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Sporting Kansas City in need of a new plan of attack

Charles Gooch
The Kansas City Star

So, all of a sudden, it seems as if Sporting Kansas City can't score. But is it really all of the sudden?

Last season, KC averaged 1.47 goals per game (second-best in the league with 50 total). So far this season, KC are off that pace scoring 1.33 goals per game (and seventh-best in the league with 12 total).

Of those 12 goals, half came from two games -- 3-0 vs. New England and 3-1 vs. Vancouver. What’s more, Kansas City only has one more multi-goal game -- 2-1 vs. Dallas.

I hate criticizing a first-place team. I feel like a spoiled blogger searching for faults. But, two games with no goals is a slump. Despite KC's lofty record (still tops in the East!), Sporting have in fact struggled scoring goals for much of this season.

Here's how Sporting have scored this year:

Plan A) Create turnovers in the opponents' zone and use overwhelming athleticism and speed to turn those into a bucket-load of shots that, in turn, lead to scoring chances.

OR...

Plan B) Hope Graham Zusi/Bobby Convey/Matt Besler can bounce a ball off the head of Aurelien Collin/C.J. Sapong from dead-ball chances.

OR…

Plan C) There isn't a plan C.

Which (over simplification alert!) is kind of a big problem. A team -- even one as successful as KC have been this year -- can't rely on the kindness (and mediocrity) of its opponents (via turnovers and fouls in advantageous positions) and hope to achieve much in the long run.

The only teams to completely solve Kansas City so far this year were Montreal and Portland. How? Those teams have combined to allow 28 goals this year!

Well, they followed the script written by the Houston Dynamo last year: Pressure Graham Zusi when he's in possession (he will make the occasional mistake), harass Julio Cesar all the time (he doesn't like being rushed), keep C.J. Sapong out of dangerous positions (check out all 14 of his attacking-zone touches against Montreal -- he rarely touched the ball in the danger zone), don't turn the ball over (especially goalkeepers) and let Sporting swing aimless crosses all day long (17 unsuccessful crosses against Montreal… 17!).*

*KC had 20 unsuccessful crosses against Houston and got ineffective performances from Sapong/Teal Bunbury. It's getting a little too familiar, isn't it?

There will be others to solve KC if things don't change and plans don't adapt.

Peter Vermes' game plan is fairly similar for every game (over simplification alert!*) when KC is in possession: Push the ball wide using advanced fullbacks, create gaps in the defense and then attack those gaps.

*That's not true, it's only seemed like it for most of the last two games.

When Kansas City is playing well (like against Los Angeles, New England and the second half against Dallas), they circulate the ball around the opponent's backline, probing for an opening. Pulling the defense apart and then going over (with diagonal balls) or through (with smart runs).

This is a pretty great example of this width-creates-space-creates-goals approach from the New England game.

On that play, KC starts wide right with Zusi (and he's got Chance Myers and Kei Kamara ready to "create shapes" as Callum Williams is fond of saying a lot this year) before the ball makes it's way across the formation to Bobby Convey.

Convey then teams up with Roger Espinoza, Julio Cesar and Zusi (who makes a 50-yard run across the field) to free up Seth Sinovic to run through the gap created by Convey dragging the Revs' right back out. Sapong's put-away is merely academic at that point.

The trouble is, how do you pull apart a defense that's already playing wide? And how do you open up gaps against a team that's well drilled and mindful of gap control?

Portland and Montreal minded its defensive gaps about as well as possible.

I'd post a video of that here, but MLSsoccer.com isn't in the habit of posting videos of a team not succeeding at something. (What a weird way to run a league-run website!)

Far too often in both games Convey, Myers, Zusi or Kamara found themselves one-on-one against a fullback with no gaps to exploit. With Sapong (and later Bunbury) so far back on the pitch (or, in the Montreal game, in Nelson Rivas' back pocket), there were no runs to stretch the defense vertically.

Each followed the blueprint Houston laid out. Each offered a slight twist:

Portland pushed leftback Mike Chabala up field and forced Myers to play defense instead of bomb forward. This kept Myers honest on defense and put a lot of pressure on Aurelien Collin on defense.

Montreal combated Matt Besler's long throws by having an Impact player stand on the touchline -- often so close that Besler should've considered giving them all breath mints -- to interfere with his line of sight.

Expect some of KC's next opponents to have noticed how well Houston's plans work and the tweaks Portland and Montreal added.

It's time for Kansas City to do the same.

A simple solution was evident in Vermes' post-game quotes: "The offense did not look crisp. We were not there. We were not sharp enough. The corners were maybe 15-1. We were on them, but I think we were too slow, we did not circulate the ball."

KC do need to circulate the ball and speed up more to unhinge the defense. And that's all well and good, but it's still part of the same plan. If defenders don't get sucked into jumping out of position and getting bent out of shape, circulating the ball just means moving it around the 18-yard-box. Possession signifying nothing.

What KC needs is a Plan C. Another option.*

*A meager suggestion from this blogger would be to get either Espinoza or Kamara to take the ball on his feet and run right at the defense. Instead of pulling the defense apart every time, why not try to pin them back? This is the first time I've said this since December: KC misses this aspect of Omar Bravo's game.

And, unless KC figures out another way to score goals, this mini-slump might turn into a full-on funk all of the sudden.

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