With two of its best players gone, how will Sporting Kansas City cope? Is Bobby Convey the key? Also: Why KC won't alter its formation quite yet and how the defense managed to get back on track against Chicago.
The Kansas City Star
All that and more in our first edition of Tactical Thinking this year. Let's begin this blog by starting it.
With Graham Zusi and Matt Besler away on U.S. national team duty, Peter Vermes will have to find a way to replace a legit MVP candidate and the 2012 MLS Defender of the Year for Sporting Kansas City's trip to New England this weekend.
Vermes will also be without Teal Bunbury and Jacob Peterson, who are both rehabbing from off-season surgeries. Regular right-back Chance Myers missed last week's match with a quad strain and midfielder Peterson Joseph is nursing a bum knee. (And, you know, those two guys who left to Europe in January.)
No biggie, amiright?
We knew that Kansas City's three-pronged season (MLS regular season, U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League) would be a test. But we didn't really expect it would come this early.
Last week, newcomer Mechack Jerome made his first MLS start in place of Myers. He was solid defensively and proved himself a capable player.
Who will get the chance next?
The battle to replace Besler will likely come to third-year player Lawrence Olum or former first-round pick and off-season pick-up Ike Opara. I think you have to look beyond who the best player or most experienced player and select who might fit the best.
Which is why I'd go with Opara. He offers more speed and athleticism at the position -- which is a necessity when paired with Aurelien Collin, who often drifts upfield or gets stuck in on tackles. Olum, a player who also tends to drift upfield and is a limited passer, is a better fill-in partner when Besler is back there.
As for replacing Zusi, it's a job that could be filled by shuffling Bobby Convey back into the lineup with Sapong back out on the right.
Convey has been a bit maligned this season by some. Partly because I think the people maligning him might not properly understand his function in the formation.*
*I won't dwell on the formation elephant in the room -- Mike Kuhn's "Is it time for a 4-4-2" article at Down The Byline and the many folks on Twitter -- at length because, frankly, it's just not a thing I think will happen. Vermes doesn't call his 4-3-3 his formation. He refers to it as "his system." Each position has a specific function designed to cover as much ground as possible. It's not just as a pressure system, but as a possession system.
This doesn't mean that the conversation and bringing up that idea isn't a valid discussion. Do it. By all means. I just think there's not much chance that Vermes actually makes that change. He's had Omar Bravo, Kei Kamara, Teal Bunbury, C.J. Sapong and Claudio Bieler -- all center forwards -- and has never gone with a strike partnership up top. Never.
And, don't forget, this system/formation has worked out all right. Do I need to link to the standings from last year? Or recall that, playing the exact same style in 2011, Sporting KC were among the highest-scoring teams in MLS? Or that KC is tied for second in total goals scored right now? We're not even out of March yet.
During his time with Kansas City, Convey has been employed as the "weak-side" winger -- to borrow from NFL parlance. His role isn't to cut in and attack. His job is to stay wide and occupy the team's right back. If he can cause the right back to commit to him and also put pressure up the field and crosses into the box, it creates space for his fellow attackers to operate and for the midfielders to make secondary runs into the box.*
*This doesn't mean this is his ONLY job, of course. He will occasionally cut in. He will drift a bit. The nature of positions in soccer is such that you can't/won't always play the same way.
Consider the first goal scored in Philadelphia this year, which was created because of Convey doing what his role dictates.
After Collin wins a header off an errant Union goal kick, Convey wins the ball and splits two Union players (right back Sheanon Williams and central midfielder Brian Carroll). He uses his speed and splendid touch to push the ball forward. It's a move that continues to captivate the attention of Williams/Carroll.
While this is happening, KC's attacking players start to look for space. Because Convey has done his job, that space is vast.
Feilhaber runs along side Convey angling away and toward the penalty spot -- he is completely unmarked. Bieler immediately peels toward the far post -- a move that, miraculously and fortuitously, attracts the attention of first-time defensive partners Jeff Parke and Amobi Okugo.
Bieler smartly knocks it back to the wide open Feilhaber.
And what do you think KC's "strong-side" winger opts to do as this play unfolds? I'll let you watch the video and see it for yourself.
I, wrongly, thought before the Chicago game that Kansas City could push the Fire's defense by putting in Sapong over Convey. Having now seen the game a few times and studied where things went wrong, I think KC struggled to balance the weak- and strong-side with Sapong and Zusi. (For the record, the "strong-side" this year will be the side with the winger who pushes in toward the goal most often. So, usually, Zusi.)
Sapong isn't a weak-side attacker. His skills aren't occupying a fullback, utilizing wide space and pinging in crosses. He's not going to hug the line and push that direction. If you take a look at his passing and possession from this weekend's game, his actions all tended to pull him inward.
Here's a comparison of Convey's positioning against Philly on the left and Sapong's against Chicago on the right.*
(Sorry for the poor resolution. There's compression on the image that I can't control. Check out a bigger look here.)
*If I'd have studied his heat map and chalkboard before going on this week's Kick The Ball, I might have made my argument a bit clearer when discussing how Chicago stopped Sapong. They were able to keep him and Bieler apart while corralling them both into less dangerous positions.
With all three forwards converging toward the middle and Chicago effectively keeping Sapong-Bieler apart in the process, Kansas City lost the key tactical advantage of a 4-3-3 -- attacking width. (They also weren't going to get help from Jerome.* It didn't help that Sinovic had a really bad attacking game too.)
*KC needs Chance Myers back. He is a one-man width-creating army. If he can push down the right, it creates an even greater mismatch for Sapong. Something Jerome simply doesn't offer at this stage of his career.
With Convey potentially providing the weak-side width, could we see a much more active Sapong in New England? I think so. It will grant Sapong the freedom of a "strong-sided" attacker.
If the right back is focused on Convey keeping wide. If Feilhaber is occupying the defensive midfielder. If Bieler has one of the center backs on him. If the other center back is worried about Sinovic/Nagamura/Rosell making a second run into the box.
Then that's how Sapong will find his space. The defense can't corral him if it has to worry about keeping everyone else marked. And a left back can't usually handle Sapong one-v-one.
He needs the ball at his feet. Or he needs to be the guy running onto the far post from a cross.
Which is not what happened against Chicago.
Where KC's defensive actions happen often determines how effective KC's defense is
I hate drawing conclusions from just three games -- stats typically are better tools with a larger sample size -- but here's a quick and dirty look at why Kansas City's defense has looked uneven so far this season.
In 2012, Kansas City's defense allowed the fewest goals in the league (27) mainly because they were able to keep teams from pressuring Jimmy Nielsen. (At one point during the year, Kansas City set an MLS record by not allowing a shot on goal for more than 245 minutes!)
Before the season, Nielsen told me that the defense accomplished this because the forwards and the midfielders could win the ball higher up the field. The idea: The higher up the field that KC wins the ball and gains back possession, the easier it will be for the defense to keep Nielsen's goal box clear.*
*This is a basic component of why Vermes utilizes a 4-3-3. The three forwards are able to not just press the ball centrally in the opponents' half, but across the field.
This year, Kansas City has been forced into committing major defensive actions in their own half. When you dig deeper into the statistical patterns, you might get an idea of why the games were so different.
Here are the chalkboards of KC's last three games, filtering them for all defensive actions: defender blocks, interceptions, clearances, blocked crosses and recoveries.
Do you see the trend? In the two shaky defensive games, Sporting had to orchestrate its defensive actions much deeper. The deeper the defending, the more likely KC were to allow shots and make mistakes.
Because KC was defending deeper and Philly and Toronto were pressing up the pitch, they both had more shots on target than KC.
The actions were much more spread out and higher up the pitch against Chicago. No coincidence: No back-breaking mistakes and only one shot on target for the Fire.
If Kansas City can keep the game near midfield or, even better, into their attacking half, the better possession they'll have. The more possession they have, the more comfortable and sturdy the defense is.
The trick for Vermes though is to figure out how sustain the defensive pressure from the last game and combine it with the offensive output from the first.