Sporting Kansas City picked up a yet another fairly comfortable shutout and scored multiple goals at Sporting Park again last weekend. Yawn.*
*Seriously, the game is getting more notoriety for the sprinkler malfunction during the game than for the actual result.
Except, here’s the thing: fairly comfortable shutouts while scoring multiple goals hasn’t been a normal thing the last few seasons at Sporting Park. It’s not that the club hasn’t been good at home — Since Sporting Park opened in 2011 (including this year), SKC is 40-15-27 with a goal differential of +52. It’s that, over the last two seasons specifically, the home form has wavered between predictable and unsatisfying.
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Peter Vermes and company have suffered 10 of the club’s 15 losses in park history between 2013-’14. In ’14, SKC lost five times at home and drew another six more.
Of course, that hasn’t deterred fans from coming out in droves.
This year, though, that two-year swoon in form appears to be over.
Sporting KC is undefeated through nine games at home, 6-0-3 with a +11 goal difference. The shutout of the Rapids last weekend was the sixth clean sheet of the season and the fourth multi-goal game at home. To give those last two stats some context, KC’s high marks since ’11: 8 shutouts (two times: ’12, ’13) and 9 multi-goal games (two times: ’11, ’13).
Home field finally seems like an advantage again for Sporting KC. Over the next few months, the club will get to try to put it to good use as it chases the U.S. Open Cup, Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.
The question for this turn in home form: Why?
“I think there’s more urgency (at home) this year,” Sporting KC captain Matt Besler said after the Rapids victory. “We know that when we play at home, if we can put away one of our first two or three chances, it changes the game. That’s one difference from last year.”
The added urgency goes along with slight tweaks to Vermes’ high-pressure system, the addition of new pieces in the lineup and less reliance on the feast-or-famine approach of relying on heavy service from the wings.
▪ In certain situations this year*, Vermes has backed the line of confrontation (the imaginary line where the attackers start to apply pressure to the opponents) closer to the midfield line, letting the opposing team have space to move up the field. The effect (a strategy PV has used on the road quite a bit) has been to pull teams out of an all-out bunkering shell by letting the opponent get into the open field a little bit before having to run the gauntlet of KC’s press-happy midfield of Soni Mustivar, Roger Espinoza and Benny Feilhaber. The strategy then allows KC to attack a thinned-out defense if a turnover is forced.
*For what it’s worth, this isn’t a universal tactic. Sporting will always run up against teams that refuse to open up out of the shell — like St. Louis FC and to a certain extent the Rapids. It wasn’t as much of a factor this last weekend as it was against Real Salt Lake earlier this season.
▪ The offseason additions of Espinoza (who strengthens the midfield and gives it an edge in winning duels), Mustivar (who covers so much ground that it allows KC to push an extra player from the back into the attacking third) and Krisztian Nemeth (who gives Vermes a reliable scoring option next to Dom Dwyer) have opened up KC’s formation so much this season.
With Mustivar patrolling the area between midfield and the defense and Espinoza bouncing back and forth between attack and defense, Feilhaber has been allowed to push into the attack with increased potency. He has three goals and four assists since Mustivar took over the DM spot.
The mid-season switch to Tim Melia in goal has given KC’s defenders confidence to be more aggressive as well.
Nemeth’s effect on the club has been more noticeable on the stat-sheet: Seven goals (five at Sporting Park) to lead the team. His ability to shoot (with alarming accuracy — according to MLS stats, he’s scored on all seven of his shots on goal) and tuck in from the left wing gives KC a dangerous weapon to stretch a defense. If an opposing centerback has to worry about Nemeth cutting inside of the rightback, that often leaves Dwyer (or Feilhaber, or Graham Zusi, or Connor Hallisey, or a potential new attacking signing) room to run at the other centerback.
Nothing is better for getting inside a bunker than an open door.
▪ In the past, when things got desperate for KC, the fullbacks would bomb up the pitch and swing in cross after cross. It wasn’t a totally useful strategy — when it worked it was OK, when it didn’t things it flat-out didn’t. It’s akin to putting a screw into a wall with a hammer.
Last season, in a 1-0 loss at home to Philadelphia, Kansas City attempted 35 crosses (which is a lot). Against the Rapids (and even with the return of Chance Myers), KC only attempted 18.
Kansas City started the season still cross-happy (including 32 in a 0-0 draw with Real Salt Lake!!!), but have gotten less reliant as the season has progressed. Over the last 5 matches, KC has averaged just 12.4 crosses per game. Which, considering that Dwyer is a decent aerial threat but not a dominant one, seems like a prudent tweak.
Crossing can be very effective — case in point, Nemeth’s goal against the Rapids via a Myers cross — but it needs to be part of a bigger arsenal of weapons and not the only weapon.
If this sort of form keeps up over the last half of the season (there are eight more home games), SKC could break single-season records for home wins (10 in ’12) and home goal differential (+14 in ’13) in addition to shutouts and multi-goal games at Sporting Park.
Kansas City will also have the benefit of home-field advantage in the next three rounds of the U.S. Open Cup — including Wednesday against FC Dallas in the round of 16. Should KC advance to the quarterfinals, Sporting Park will host Kansas City vs. the winner of Houston-Colorado. Should KC advance to the semifinals, Sporting Park would host Kansas City vs. the winner of the West groupings (Salt Lake, Portland, Los Angeles, San Jose).