Let’s get two facts out of the way first. Sporting KC is one of the best team’s in MLS (only Seattle has more points) and has one of the league’s best overall defenses (only Los Angeles has allowed fewer goals this season).
However, over the last few weeks, Kansas City’s defense has been … off.
Such is the state of Sporting Kansas City — a two-game winless streak on the heels of an eight-game unbeaten streak and allowing eight goals in seven games becomes the subject of a discussion about what’s wrong.
Before we get into the details, let’s just jump into the preview.
Kansas City hosts Toronto FC at Sporting Park at 7:30 p.m. The broadcast will be live on KMCI-TV 38 and SKCTV stations throughout the Midwest.
Kansas City is 11-6-6 with 39 points, good for first place in the East. KC is also 4-1-6 at home, including a 2-2 draw with Toronto in May.
Toronto is 9-7-5 with 32 points, third place in the East. On the road this year, TFC is 4-3-4.
Tactical Observation: Something is wrong with KC’s defense
Since Oriol Rosell left in May, something hasn’t been right with KC’s defense.
Gaps have been exposed as teams with speed and above-average midfielders carve up Sporting KC’s disorganized (by Peter Vermes’ standards) high defensive line. The league’s best defense over the last two seasons has suddenly become inconsistent.
But why? It would be too simple to lay this all at the feet of the loss of Rosell. It has more to do with missing pieces. Though Uri was a massive loss, since he deparated Kansas City has used 14 different players in the six main defensive positions of goalkeeper, fullback, defender and defensive midfielder.
That’s a much bigger reason for the inconsistency.
This is a team that, quite literally, presses and defends together. If you take out one piece — let alone three or four — the cohesion and awareness starts to fall off. Then, gaps appear.
Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin, Chance Myers, Seth Sinovic and Paulo Nagamura — all starters during the MLS Cup — have missed time over the last 13 games. Two teenagers have been called upon to start. Two starting goalkeepers have gone down to injury. Four different players (Benny Feilhaber, Lawrence Olum, Nagamura and now Jorge Claros) have rotated into the defensive midfielder position. To top it all off, Igor Juliao is still learning how to play defense — which hasn’t really helped with KC’s organization issues.
Despite Kansas City’s recent unbeaten streak, the defense has allowed a higher number of goals and shots than usual over its last five games. For the season, KC has allowed just under a goal per game and conceded 9.9 shots per game (according to WhoScored.com). Over the last five games, KC allowed just over a goal per game and conceded 12.8 shots per game.
The advanced metrics tell a bit more troubling tale: According to Michael Caley’s excellent advanced metrics, Sporting KC allows the fewest danger zone shots in MLS, averaging a tad over three per 90 minutes. Since he published this article on July 23, KC has allowed eight danger zone shots … IN EACH GAME.
As teams get into the danger zone — the area in the six- and 18-yard boxes directly in front of the goal — it forces KC’s defenders into emergency defending. Emergency defending isn’t a good look for a high-pressure team, as it mostly means you are defending from a weaker position behind the attacking player.
Kansas City’s hallmark on defense has been the ability to keep teams from getting good shots on target by staying between the attackers and goal. Using a high line means KC can compress the runway for launching attacking moves. If teams can bypass (or pass through) that area and the defense can’t keep its shape, gaps form. And then KC scrambles. Here are three examples.
None of this portends extended failure, though. Kansas City went through similar problems in each of the last two seasons. Vermes was forced to make adjustments to the defensive line and the shape of the midfield — including using two defensive midfielders if necessary. Anything to get opponents out of the danger zone.
If Vermes can figure out the tweaks needed to get the high-press running again, get Claros fully bedded in and settle on a first-choice midfield, Sporting Kansas City should get back to doing what it does. Which, given how successful they’ve been while not 100% effective, could be scary for the rest of the league. They need to finally get healthy first for any of that to happen though.
Toronto Dangerman: Michael Bradley
Pedro Morales absolutely owned KC last weekend by controlling tempo and exposing KC’s high defensive line first with teasing balls over the top and then with incisive through balls into the gaps. That pretty much describes Bradley.
That’s the sort of finishing KC is hoping for again from Odurro. How did he miss that?
As detailed earlier this week, Jon Kempin is in line for his first MLS start this weekend. He’s the third different goalkeeper this for Sporting KC — a team that played Jimmy Nielsen in every single MLS game for two years in a row.
That change is a given, but how much will Vermes rotate the team that lost 2-0 to Vancouver on Sunday? I would expect either Antonio Dovale or Soony Saad to replace Jacob Peterson at forward. After that, it’s a guess game. Will Igor be trusted after Toronto burned him two games ago? Will Mikey Lopez continue to learn on the job, or will a more trusted hand like Lawrence Olum get the nod?
Just two weeks ago, Toronto struggled to finish several golden opportunities and should’ve beaten KC pretty handily. But Kansas City has been a team of great resolve — slight defensive issues and the Vancouver result notwithstanding — and beat them 2-1 despite being a man down. On the road this year, Toronto has had their own issues defending. Which means both teams should pose problems for the other’s defense, and it’s why I think this has draw written all over it — potentially the seventh this year at Sporting Park.