I’m a bit of an outlier in the Friday night indoor soccer matches I play in. When defending up field or in the midfield, I often orientate my approach to force opposing ball carriers into my teammates. And I appreciate those who realize the importance of defensive organization. In my first pickup game this winter after a hiatus, someone on my team turned to a teammate and said, “See how good it is when we work together.”
Sporting Kansas City’s defense has always worked together. The effectiveness of that defense in the last six seasons, to put it somewhat mildly, often has not been high. The facts and some of the causes were put forth in the related articles listed below and in others.
But thus far, Sporting’s 2023 defense is a different beast.
“[The key] is everybody is focused on doing their job and helping and defending as a team,” said Left center back Andreu Fontas after Kansas City’s Tuesday training at Compass Minerals National Performance Center.
One goal allowed, including two shutouts, has been the outcome. Sporting Kansas City is one of only five MLS sides with that distinction through three matches (Nashville SC has yet to concede.).
Even with a small sample size, numbers don’t lie. Stats sometimes fib (and bend in manipulation), but they always provide context.
Manager Peter Vermes coordinated his side into a 4-4-2 when home sides Portland Timbers (a 1-0 KC loss) and Colorado Rapids (a scoreless draw) were in possession and building from the back in Sporting’s first two matches. For the home opener last Saturday (a scoreless draw), Vermes chose a 4-5-1 to temper Los Angeles Galaxy and star Barcelona-bred midfielder Riqui Puig.
Both setups create a wall behind the duel or single striker designed to clog the middle of the field.
Making the field small is nothing new in tactics. Yet when applied in different parts of the field, the execution required, and the impact, is different. Many teams from high school on up (ok, even those U-6 teams sometimes) excel at packing players into and near their own 18-yard box to defend. Squeezing the field into a narrow 36-yard rectangle (as in the above screenshot) in the midfield and doing it effectively is a much grander operation.
“They are smart players who are waiting a little bit more sometimes so we know where we are at [positionally],” said Fontas of the midfielders in front of him. “We are very compact and try to step up the line a lot and make the gaps between lines as short as possible. They are [also] doing a very good job of covering those in-between balls.
“The Galaxy love to play [passes between the lines] where players can turn in that position. [Then] you as a backline get so exposed, and we did an amazing job [preventing that],” Fontas continued. “Roger stepped so well up to Riqui, for example, and didn’t allow him to turn and play balls that are very dangerous. And Remi stayed closer to us and covered so much ground and covered a lot of balls that were potentially dangerous for the backline.”
Realization of need and buy in to the tactics lead to intentional, active execution. Perhaps even more important is seeing your teammates put the ideas into action. The action then becomes a movement.
In a 27-second master class from 18:48 through 19:15 during Saturday’s first half, Sporting pressured the ball carrier approaching midfield while blanketing any runners and staying connected with each other. Having no options and no space, the Galaxy were forced backwards repeatedly during a 12-pass sequence. Khiry Shelton, Roger Espinoza, then Daniel Salloi pressured left to right, before Erik Thommy forced a negative pass. Salloi, Thommy, and Willy Agada then teamed up to force another. A penetrating pass was forced back by Remi Walter in the midfield before Shelton, Graham Zusi, and Espinoza cut out a right-wing approach, once again forcing the Galaxy into the negative.
Whether you are playing a sport, playing chess, or in the military, defense is organization, attack is disruptive chaos. Yet, an organized defense that disrupts is the best defense.
“We are good tactical[ly]. Physically we are good too,” said de facto defensive midfielder Remi Walter. “We win a lot of fights in the midfield and in the back.”
Closer equals better (read more likely to payoff) and smarter tackles, not ones of desperation, occurring in better spots from which to launch a counterattack – higher up in midfield or on the wing. Perhaps this is why Sporting currently leads in MLS in number of 1/3 passes and progressive passes according to fbref.com. Almost as important when it comes to dominating a match, Sporting is freed to use more brute force in those tackles because they now have better position. Witness Tim Leibold’s legal tackle that sends the Galaxy’s Mark Delgado sprawling in the 34th minute.
“We have to continue like this because it is much, much better than last year. We don’t have the mistakes as last year,” Walter surmised, though he emphasized the importance of continual communication. “Everyone, when we have to say something to someone on the field, we have to [say it]. It’s our job. I did a lot [of communicating] during the [Galaxy] game because I’m in the middle. I can say something to Roger or to Erik, because Erik’s forgets some different things. I have to be focused on [controlling the game].”
Sporting Kansas City is well known for a flank-tilted attack that includes the wide backs pushing high up the field to combine with wide or tucked in wingers. In such an attacking system, space in Kansas City’s end behind the wing backs becomes fertile ground for counterattacks.
“[The wingers] have to be defensive-minded and understand they have to help the team defensively,” said Walter. “They have done well the first three games, that is why we don’t concede goals.”
Indeed, the wingers are at least half of the midfield block behind the top two or the sole striker at the point of pressure. But in 2023, the defense deep on the flanks in Sporting’s end has improved dramatically.
As the Galaxy get out on the break in the 34th minute by moving the ball inside then outside to the right wing, Sporting have six-seven players back covering space and runners to limit options. On LA’s right wing, left back Tim Leibold is closing in on the ball carrier from behind while Walter delays forward progress with his position.
The big deal? Sporting’s center backs are not being pulled out to the ball at width. The result – Leibold’s tackle and a Galaxy throw-in played backwards and another fruitless long passing sequence ending with Sporting stealing and hitting the Galaxy with a 2v1 break.
Even when a wide back is beaten on the outside, a teammate or Pulskamp have come to the rescue. Even when a cross has come into the box, someone has taken responsibility to clear it. Though “together” is a key mantra for collective action, “together” also catalyzes individual performance.
Sporting’s status in allowing the least amount of completed passes and completed crosses into the 18-yard box – in crunch time – is proof enough of taking responsibility as a group and individuals excelling. Even two of the youngest on the pitch.
“[Twenty-one-year old Goalkeeper] John [Pulskamp} is doing an amazing job, when they do break us, of making amazing saves,” lauded Fontas. “We have to keep growing and getting better in that [defensive] aspect because that gives us points.”
Second-year center back Robert Voloder, playing at an unfamiliar right center back, has grown in his three matches. So much so that his biggest strengths are coming to the fore: “His athleticism and physicality are coming out in the games,” commented Head Coach Peter Vermes.
However, as ones sometimes at the mercy of a ball that moves faster than they, the midfield is breached. Center back Voloder and Fontas, along with wide backs Leibold and Zusi must be stout. I asked Vermes what the back four has been doing when the midfield line is broken to prevent or snuff out danger.
“They delay and allow those other guys to recover, while not exposing themselves,” Vermes explained. “They close the gaps on the other team, so now they have to take a long distance shot or try and pass when they don’t want, and we end up winning those balls back.”
Vermes’ enthusiasm for the evolution of his backline became evident. “The back four is becoming one. They are moving really well not just north to south but [also] east to west, which really helps the team in applying pressure to the ball. The fact that they are one unit as they move and there are no gaps between them is really important.”
It is clear the Vermes and his staff have given their players the instruction and inspiration to allow them to succeed as a defensive unit in 2023. It takes all of the above, plus planning to create change. It takes even more than the traditional “not turning off” mantra to sustain the results through a whole season.
Early payoff is often a motivator. The next three matches at FC Dallas (4 goals in 3 matches), home to Seattle Sounders (6 in 3), and away to Philadelphia Union (5 in 3) will provide stern tests. If the defense comes through with mostly flying colors – not black and blue – odds are Sporting’s stout defense is here to stay and not an outlier.