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XI Questions: Sporting leave it late once more

Charles Gooch
The Kansas City Star

For what feels like the 100th time this season, the outcome of a Sporting Kansas City match was left undecided until the very, very, very last minutes of the game. Thanks to an Omar Bravo penalty, a back-and-forth affair between KC and the table-topping Los Angeles Galaxy ended in a 2-2 draw. Which, all things considered, is a fairly positive result.

But it leaves some questions, of course.

Why does KC leave it so late? Are Sporting's tactics off? Why is the grass so bad? Has Peter Vermes gone too far in trashing MLS referees? And what's the meaning of life?

I've got XI questions, that last one ain't one of ‘em though. Sorry, we won't be seeking metaphysical answers here quite yet.

1. Did Peter Vermes really play the "us against the world" card?
Um, yep. Sure did.

His post-match comments: "We know one thing. It's us against everybody because nothing's going to go our way and we realize that and that's why everybody keeps fighting back. They've got unbelievable determination to get back in the game and they're not going to die and that is a quality that needs to be commended because game after game we fight for everything. To have a goal like that taken away from you; that is unacceptable."

I'll set the over/under for his fine at $500. It's a pattern he's fallen into and I don't think MLS will let it go.

2. Is there a problem with his constant complaining about the refs?
I think it kind of ruins his point -- which is that referees in MLS control far too much of the outcome. (It's either that or he's trying to cover for player's poor play like Sir Alex Ferguson does.) It also seems like a recurring excuse.

Anyone with two eyes (and probably those with just one) can see that the standard of referees in this league isn't the same as it is in other countries. Constantly complaining about it is just going to wind up draining his bank account three digits at a time. Leave the moaning for the fans.

3. Is there something wrong tactically with Sporting Kansas City?
At MLSsoccer.com this week Steve Davis argued that Kansas City's positional fluidity -- or as he calls it, a lack of tactics -- makes the team far too vulnerable on defense. Essentially, his argument is that KC strives for "dynamic" play over "organized" play -- i.e. guys like Omar Bravo, Jeferson, Roger Espinoza and Graham Zusi can move around the field to find the ball and make the attack more unpredictable.

While that might be a theory worth discussing, his point seems to be that this fluidity is what's behind KC's mediocre record and league standing.

While I think he has a point -- KC have been too fluid and have really put a lot of strain on the defense, which I'll explain in a bit -- he's neglecting a few important factors. For starters, the 10-game road trip, which was almost designed for mediocrity. He's also not taking into consideration the propensity for the team to finish games with less than 11 men. Those are way more important factors.

My biggest issue, however, is in neglecting to explore the very long stretch of this summer when KC actually had a rigidly defined shape in midfield and was not allowing buckets of goals -- you know, when Davy Arnaud was healthy and an actual defensive midfielder (normally Julio Cesar) was in use.

While you can decide this team is mediocre based on its overall record, this is a team that has lost just twice in its last 19 games. Please re-read that last sentence aloud to yourself for added effect. Two of those losses came in the 90th minute against Seattle and Dallas -- two teams, by the way, who are higher on the table than KC. Also, KC had just 10 men on the field in both instances.

4. But … there is something a little off with the midfield, isn't there?
Yes, sorry. I really didn't answer that question as much as point out missing factors in someone else's column.

Is there something off? Yes. Consistency. Over the last 12 games, Kansas City have used 8 different trios in midfield because of injuries and suspensions.

When Arnaud went down Vermes was forced to improvise. In the immediate aftermath, the solution was simple: Espinoza and Zusi exchanged the roles of box-to-box and ball-winning midfielder with Julio Cesar mopping up behind them (and serving as somewhat of a deep-lying playmaker). Not long after, KC mixed in new designated player Jeferson as an advanced playmaker, with Espinoza as box-to-box and Zusi deployed elsewhere.

But the big change to the midfield took place when Aurelien Collin -- and then Jeferson -- went down. After that, Vermes had to drastically alter things. Cesar dropped back to defense, leaving the team without a true defensive midfielder in most games (Birahim Diop did start there, but I'm not convinced he's being told to play defensively), opting for a combination of Espinoza-Zusi-Bravo/Jeferson. Espinoza is the closest thing to a defensive midfielder of that group. Which is kind of like having an abacus to replace an iPad.

Has it hurt Kansas City not to have a rigidly-defined defensive midfielder? Not as much as you'd think.

Before Collin's injury, Sporting were 2-0-4 with 10 goals scored and 7 allowed. Since Collin went out and KC went without a rigidly-defined defensive midfielder, Sporting went 3-2-1 with 11 goals scored and 8 goals allowed. (I'm counting the Los Angeles game in that last group, as Collin's return didn't thrust Cesar back into the midfield.)

So, the goals scored/allowed are mostly negligible and the only real difference is really the two losses. Which seems important, but here's the most important caveat -- both losses came late in the 89th minute or later when Sporting KC only had 10 men on the field and the formation was almost unimportant.

Of course, Collin is suspended for the Houston game due to yellow-card accumulation and Sporting will have one more week with a fluid trio. Though I expect Arnaud might return to the starting XI.

5. Why does KC leave it so late?
It boils down to the attacking mentality of this team. And I don't mean just attacking the goal. This team attacks the ball in both halves, pressing passing lanes and players with the ball. When you're ahead, this sort of mentality can lead to dumb mistakes (see also, Brek Shea). When you're behind, this sort of mentality can lead to lucky breaks (see also, Omar Bravo's penalty kick).

It's weird how scoring late goals and allowing late goals draws from the same well. On the season, Sporting have allowed 11 goals after the 76th minute while scoring 5.

6. How badly did Sporting KC miss Kei Kamara?
Against organized defenses -- like Davis' poster-boys in Los Angeles -- you need a guy who will stick his nose into the thick of things, poke around the edges of the box with the ball at his feet and fit himself into dangerous spots in the box.

Kansas City didn't have that; Kamara would've provided that. And, try as Chance Myers might, he wasn't gonna fit that role.

(For the record, the team's increase in possession and dangerous plays came when Myers shifted back to fullback and KC had proper width again. Who replaced him up top? Why, the consummate worker, Davy Arnaud. Coincidence? Nope.)

7. Was Julio Cesar's strike "technically perfect"?
It was quite nice, I'll give him that. Not sure I'd go with "perfect" like he did.

8. Sporting lost its precious game-in-hand didn't it?
It certainly did. Only Toronto (28) has played more games than Sporting in the Eastern Conference now.

9. What's Kansas City gotta do to cement a playoff spot?
Three of the next four games are against main playoff rivals: Houston, Philadelphia and Columbus. All are at home. All should be considered "must wins" or, at the very least "must gain points."

10. Are you sure that Aurelien Collin was offside on that goal?
Yes. I'm still sure it was technically correct to disallow the goal. However, I'll not stop anyone from wondering why the "tie doesn't go to the runner" so to speak. Seems like FIFA should reward and not punish offense.

11. What in the world is going on with the pitch?
For the third consecutive game, Sporting Kansas City's near-perfect stadium was tripped up by the numerous gopher holes that cropped up every time a player slid or swung through a powerful cross.

The grass is taking a lot of potshots -- from the viewing public in attendance and TV, and from the opposing players.

While the digs on Twitter and opponents are an annoyance (and possibly a little embarrassing), the condition of the grass is the tragic result of a cluttered and back-loaded calendar.

Since June 9th -- 90 days ago -- Livestrong Sporting Park has hosted 18 soccer games and two major concerts. That translates to a major event every 4.5 days. That's not to mention the near 4-week stretch where Kansas City was auditioning for a guest-role as the third-ring of Hades.

How do you think your grass would look if you let Willie Nelson, fans of Incubus and a pack of 23 adult men come over int heat of summer to run and jump around in your backyard every four days this summer? Not so good. You'd probably want to take a match to it and be done with the frustration.

Sporting owner Robb Heineman tweeted after the game that the field has no roots and "will be better in September."

This field certainly needs a bye week -- or two. Unfortunately, it doesn't get one. Starting with the Houston Dynamo game this Saturday, LSP will host 4 more games in 18 days before the field gets a week off. On October 1.

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