After a 0-0 draw with visiting Los Angeles Galaxy Saturday night, Sporting Kansas City’s shot zones after three winless matches are as follows: 5% inside the 6-yard box (21st in Major League Soccer (MLS), 40% inside the 18-yard box (29th), and 55% outside the 18-yard box (2nd) per whoscored.com. The result (due in part) is zero goals despite 58 shots on goal (1st in MLS), 26 of them on frame (1st in MLS). Going deeper, Sporting’s cumulative expected Goals (xG) is at 3.4 per MLSsoccer.com.
It is clear individually and comparatively, that a significant reason Sporting has not scored on the season is that they are not creating high quality chances through their first three matches. Or high enough quality chances.
All is not disappointment, as Kansas City has created chances that should have been, could have been, finished. Even center forward Willy Agada has missed chances he probably would have put away last season. Yet, as any center in hockey, any center in basketball, and any striker in soccer will tell you, getting strong service is vital to creating a consistently goal-productive attack.
Those who bag goals by the dozen operate as opportunistic surgeons mostly inside the 18-yard box. However, they are most often fed by the tools of those whose skills slice through zones 13-18 to deliver the ball.
Sporting midfielder Erik Thommy currently leads MLS in key passes (total attacking assists, in this case only passes that lead to a shot) and teammate winger Daniel Salloi is fourth. Thommy and Salloi, as dangerous as they can be, are not playmakers, or for that matter, exceptional passers. And they often utilize similar spaces on Sporting’s left flank.
A New Hope, nullified
Early in the 34th minute Saturday night, Salloi receives wide on the left flank about 38 yards out from the Galaxy goal. Agada is six yards off the top of the box 1v1 with LA’s 19-year-old center back Jalen Neal and is darting into clear space near the inner left channel of the Galaxy’s box. Salloi rolls the ball into Agada too slowly, forcing Agada to slow and enabling Neal to get goal side. The combination of a lack of pace on the ball and the pass not being farther ahead of Agada eliminated the significant threat Agada’s run presented.
But it was Thommy’s action 45 seconds later that was inexplicable. After Thommy nudges an errant Galaxy pass to Riqui Puig past the midfielder just into LA’s half, Thommy and Agada have a 2v1 vs Neal as he retreats towards his own goal.
Thommy takes five touches before finally playing Agada (errantly) when the advantage is now a 2v3 disadvantage and Agada has no space in which to work.
One dribble and a pass is the should-have-been. There were at least seven Sporting SHB’s (not all on Salloi and Thommy) during the match.
Part of Sporting’s purposeful overload on the left flank – with every left sided player on every line often scheming there in combination with the others – is to pull opposing central midfielders and defenders (even right-sided ones) out of the middle (or away from the right flank). However, this tactic is not as effective if the central and right-sided players cannot take advantage of a switch to change the point of attack to those now open spaces, or any other opportunities for that matter.
Right winger Khiry Shelton receives from right back Graham Zusi in the inner-right channel precisely at the 59:06 mark of Saturday’s draw. Shelton carries as Agada sprints for clear, open space between the Galaxy’s center backs as they sprint back to their goal some 34 yards away. Nearly three seconds later – an eternity in soccer action – Shelton plays behind Agada, nullifying the very real threat the situation and Agada’s run presented.
Perhaps Agada’s atypical lack of movement in the 36th minute, his turning away from a chance to go 1v1 in the 41st minute, and his odd pointing for substitute right winger Marinos Tzionis to play for Thommy instead of himself when in a dangerous position in the 64th are the outcomes of a lack of confidence and frustration with the lack of service.
“[He] was our last hope.” “No, there is another.”
The thought in most reader’s minds here may be Sporting striker Alan Pulido. As Sporting’s high-priced Designated Player nears return from being out all of 2022 with a knee injury, fans are excited. Agada’s lack of production thus far in 2023 has certainly opened the door for Pulido to return as the starter sooner rather than later. Pulido, though, needs service too.
Johnny Russell – who appears in nine of the 10 categories on the above chart – is soon to be 33-years-old. His pace and his ability to beat defenders 1v1 are not what they used to be. Yet, his ability to perceive space and how to use it and his passing touch on the ball (not to mention his ability to finish) remain intact.
In the flow of play, Russell is able to feed others from the wing and as he drives (or drifts intentionally) inside. Even when compared to Kansas City’s best ever #10, Benny Feilhaber, Russell measures up. In five seasons with Kansas City, Feilhaber (playing within a more direct system of play) garnered 41 assists and finessed 258 key passes. In Russell’s five seasons (playing within a more flank-based system), he has earned 32 assists and dished out 208 key passes.
When Russell returns – no matter who the striker is – expect Sporting’s attack to tick up a few notches. Unfortunately, as Russell jogs along the sidelines at training, it will likely be a month or so until that happens.
Perhaps midfielder (likely the future #6) Nemanja Radoja, who played a juicy through ball in his 23-minute Sporting debut Saturday night, is yet another hope. In tandem with releasing Remi Walter to play at the right-sided #8, hope may abound.
A lightsaber, not a blaster
Driven, swerving, blasted shots from outside the box have provided many a fabulous moment in soccer. No doubt.
But the close-in precision and skill of intimate weapons slice and dice opposing defenses on a much grander scale. During Kansas City’s top three goal-producing seasons (2018, 20, and 21) of the past eight years, their shot zones have each been 7% inside the 6-yard box; 53, 51, & 52% inside the 18-yard box; and 42, 41, and 41% outside the 18-yard box.
A blaster keeps the defense wary. But a lightsaber is the weapon of a Jedi.