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What Sporting Kansas City is and What they should always be

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Erik Thommy, Gadi Kinda, Sporting KC
Thad Bell Photography

The headline on kcsoccerjournal.com after Sporting Kansas City’s Sunday match said, “Sporting KC Dismantle the Portland Timbers”.

Yet, after the match, Portland Head Coach Giovanni Savarese said, “We had control of the match for the majority of the game.”

The truth is somewhere in between. And where that somewhere is will define the rest of the 2023 season for Sporting Kansas City (3-8-4), who fell to the bottom of MLS’s Western Conference like, well, a Le[a]d Zeppelin from the get-go.

Sporting welcomed Portland to Children’s Mercy Park on Sunday afternoon and the guests promptly turned rude and took a 1-0 lead in the 8th minute. To hyperbolize, Sporting stormed back for a 4-1 win.

The win was not nearly as dominate at St. Louis City’s 4-0 home win over Sporting last Saturday, by score obviously, but more so by utter dominance. St. Louis bossed KC physically and was better tactically and in execution last Saturday. Sporting won the Portland match because they were better in the right moments and were better at finding the right spaces.

Plainly stated, if it were not for Erik Thommy’s strong individual effort to level the match in the 33rd minute, a second half surge would have been less likely.

“[Thommy’s goal] makes a Top 5: ‘Eff it. I’ll do it myself’ goals in SKC history,” David aptly commented in our Shades of Blue podcast Slack chat.

Exactly. To that point, not much had gained traction for the home side.

By halftime, Portland had better chances (4 shots on goal and a 1.04 expected Goals (xG)) than Sporting (2 shots on goal and 0.50xG), despite Sporting’s 68-32% advantage in possession. The better chances were also revealed in Kansas City’s preponderance of crosses, as their attacks were mostly side-to-side, width-to-width in the first half. The more those trends gained momentum, the less likely Sporting was to turn the tide.

Those trends revealed both what Sporting is and what they should often be.

In the 9th minute, Kansas City holding midfielder Nemanja Radoja motions right center back Dany Rosero to shift wider to the right while KC is in possession. Radoja then takes position along the backline (making it four across the back) near where Rosero had been. Eventually, Radoja receives in that space, forcing Portland’s #20, Evander, to pressure him and Evander’s cover, #21 Diego Chara to cover Evander’s pressure. Radoja then plays Rosero, who now has time and space to look forward.

Seeing the play develop, Sporting’s Thommy checks deep into the space that now splits Chara and his companion midfielder to Chara’s left.

from Apple TV

The attack that follows would have never developed without Radoja’s adjustment:

from Apple TV

Credit Level one (without whom): Radoja.

Level two (advantage exploiter(s)): Rosero for the penetrating pass. Thommy for the run and drawing the defense. Gadi Kinda for the quick ball to left winger Daniel Salloi.

This type of attack reveals what Sporting Kansas City should (and can) often be.

Related notes:  

  • The Timbers focused on making the field small (front to back of about 30 yards), yet focused their pressure at midfield, which left space behind. Sporting failed to take advantage of that space consistently until the 2nd    
  • Rosero is proving to be a good distributor of the ball, but not without a few moments of “whoops”, like at 15:32 and 19:57.

The next two examples reveal what Sporting often is.

Kansas City goalkeeper Kendall McIntosh makes a routine catch in the 15th minute and then springs Kinda up the left inner channel. Using the acres of space up the left flank, Kinda soon plays for Salloi who has advanced wide just past midfield.

from AppleTV

Salloi – who has seen Pulido for the last 35 frames of the GIF – has decisiveness salivating. An aggressive (maybe big) touch inside turns a two-on-three (or four) break into a 2 v 2 attack with the defenders running back towards their own goal and striker Alan Pulido (on the right) with forward momentum and room to exploit. Additionally, Kinda is making an overlapping run.

Salloi plays nonchalant, waiting for the ball to come to him, not even touching the ball for 32 frames. How does the play end? With Salloi eventually turning backwards to play for a wider Logan Ndenbe. Pulido and Kinda wonder why they even ran.

Primary issue:   Salloi’s lack of aggressiveness.

Secondary (like way secondary here…): Where are midfielders Radoja and Thommy and right winger Marionis Tzionis? Sporting was not getting numbers into attacking zones quickly all half. Why is this a continual issue?

Striker Pulido drops back into the middle left channel in the 20th minute as left center back Fontas receives short of midfield. Fontas plays wide for Ndenbe.

from AppleTV

IMMEDIATELY as the ball goes wide, action needs to happen. Instead of continuing his path, Thommy needs to curve to the right side of his nearest defender – preferably while alerting Pulido – to present danger #3, while Pulido then divides the two central most defenders for danger #2 and Salloi fades slightly right (to stay onside) before heading diagonally left for danger #1.

How does this play end? Ndenbe plays for Salloi who touches backwards, Pulido gets in his way, and the ball ends back with left center back Andreu Fontas. The Timbers’ defense has a vacation and is now comfortably encamped in their own end with nine behind the ball and little space behind them.

Primary issue:   Sporting is behind, at home, where they are to play attacking soccer…

Secondary:          Pulido’s tendency to come back for the ball is alternatively bad and good. Sporting cannot be as dangerous quickly in Zones 14 and 17 without their striker in forward spaces, but his movement can create spaces for others. Those spaces need to used, by others and Pulido.

Related notes:

  • Ndenbe is a good-to-adequate defender in the open field (not so much in his own box). And he is good at winning the ball and progressing it out of the back into the middle third. The final third, however, is not his forte.
  • In Ndenbe’s 62 minutes on Sunday, he provided no key passes in his 47 passes and played one long ball and six crosses, none of which found their mark according to whoscored.com.

Although Kansas City better took advantage of the space behind Portland early in the 2nd half, it wasn’t until Tim Leibold came in for Ndenbe and Roger Espinoza came on for Kinda that Sporting turned the match.

Less than four minutes later, Leibold found Zusi with a flighted switch from the left touchline 30 yards out to deep and just outside the right edge of Portland’s box. The importance of the play is in the context of it being against the low block and in the buildup. The impact point is that Zusi made the run into the right space, the high assist Zone 18. From there, playing a dangerous ball low into the box as the defense shifts is what a professional soccer player should find routine.

Credit Level one: Zusi for making the run into the right space.

Level two: Leibold for the delivery and Salloi for the run into the 6-yard box.

From there, Portland was stretching for the equalizer and Sporting’s aggression grew and its decisiveness sharpened. Rosero found Espinoza who played a great long ball for Salloi who found a running Pulido just over two minutes later. Then in injury time, Espinoza fed a smart running Felipe Hernandez (aided by a peel off run from Khiry Shelton) and Sporting had a three-goal victory.

“It only goes to show

That you will be mine, by takin’ our time.”

(“What Is and What Should Never Be” Jimmy Page and Robert Plant)

Sporting Kansas City certainly took their time in deciding to be decisive in key moments whether it was through individual effort or skill or soccer IQ. As has been the trend in too many moments this season, Sporting has been passive in decision making and late in recognizing opportunity.

Sporting Kansas City must decide if they want to wait for their possession game to perhaps wear down opponents, which means possibly flirting with disaster against more aggressive, more decisive sides or if they want to be decisive, dominant, and lethal. Their fate depends on it.

“So if you wake up with the sunrise

And all your dreams are still as new

And happiness is what you need so bad

Well, [Sporting], the answer lies with you…”

 

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