At the beginning of August, Sporting Kansas City was riding an eight-game unbeaten streak and sitting atop the Eastern Conference and firmly entrenched in the Supporters’ Shield race.
Then came the slide, most recently and thoroughly realized in KC’s 3-1 home loss to the woeful on the road Houston Dynamo.
Kansas City earned just four points in five Major League Soccer games in August, including two consecutive home losses by a combined score of 6-1.
The slide has dropped KC four points behind D.C. United (46) in the East, and Seattle (48) and Los Angeles (46) — both with a game in hand — have zoomed into the Supporters’ Shield lead.
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While still relatively safe from the playoff drop zone (currently, nine points clear), six of Kansas City’s last eight matches are against teams below them battling for playoff spots — including a double-shot this week against New England (currently holding the last playoff spot) and New York (two points behind the line). Basically, lots of chances to either stabilize or get dragged down.
The resurgent Revs are up first and KC heads into the match fairly short-handed, with almost a starting lineup full of players either injured, suspended or questionable.
Let’s get to previewing.
Venue: Gillette Stadium
Broadcast: 6:30 p.m. kickoff on KMCI-TV 38 the Spot and SKCTV
Kansas City: 12-8-6 (42 points), 7-5-0 on the road and 2-3-1 over the last six matches.
New England: 10-12-3 (33 points), 6-4-2 at home and 3-1-1 over the last six matches.
Tactical Question: Can Sporting KC regain control?
During an impressive three-year run that culminated in the MLS Cup last year, Sporting KC thrived on control.
I’m not just talking about possession stats either, though KC has been one of the league’s best in that category (currently tops in the league with 56.3% per game).
KC thrives when it controls all phases of the game — and where on the field the game is being played. The formation and system played by Peter Vermes demands and facilitates it.
Pressing high up the pitch dictates tempo, utilizing wide forwards and wing backs helps define the shape (of KC and its opponent), the three-man midfield usually provides a numerical advantage in the center, the high defensive line restricts space/opportunity in the dangerous zone outside the penalty box, and an angle-conscious goalkeeper organizes play to keep shots out of the danger zones.
This video, used also this week by Matt Doyle in his excellent weekly Armchair Analyst column to describe Kei Kamara and the evolution of the target winger, illustrates how lethal KC can be when in complete control.
That was the culmination of a 22-pass sequence just a little over one year ago from today. Watching that video after re-watching the Sporting KC-Houston match this weekend is like watching two totally different teams.*
*For the record, there were five players involved in that sequence either no longer with the team or not currently playing much: Oriol Rosell, Paulo Nagamura, Peterson Joseph, Claudio Bieler and Kei Kamara. So, not quite a totally different team.
Against Houston — and, for the most part, in nearly every match since the middle of July — Kansas City hasn’t been in complete control. (The fact that this stretch includes an 8-game unbeaten streak is fairly remarkable.)
A weakened midfield slow to react allowed Vancouver time and space to pick apart KC’s gaps on defense. Pressure mistakes and poor timing on the back line saw D.C. United exploit the space in front of Jon Kempin. Mistakes on set-pieces (and emergency defending that led to entirely too many free kicks in dangerous spots) let Houston coast to a pretty comfortable victory.
For anyone used to watching Kansas City roll on like a confident driver with good tires in a snowstorm, seeing them slide all over the road has been perplexing.
In three of the last four matches, SKC has been beaten and out-scored 8-1. In all competitions, Kansas City was 1-3-2 in the month of August — and the lone victory came against what is now a live train wreck in Toronto.
The culprit is probably a combination of issues all piled up together: Oriol Rosell’s transfer, Paulo Nagamura’s continued absence, World Cup fatigue for Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, the ongoing injury crisis that has ravaged the lineup, and the loss of regular goalkeeper Eric Kronberg (and then Andy Gruenebaum).
The lack of a player like Rosell, who can not only win the ball but take a second with it to allow his teammates valuable recovery time, was particularly noticeable against Houston. His composure, ball control and decision making has yet to be completely replaced.
Perhaps using two pivot midfielders in the midfield — flipping the midfield triangle so that two deep midfielders sit in front of the back line, effectively using two players to replace one Uri — could be one solution. That moved has worked for Vermes before in 2012 with Paulo Nagamura, Julio Cesar and Roger Espinoza.
Another solution might be dropping the defensive line slightly and pressuring more selectively. On two of D.C. United’s goals, several KC defenders bunch up in the same area trying to close down the ball, leaving gaps elsewhere and yards of space in front of goal.
Another answer could just be getting Jorge Claros fully ingrained, Nagamura back on the field and an experienced goalkeeper back between the sticks.
With only eight games left in the season, Kansas City has to find a way to gain some foothold. Fast.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Sporting KC almost has a reserve team out (or questionable) for tonight’s match.
Benny Feilhaber is suspended tonight after picking up a (deserved) yellow against Houston. Same goes for Dom Dwyer. Those happen to be the two most consistent players this year. Feilhaber leads the team in assists, Dwyer in goals.
Jacob Peterson (left knee strain) and Eric Kronberg (fractured fourth metacarpal in his left hand) are both still out. Paulo Nagamura (left ankle sprain) and Igor Juliao (left hamstring strain) are listed as questionable.
Defender Erik Palmer-Brown is currently away with the U.S. U-20 team.
Now, a potential piece of good news is that goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum isn’t on the injury report. That could be a boost to the defense. (Kempin has had two ineffective games in a row.)
I just can’t see it right now. The once-vaunted defense has looked awful for two-straight games and, with injuries still a problem, Vermes can’t really afford to sit anyone. Without Dwyer and Feilhaber, creating offense could be a big uphill issue as well. To make matters worse, the Revs have been winning lately and are pretty good at home.