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A Sporting KC “play”list: Observations on Sporting Kansas City v Philadelphia Union

As Sporting gets some of its most dangerous attackers back – Russell and Pulido – they have decisions to make on how to best deploy them and who to pair with them to ignite a stalled attack.



Sporting KC's Willy Agada
Credit: Thad Bell

It was only 30 minutes. But Alan Pulido’s return to Sporting Kansas City’s lineup for the first time since November 28, 2021, in Saturday night’s nil-nil draw at Philadelphia Union was enough. The following graphic from is Pulido’s heatmap from his 30 minutes:


Pulido was all over the pitch. Since he is Alan Pulido, he has gravity. Thus, he pulls defenders out of position with his movement. The payoff is (from the related article “This is Alan Pulido: The Actualization of Sporting Kansas City’s Crowned Prince – KC Soccer Journal“):

“‘When we had [Alan] in 2020 and part of 2021, he gave us the ability to hold the ball. Teams knew that they had to respect that. He can find guys in space and [other] guys can run in behind,’ Espinoza stated.”

“Running on Empty”

In response to Pulido coming into the match, left winger Daniel Salloi tucked inside and ran deeper, while left-sided midfielder Erik Thommy played like a left winger. Similar things happen when Willy Agada is the striker. Yet, Pulido’s stronger skill on the ball and overall larger soccer IQ means more good things happen. And thank goodness…

StatSporting KCPhiladelphia Union
Shots from Open play 611
from Set pieces75
Shots from inside 1823%65%
Shots outside 1877%35%
Through balls played04

Yah, we all know it. Sporting’s 4-3-3 targets the wide zones of Zones 13 & 16 and 15 & 18 as the primary assist zones – to play Zone 17 (in front of goal) – and/or zones to launch shots on goal.

That focus is why wingers Salloi and Johnny Russell have hit double figures in goals and assists multiple times in their time in Kansas City. Zone 14 (directly above Zone 17) is far down the pecking order of focus. But Sporting’s brain trust realizes that focusing on the other zones means Zone 14 is then open for exploitation as defenders are pulled out of the middle.

The statistics in the chart show how badly Sporting needs to be a threat through Zone 14 (It seems the default is to go wide when better options are present.). The more they are, the more Sporting’s flow in open play is symbiotic, thus, the more space there is in all of the danger zones and the higher quality chances Kansas City’s dangerous attackers will have.

“Band on the Run”

Paul McCartney’s classic title song from one of his top two classic albums of the 70s (Ram is the other one, btw) is three songs in one. The transition – the connection – from each part to the next is what makes the song bang. In the first six matches, Sporting’s transitional game has lacked that flow, and speed.

The Apple TV commentators made an oddball observation regarding each side’s attacking buildups during Saturday night’s match. Sporting’s said to be much more methodical and “calm”. While the Union’s was declared to be almost haphazard. The former was a compliment – which I do understand – the latter was a critique. Interesting… as the Union’s attacks caused many more heart-in-the-throat moments for this observer (See 4 through balls v 0).

Thommy is a driving forward force, but he is not a playmaker. Three large moments Saturday in Philadelphia where he failed to connect with attackers in dangerous positions proved that, again. Robert Voloder is not a playmaker at left back or anywhere (nor has he proven to be a good crosser). Graham Zusi and Espinoza failed at various times to connect with Salloi and Agada. And, in general, Sporting did not get numbers forward when transitions/counters came from turnovers or interceptions.

A failure to exploit Zone 14 and a lack of effective transition are the symptoms that lead to a two-goals-in-six-matches disease. What is the remedy?

For now, it is Pulido at striker and a more mobile #8 than Espinoza and a good to very good playmaker at left center back or left back (who can also defend). “For now” because of injuries and the 4-3-3. For the future… some salivating possibilities:

  1. Saturday night’s glimpse of Nemanja Radoja at the six (which moves Walter to the eight), during which Sporting moved the ball well all over the field, including the middle, was a tease at possibilities.
  2. Tim Leibold at left back.
  3. Gadi Kinda’s return.
  4. Kayden Pierre at right back (though Zusi is a strong attacker, he is not the future).
  5. Pulido as a withdrawn forward, with Agada up top. (Imagine Pulido as a later runner into the box. Yes, it’s a job Thommy could do and do well, but he needs coaching on how to best utilize his considerable abilities.)

“Stuck in the middle with you” Yet, there was something “In the Air Tonight”

The chart above shows Sporting had seven shots off set pieces Saturday night. At least three of those were from corners. If any were from free kicks, they were certainly not directly from the ball played in. Thommy’s service was face-in-palm inducing.

However, there was anticipation in the air. Colombian debutante Dany Rosero, besides putting out fire after fire with his proactive defending at right center back, was active in the box on corners. A scissor-kick just wide of the right post early on and a sprawling effort to get his head on a serve later that forced a reaction save from Union goalkeeper Andre Blake likely pulled Sporting fans to the edge of their couch.


As Sporting gets some of its most dangerous attackers back – Russell and Pulido – they have decisions to make on how to best deploy them and who to pair with them to ignite a stalled attack. Here is to the technical staff getting the pieces right to get down the road less traveled towards the goal.



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