When Sporting Kansas City won the MLS Cup last year, it culminated a franchise turnaround that began in earnest three years earlier. After the 2010 season, the Wizards exchanged their name and minor-league ballpark for a brand and stadium that more befitted modern MLS. They began to sell out Sporting Park (regularly, for the first time in franchise history), and on the field they leapt to the top of the Eastern conference. Last year’s title, celebrated in their fancy new stadium put a neat bow on the revival story.
More practically, though, a name and a stadium can’t win trophies. The MLS Cup was lifted on the shoulders of the league’s best defense. In 2013, as in 2012, Sporting allowed the fewest goals in MLS. The center back partnership of Aurelien Collin and Kansas-bred Matt Besler deserve credit for that, but defense starts at the top in KC. Former Wizards player Peter Vermes has instituted a high-pressure system that seeks to snuff out attacks long before they get to the back line. They starve teams of possession and force their opponents to make mistakes. It’s a very attacking way to play defense.
But perhaps cracks are starting to appear. SKC enters tonight’s game against Chivas USA riding a four-game losing streak, their longest since before Sporting Park opened. They’ve allowed 11 goals in that span, almost a third of their season’s total. What’s going wrong in Kansas City?
The press is not a foolproof strategy. It requires large amounts of physical stamina, but it can be beaten before it tires. Because it puts large numbers upfield, even in defense, teams that are able to break through an initial (or badly performed) pressure can attack the back line with a numerical or tactical advantage.
A good press, if it can’t win the ball back, slows down the opposing attack so defenders can get back into position. SKC leads MLS in fouls…by design. Above, Lawrence Olum does a good job of delaying Lloyd Sam, but he still allows the key pass, which provides Thierry Henry with the ball in a 3-on-3 situation. That’s less than ideal.
After controlling most of the first 20 minutes against DC United, SKC slipped up. With a few passes, DC was able to cut seven Sporting players out of the play, creating a 3-on-3 situation. Crucially, it also puts Fabian Espindola out wide against Collin. This would prove problematic.
It’s easy to say, after a goal is scored, that something went wrong. But little good can come from isolating Collin, who is not a right back, in that position against a player of Espindola’s level. Juliao, who is a right back, recovered to provide Collin with back up closer to the touch line, but was ill-prepared for Espindola cutting to his right. Few players could score from that angle, but many could’ve fired in a dangerous cross.
The finish was different, but the set-up is largely the same. The press is beaten with a ball in behind 20-year-old right back Juliao (playing for the injured Chance Myers), and suddenly no one knows where they’re supposed to be. Only Ricardo Lopez seemed to notice Lee Nguyen before it was too late.
By now, you get the picture, even if Juliao does not. Opponents are finding it far too easy to break through the SKC pressure. That puts an impetus on the back four to stand tall. But too often, Juliao is wayward, and that has accordion effect. Collin is stretched out wide to cover for him, and Besler is left on his own in the middle. Against New York, Besler had a very rough night.
It was not Besler’s fault that he was one-on-one with Bradley Wright-Phillips, but he should’ve gotten a red card in the 9th minute all the same. That’s denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. Hilario Grajeda awarded a penalty, but didn’t give Besler a card at all.
Sporting Kansas City began this year by more or less picking up where they left off. It’s easy to look at the above and blame their Brazilian right back, but they survived and even thrived for weeks Juliao in the lineup. Just four games ago, they were tops in the Eastern Conference, having allowed just 23 points from 24 games. They don’t need to seriously worry about missing the playoffs in the largely mediocre East, but it would behoove them to fix their problems before the playoffs. A game against Chivas USA, who haven’t scored since July, might be a good place to start.