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MLS Playoff Focus: Notes on Sporting Kansas City ahead of tonight’s visit from New England

Nov 6, 2013, 3:35 PM EST

Sporting Kansas City v Montreal Impact Getty Images
  • League’s best defense needs to play like league’s best defense.

Kansas City gave up less than a goal-per-game this year (0.88 goals/game) and didn’t concede in 180 regular season minutes against New England, but in a 13-minute span of Saturday’s second half, Sporting conceded twice. The outburst ended a near-three month span where Kansas City had failed to concede multiple goals (last doing so on Aug. 3, vs. New York).

The first goal? Perhaps the team could have done something to stop it, but there was a degree of chaos and controversy to Andy Dorman’s opener that makes it hard to blame the defense. The second, however, came when Kansas City needed their defense to step up most, and after their midfield turned the ball over near the center line, nobody kicked up Kelyn Rowe until it was too late. The second-year pro lingered on the right while the Revolution moved toward Kansas City’s penalty area. Just when it seemed that Seth Sinovic was in position, Rowe created enough room to poke Lee Nguyen’s pass beyond Jimmy Nielsen.

Part of that is Kansas City’s want to release their fullbacks early, but it was also an issue with execution. Nobody stopped Juan Agudelo from pushing forward after the turnover. Nobody stepped to Lee Nguyen as the creator tried to find the right ball. A team with two defensive midfielders and two all-league caliber defenders may as well have been D.C. United.

Matt Besler seemed conscious of the problem in a mid-week radio interview, knowing the next mistake may be their season’s last.

“We cannot give up a goal on the counterattack because it puts us in the same position as last year, needing two just to tie,” Besler told Kansas City’s SportsRadio 810. “A lot of focus is going to be not allowing the counterattack goal, and if a couple of us focus on that and do our job, I’m confident in the rest of the guys that they’re going to be able to get a ton of chances and get goals.”

  • Using that midfield shield.

The postseason’s best example of the virtues of two defensive midfielders came in Los Angeles, where Jason Kreis’s use of Yordany Alvarez next to Kyle Beckerman kept the Galaxy counter at arm’s length for the first 60 minutes. In theory, if Kansas City’s guarding against counter attacks, their formation offers the same virtues, with Oriol Rosell and Lawrence Olum’s replacement (potentially Paolo Nagamura) sitting in front of the defense.1 But on Rowe’s Saturday goal, Olum allowed himself to be drawn toward Rosell, abandoning the space in front of Aurelien Collin, giving Lee Nguyen a place from which to create the goal.

So it’s not foolproof, but if Rosell and Nagamura do their jobs, fears of Nguyen and Rowe doing damage in transition should be mitigated, allowing Besler and Collin to track Agudelo while play’s slowed higher up the pitch. How they slow play, well, we’ll talk about that below, but if the defensive midfielders do their job, counters need not be as dangerous as Rowe’s was on Saturday.

Then again, if we see the return of Benny Feilhaber (and Kansas City doesn’t use two defensive midfielders), Besler’s right to be concerned about the counter.

  • It’s all about chances. It’s all about goals.

Sporting need two to avoid penalty kicks (one to tie), eminently possible but made more difficult by a New England team that’s capable of holding out. The Revolution kept 14 clean sheets this season and  notably went into shut down mode in the season finale at Columbus, scoring first then playing prevent to keep a clean sheet in Ohio.

That’s one concern for Kansas City. Others: Their goal scorers. Where they have depth (Teal Bunbury, C.J. Sapong, Dom Dwyer, … Claudio Bieler?) they lack the kind of quality you envision winning a one-on-one battles with Jose Goncalves. No, that’s not the only way to score goals, but it does illustrate Sporting’s problem. Graham Zusi can create as many chances as he wants in front of the line (and tonight, expect New England to be better about containing that), but unless somebody steps up to finish, it’s all for naught. Sporting’s left relying on penalty area chaos that finds the likes of Collin.

This isn’t the type of game Kansas City likes to play, but champions have to succeed outside their comfort zone. Sporting need to implement a plan that creates better chances. Instead of protecting a lead, they have to be able to hunt one, because tonight at Sporting Park, they may get a taste of their own medicine.

  • This is where style could hurt.

Beyond a want to sit on leads, one of Sporting’s distinct characteristics is their, umm, “strategic physicality”. Another way to read that: Fouls. They pulled away from the pack as the league’s most foul prone team, and while that tendency wasn’t in full effect on Saturday, the game did feature seven cards.

Here’s a problem for KC: What if the whistles aren’t going their way? What if the cards start flying early, Rosell, Nagamura,and Collin can’t take their usual liberties, and they’re left trying to keep New England on two without the ability to play to their strengths? All of a sudden, the likes to Agudelo, Rowe, and Nguyen are going to seem particularly quick.

Or, what happens if they keep picking up yellow cards? Those inevitable accumulation suspensions aren’t going to hurt them in the next round?

While we’re throwing out theories as to why Kansas City’s can’t translate regular season success into postseason glory, this is part of the picture. Maybe it’s not about total whistles and cards, but maybe it’s about a physical approach that’s much better suited to playing from ahead. And in the postseason, against better teams, you’re just more likely to fall behind.

  • Obligatory note about history.

About those postseason problems:

  • In 2010, Sporting finished first in the regular season, got by Colorado in the conference semifinals but lost at home to Houston in the East’s title game.
  • In 2011, Sporting finished first in the East and lost in the conference semifinals to Houston.
  • In 2012, they return home down 2-1 after leg one in New England.

It’s time to reverse the trend.

1 – Thanks to a reader’s comment, below, we were reminded (a.) we went too fast, and (b.) didn’t note Lawrence Olum’s injury. The man’s done for the season. Thanks to dreadpirate82 to picking up a mistake we should have caught before posting the story.

  1. dreadpirate82 - Nov 6, 2013 at 5:00 PM

    Olum broke his leg in stoppage time the other night, so he won’t be available. Peterson Joseph is also unavailable, so SKC’s midfield options are pretty thin at the moment. Will be interesting to see how Vermes picks the lineup.

    • Richard Farley - Nov 6, 2013 at 5:03 PM

      Thanks, Dread!

    • Richard Farley - Nov 6, 2013 at 5:12 PM

      Thanks again, Dread. It sucks to miss that, but I’m always really happy when people point that stuff out. That mistake was just a function of going too fast and relying on notes that were sketched out before following up on the details. Thank you, so much.

      • dreadpirate82 - Nov 6, 2013 at 5:33 PM

        Happy to help. Tough to see how he broke it when you see the replay (http://www.downthebyline.com/2013/11/olum-done-for-year.html), but Barrett got a yellow for the challenge. Tough luck for Olum, who had been playing well late in the season. With Nagamura just returning to health, Bieler’s health still iffy, and Peterson Joseph also out, the lineup choices are up in the air. Feilhaber hasn’t played much either.

        My unusual suggestion would be to start Opara in the Olum role, allowing Rosell and Zusi or another midfielder to play higher pressure. It would also give the fullbacks free reign to maraud forward more. Opara’s ball skills wouldn’t be a huge drop from Olum, and he would be a major weapon on set pieces. Having a triangle of Besler/Collin/Opara would be an effective way to prevent the counter, which is a huge threat tonight. Probably not the time to experiment so much with a lineup, but I don’t think Vermes wants to play Feilhaber and Zusi together in the midfield. I have a feeling Zusi will man one of the wings, with Feilhaber and Nagamura playing alongside Rosell in midfield.

      • Richard Farley - Nov 6, 2013 at 5:36 PM

        I was thinking that too, re: Opara. At this point, it’d be worth Vermes’ consideration, because I really doubt he’s happy to have Feilhaber back in there for 90 minutes. You’d think Nagamura has to be the choice, but fitness fitness fitness.

  2. bryaneverson - Nov 6, 2013 at 7:12 PM

    Richard, who foots the blame bill for the matches tonight being absent from national TV?

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