The Full 90

Tactical Thinking: Sporting KC's trouble at home

Updated: 2013-10-04T01:53:13Z

Charles Gooch

The Kansas City Star

Sporting Park isn't a fortress. Not anymore.

It doesn't really take an in-depth tunneling through the stats to reinforce that argument. It was obvious enough after Philadelphia's 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City this weekend. But I'll do it anyway. Because it's completely bonkers.

Kansas City. New England. Columbus. Toronto. Chivas USA. D.C. United.

Those teams should have nothing in common. One is a perennial contender. Two are bubble playoff teams. One is a traditional powerhouse currently derailed. One is a train wreck as usual. And Chivas has been a train wreck on fire all season.

But they do. Those six teams make up Major League Soccer's "Five or More Home Losses" Club.

For historical comparison: In 2012, KC lost just three times at home. In 2011, the first year in the new stadium, just two losses. The sky isn't falling yet, but it's not a great sign to have as many losses at home in 2013 as in the two previous years combined.

What separates Kansas City from those other teams above -- who are either close to or already making playoff plans? A home goal differential of +13, which was earned in part by beating four of the five teams listed above by three or more goals.*

*Kansas City have just two scheduled games at home: Oct. 18 against a D.C. United team without a single win on the road this year and Oct. 23 they'll host Olimpia in the CONCACAF Champions League.

Which only makes KC's five home losses all the more confounding.

That the five losses have come, ostensibly, to other playoff teams (Portland, Seattle, Montreal, New York and Philadelphia*) should be of little comfort. There's a strong chance they'll have to play either New York or Montreal at home if they want to make the MLS Cup after all.

*The Union have a tentative grasp on the fifth-spot in the Eastern Conference. So, technically, they qualify in that group.

In those five losses, Kansas City's oft-vaunted defense allowed an average of 2 goals per game (more than double its season average of 0.96). In the other 11 home games, Kansas City allowed just five goals total (for an impressive 0.45 goals-against average). If you throw out the Columbus game -- a 3-2 win in July -- KC have allowed three goals in 10 MLS games at home.

What's more, if you remove the five losses from the ledger, Kansas City's goal differential at home is a very impressive +18.

I'll reiterate: That's just bonkers. In 11 matches, Kansas City was one of the best teams in the league at home. Over 16 matches, they are mediocre.

So, Kansas City has been really good at home. Except when they haven't been. Does that make sense?

Let's start with the teams who picked up wins in KC.

All are above average away sides (average being 14.5 points-per game away from home) with New York, Seattle and Philadelphia all winning five times away from home. Montreal has won four. Portland haven't won a lot on the road -- just twice -- but they have 9 road draws. Points are points are points.

Of those five teams, only Portland is a Top 5 possession team for the season (though Montreal is oddly enough the fourth-best team in possession on the road) and none is a Top 5 team in shots per game.

Which tells you that those teams won't -- and didn't -- get rattled when out of possession and out-shot on the road.

Which is what tends to happen a lot when teams travel to KC. In those five games, Sporting KC dominated possession (average: 59.3%, just north of the season average of 56.4%) and shots (18.8, three more than the season average of 15.3)*

*SKC also attempted almost four more crosses per game more than normal (including three statistical outliers for this season -- 27 against Portland, 29 against New York and 35 against Philadelphia). Which is interesting. It shows a team that, when trailing or in need of a goal, relies on that route to create chances. As this small sample shows, that's not been entirely effective. (Cut to anyone with eyes who watched the Real Esteli match in the CONCACAF Champions League either nodding in agreement or shaking in disbelief.)

When at home, Kansas City tends to play narrowly with its main attacking players -- especially if Soony Saad, Graham Zusi and Kei Kamara were playing out wide and drifting inside -- to allow space out wide for the fullbacks. The midfield trio tends to stay very narrow in the middle and the central defenders push closer to midfield to cover. The result is that Kansas City keeps the ball in its opponent's half 30% of the game -- only Los Angeles has a higher rate at home, 32%.

Regardless of home or away, Kansas City has no particular bias to the left, right or middle of the field to attack.*

*The only true statistical difference in home/away styles? KC attempts 72 long balls per game on the road to only 66 at home.

When it works -- as it has 8 times at home and in most road games (Sporting KC is the only MLS team with a winning road record this season) -- there's no problem.

But when it doesn't work, that set-up leads to an often very crowded attacking half and wide-open spaces in the back.* A quick team or a smart team can exploit that space if they can force a quick turnover.

*This is compounded when Collin or Uri Rosell drift too far upfield. Both are, statistically, Kansas City's best two players when it comes to ball recoveries and interceptions. If they aren't involved in helping break up the counter attack, Kansas City is already off on the wrong foot.

Here's Portland using pure unadulterated team speed to carve KC's defense open.

On this play, Collin gets caught up field and loses a duel. While Kansas City had numbers back, they weren't in position to stop a very clever passer from playing through them. Which is exactly what midfielder Diego Valeri did.

Collin and Chance Myers got caught in a foot race with Ryan Johnson and Seth Sinovic -- thanks to Matt Besler rushing up to close down Valeri -- was left to track the much quicker Darlington Nagbe by himself.

New York took a different approach two months later exploiting the gaps left by the advancing fullbacks to trigger its breaks.

That was just a beautiful throw by New York goalkeeper Luis Robles to find that soft spot behind Myers. The outlet pass forced the last-man back, Sinovic, to commit to Johnny Steele and left Lloyd Sam alone on the right.

This isn't just a problem at home. The Los Angeles Galaxy turned KC's midfield and defense into Swiss cheese early this Spring using these same two principles: Speed and intelligence.

Those three goals weren't the result of teams parking the bus against Kansas City (like Real Esteli) and hoping to get a chance. Those were three teams who actively tried to engage Kansas City's aggressiveness, force a turnover and then exploit the open space.

You would think that Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes would alter the plan to deal with these teams and situations. But he doesn't. Because, for the most part, Sporting KC don't really alter the playing style from game to game or team to team. At least, not very much. With the exception of a few more crosses here or a few more long balls there, the stat line for a Kansas City loss looks a lot like a Kansas City win.

Game A: 24 shots, 67% possession, 600 passes, 87% passing accuracy, 24 crosses, 63 long balls
Game B: 27 shots, 65% possession, 523 passes, 82% passing accuracy, 29 crosses, 75 long balls

Game A was a 3-0 drubbing of Toronto FC. Game B was the 3-2 loss to New York. Both at home.

Is Kansas City's system broken? No. This is a natural problem that possession-based teams must overcome. (Go look up the goals against Manchester United and Manchester City last weekend if you think it's only a KC problem.)

And, to be fair to Vermes, the system works. Well, for the most part it does.

The difference, really, between the losses and wins for Kansas City at home has come down to too many mistakes and poor finishing.

In those five losses, Kansas City made a number of ill-timed mistakes (ball-watching against New York, lost duels against Portland and some whiffed clearances against Montreal, Seattle and Philadelphia) and were abysmal finishers (63 off-target shots -- not all by Kei Kamara).

If Sporting KC has hopes for a long playoff run and want to continue to play this style, they'll need do better with both or this problem will surface again in October or November when Kansas City can least afford it.

A good test will be this Saturday against Columbus, a struggling team packed with speed and savvy veterans that came very close to giving Kansas City a home loss earlier this summer. The MLS player of the month for September, Dominic Oduro -- a one-man counter-attack -- has already given KC's back-line fits this year.

At least the game is Columbus this time.

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