The Full 90

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Full 90 Mailbag: What is Sporting KC’s stretch-run starting lineup?

08/06/2014 12:55 AM

08/06/2014 10:24 AM

The All-Star break in Major League Soccer isn’t so much a break as a slight pause. However, that pause is just long enough to reflect on Sporting KC leading the Supporters’ Shield race, look ahead to some pressing stretch-run dilemmas and answer some really excellent questions from Twitter.

Let’s mailbag.

This is a great question, but it’s hard to answer without asking more questions that can’t really be answered until I start answering the first question.

I’m pretty sure of six definite starters: Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin, Seth Sinovic, Benny Feilhaber, Graham Zusi and Dom Dwyer. I think Paulo Nagamura and Jorge Claros will eventually fill out the midfield when healthy and fit.

The last three spots, I think, could be open for interpretation/competition.

Is Igor Juliao the guy at right back? I think Peter Vermes will ride with Juliao unless he absolutely can’t be trusted (we aren’t there yet). Jacob Peterson has been a really interesting make-shift fullback this year, and could be counted on in big road games (such New England & New York on Sept. 3rd and 6th respectively).

Who is the goalkeeper? I think it’s a real conversation now and not just an excuse to bash Eric Kronberg. Andy Gruenebaum has been very solid with often a make-shift group in front of him. He commands the box well and has shown to be a fine shot-stopper when called upon. I think Kronberg has the advantage in distribution and athleticism, but Gruenebaum is doing what a back-up goalie should do: Make life hard on the coach.

Who is the third forward? Over the last seven matches, Vermes has used seven different combinations up top. The only constant, of course, is Dwyer. So far, it seems like Vermes is rotating to find the right tactical match up. For instance: C.J. Sapong to help Dwyer against bigger physical defenses (such as Toronto) and Antonio Dovale/Soony Saad to help Zusi unlock bunkered defenses (even though it didn’t work so well for Toni/Zusi against Philadelphia).

So, now that I’ve drug my feet a bit, here’s my best-guess at the stretch-run XI: Kronberg; Igor, Collin, Besler, Sinovic; Claros, Nagamura, Feilhaber; Sapong, Dwyer, Zusi.

That’s a (mostly) battle-tested group with a lot of versatility. It’s a strong spine with solid width. I think the third forward is the most interesting race to watch, as I believe Saad is the best overall option — but he needs to be consistent.

Ok, I liked the first question… I love this question.

Yedlin has the narrative advantage based on his World Cup showing, a slight edge in age (21 to 19) and a much higher profile.

So, he’s going into this with a lot of advantages. Let’s go to the blind WhoScored.com stat challenge to see how they stack up. (Note: All stats are per game averages. )

Player A: 13 MLS games, 40.3 passes, 79.2% passing success, 0.3 accurate crosses, 0.6 key passes, 2.2 interceptions, 1.2 turnovers, 6.87 average rating

Player B: 14 MLS games, 41.9 passes, 81.9% success, 1.0 accurate crosses, 1.1 key passes, 2.5 interceptions, 1.1 turnovers, 7.05 average rating

That’s a pretty close race there that’s narrowly won by Player B on account of more accurate crosses and key passes. (Those are good indicators of solid offensive play.)

Player A is KC’s Juliao. Player B is Yedlin. So, based on the numbers, the premise of the question isn’t quite accurate — Yedlin is the more dangerous offensive player (based on the stats). But I see where you are coming from. The two players are nearly equal, but Juliao gets a fraction of the attention.

There’s another thing both have in common: They’ve still got a lot to learn about one-v-one defending and tracking runners. Like a lot and a whole lot.

The traditional answer to this question is that too many teams come into Sporting Park to bunker and play on the counter. Which is true.

Here’s the possession disparity (percentage between KC’s possession and opponents) over the last five games at Sporting Park: +40%, -8%, +32%, +8% and +36%. Kansas City was 1-0-4 in those games.

The problem with the “traditional answer” is that it’s not a solution.

Bunkering has been a constant thorn in Sporting’s side stretching back as far as 2011, with Kansas City’s attack often struggling to break down a team committed to protecting the box. They have been able to break through and get a goal in most games, but the added concern this year has been how open the game has become once Kansas City gets a lead at home. (Kansas City has conceded at least one goal after taking an early lead in each of its last five home games.)

As Kansas City starts to put more and more pressure on, they expose the defense to a quick break. And, teams that can counter and counter quickly are exposing the high-press (and the space it leaves) and creating offense. Which leads us to...

The loss of Oriol Rosell is probably the easy answer. He had a nose for danger and the positional sense to get in position to actually do something about it. His ability to read the game (quickly) allowed the defenders behind him and midfielders in front of him to gamble on passing lanes and take bigger chances.

Lawrence Olum is a fine defensive midfielder and good tackler, but when a midfielder in front of him or a defender behind takes a risk, he doesn’t have that preternatural fire-fighter mentality to hose down the danger immediately before it spreads.

It’s a big loss.

The more nuanced answer, though, is a lack of ontinuity. Olum has played behind a rotating cast of box-to-box midfielders (all with different approaches to the game) and central defenders (with different strengths and weaknesses) and tasked with the difficult job of holding both lines together. Can he snuff out danger if he can get consistent minutes with the same midfield and defenders? It would be interesting to see.

Sooner or later, Claros is going to get a shot in the starting lineup. Perhaps a solution to strengthen the middle and get some continuity would be Claros and Olum starting next to Feilhaber.

It didn’t seem to be a massive obstacle last year, Kansas City was pretty terrible at home but managed to put things together for an MLS Cup run.

Since this team hasn’t played anywhere near its peak yet (see previous few answers), it’s a little too early to worry. If this is still a situation in September and Vermes hasn’t figured out a regular solution to win home games, it’s worth a deeper discussion.

Since I’m answering this question after the Homegrown game (Jon Kempin was the MVP and Erik Palmer-Brown, fingers crossed, didn’t appear to get hurt), I’ll only answer for the four playing against Bayern Munich. I’ll take the over based on recent history (Collin getting his face broken, Zusi pulling a muscle) and the fact that the four guys KC sent to Portland (Collin, Zusi, Besler, Dwyer) really don’t know how to ratchet down their intensity levels.

I’m not usually a fatalist when it comes to events like the All-Star Game or international friendlies (though I understand why certain people are), but without a bigger cushion of days off around the games and the status attached (even artificially), the chances of someone tweaking a muscle (or something similar) are greatly increased.

I’m tempted to either A) waffle and give a wishy-washy “it’s too early to tell” answer or B) go for the homer pick and say Sporting KC — but I’m not doing either. I’m picking Los Angeles.

While the Galaxy are six points back of KC in the race, they have three games in hand on KC (and either 1 or 2 in hand on most of the rest of the league). Bruce Arena has a ton of talent and has been rebuilding this team around Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan on the fly. They likely have one more move to make (the current hot tip: Sacha Kljestan).

The schedule isn’t the easiest (a home-and-home with Seattle to close the season), but this is a team that’s been there and done that — and just thrashed Seattle (in Seattle) and Portland (at home) in successive games.

As for the Eastern Conference playoff teams, I’d go Kansas City, Toronto, New York, D.C. United and Philadelphia for the playoffs, in that order.

I think the window for Bieler leaving is slowly closing — technically, if he’s leaving MLS, he has until the end of August. If he should leave this season, I don’t think KC goes too hard after another designated player. While the ownership group could definitely afford to have three DPs (especially at these prices), it’s probably going to be more about fit and not rushing into something.*

*And potentially saving that extra slot for the next player they need to retain, like Collin or Feilhaber.

****

As usual, another excellent collection of questions. Thanks for sending them in.

To reach Charles Gooch, send email to cgooch@kcstar.com. On Twitter @TheFull90.

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