute leveling of Agada took on Brutus vibes (or “Bluto”… whatever floats your boat) to Sporting’s Popeye, a Popeye that couldn’t quite reach the can of spinach on the night.
Due in part to the physicality, Agada was not Agada on the night. The Nigerian’s touch in tight spaces was off, his economy in the box affected. Even the one shot he did get off – the header in the 91st minute – was difficult to put on frame as Sporting’s Co-Golden Boot winner a year ago had to fade back in midair to make contact.
But doubters be forewarned and supporters be consoled, it took Agada 154 minutes in all competitions to get into the scoring groove last season after arriving in Kansas City.
A wrinkle in time
It was perhaps not a completely new wrinkle, but a more apparent wrinkle in Kansas City’s defensive setup. When Portland was in possession their own end, Sporting setup in a 4-4-2 formation with Agada and Erik Thommy pressuring in tandem up top and the two wingers (Salloi and Khiry Shelton) and the other two midfielders (Roger Espinoza and Remi Walter) forming a four-man wall behind.
The setup was indicative of something deeper – a concerted effort to be more compact and to defend, even when an opposing player found space, together. Sporting’s defense was putting it out there: “We will limit your options and force you into where our guys are.” These efforts had its most dramatic impact as a platform for Walter to shine at the holding midfield spot.
Save for the 10th minute when Portland’s Eryk Williamson was allowed to drive down Sporting’s midfielder gut untouched to create a chance that was eventually ruled offside, Sporting’s protective midfield membrane was mostly impermeable.
Back to the Future
Besides indicating a small change, a wrinkle can also mean a crease or a fold. Portland certainly found a crease in Sporting’s defense for the game-winner, made even more frustrating by the fact that Sweat kept the play onside. However, the most consistent crease in Sporting’s armor was the play in the back.
Before the Timbers jumped on top, Kansas City goalkeeper John Pulskamp (21-years-old) kept them from an even earlier hole with two fantastic saves after 21-year-old right center back Robert Voloder’s back pass put Portland striker Jaroslaw Niezgoda in on goal.
The play began in midfield where Portland’s Brazilian DP attacker Evander was operating.
The screenshot above shows Evander – the man Sporting focused on shutting down all night and mostly did – receiving in open space. Arguably, the midfield is to blame for not marking the playmaker. The backline is outnumbered as the midfield retreats, thus Voloder (who was originally going towards Evander) drifts back and cheats towards the numbers. However, I prefer my center backs to prioritize the most dangerous viable option, an aggressive take with which some may not agree. Either way, Evander is free and can survey the field with time.
After Fontas repels Evander’s entry pass to Niezgoda, KC’s Espinoza plays back for a forward facing Voloder.
The left-footed Voloder rotates his hips to receive with the outside of his left boot and then play a head-down pass back to Pulskamp. “Receive with the downfield leg” is a soccer coaching mantra. It helps the player open his or her body and see the field so the best choices can be made. Voloder’s clear preference for his left foot was an issue all match. Unsighted or limited-sight passes, failure to play the right pass quickly, and bogged down attacks from the back were often the results. Frankly, knowing Vermes is a coach who looks for players who get the ball off their feet quickly, I’m not sure what he sees in Voloder at the moment. Generally, Voloder lacked confidence, perhaps owing to being forced into right center back.
The German youth had some good moments too, like his defensive header over the top of a defender in the 57th minute. However, at times, the play of the backline (and Pulskamp’s struggles with the ball at his feet and allowing a cross to hit the turf just in front of him) looked more like a terrifying nod to the past than a bright look to the future.
The game state after six minutes played firmly into Portland’s plan of shutting down Agada, driving at Sporting’s wide backs with inside-out play, and not letting the flanks beat them.
Even though, Sporting had their macro and micro-shines, and some stellar individual performances. Walter, as mentioned, Pulskamp in moments, and the consistently driven, consistently effective performance of Erik Thommy. Only the equally consistent performance of Timbers’ goalkeeper David Bingham kept Thommy off the scoresheet.
Thommy’s expected Goals plus expected Assists (xG+xA) of 0.47 was the highest on the night for both sides, as was Sporting’s xG, possession rate, and number of shots and corners taken.
The underlying numbers liked Sporting, even though many fans and pundits did not.
But goals win games and wins gain plaudits. The opening minutes and the resulting game state did the most to ruin Kansas City’s 2023 MLS season opener and the most to ignite cynicism. Fair enough. But it is also fair to say that Sporting had plenty to fuel a fountain of promise.